A senior public servant involved in robodebt has come under fire at a royal commission into the scheme as she denied she “manipulated the truth” about the program being unlawful.
Former Department of Social Services official Catherine Halbert appeared before a Brisbane-based hearing of the commission on Friday.
Ms Halbert briefly served as DSS acting secretary and was involved in drafting the proposal for the Centrelink compliance scheme which became known as robodebt.
She faced repeated questioning over how the department apparently came to change its firm position that the use of automated income averaging to calculate welfare recipients’ debt would be unlawful without legislative change.
DSS officials in early 2015 strongly advised the Department of Human Services – which was charged with implementing the program – against the proposal for robodebt, warning that it would not hold up against a legal challenge without changes to the law.
But the DSS had apparently changed its tune by the time the Commonwealth Ombudsman had launched an investigation into robodebt in 2017, indicating to the government watchdog that the scheme had the department’s support.
Robodebt, which matched welfare recipients’ reported incomes with data from the Tax Office, launched in 2015.
It falsely accused people of owing the government money and was disbanded in 2019 after it was found to be unlawful.
The royal commission heard on Friday that Ms Halbert drafted a letter to the Ombudsman in 2017 when the watchdog asked to see the department’s legal advice on the robodebt scheme from 2015.
Ms Halbert’s letter told the ombudsman that the DSS had come to the view that robodebt would be lawful as the plan for the scheme was being developed in early 2015.
Senior counsel assisting the commission, Justin Greggery KC, told Ms Halbert: “You are giving evidence that you did not try and manipulate the truth to the ombudsman.”
Ms Halbert replied: “Correct”.
Mr Greggery continued: “When it is abundantly clear from your written words that you did.”
Ms Halbert said she had not been trying to mislead the ombudsman’s office and, “If I had written it incorrectly, that’s my responsibility.”
Asked why the DSS’ position had changed, Ms Halbert told the commission that by 2017, within the department, “We felt that we were going to have to accept this DHS position. We felt it was a different thing to what we had got advice on previously.”
Commissioner Catherine Holmes pressed: “Why was it different? You had advice averaging was not legal, they were averaging, this was advice on averaging that didn’t address law.”
“Can you just point me to where there’s some indication in there that DSS reached the view that if an opportunity was given to customers to correct information, averaging was not a problem and no legislative change was required,” she said.
Under intense questioning, Ms Halbert suggested the DSS had “come to an understanding” that no new laws would be needed based on advice from the DHS that there wouldn’t be a change to the way debts were calculated.
Ms Holmes was undeterred.
“This is nonsense, isn’t it?” she said.
The fiery testimony continued, with Ms Holmes at one point telling Ms Halbert: “You are on affirmation, you are required to tell the truth.”
Ms Halbert replied: “I am attempting to tell the truth, commissioner.”
Former DHS secretary Kathryn Campbell is scheduled to appear before the commission for a third time on Friday afternoon.
Story Credit: news.com.au