Former ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter to appear before robodebt inquiry | Royal commission into robodebt
Former human services minister Alan Tudge and his then media officer Rachelle Miller will appear before the high-profile robodebt royal commission in coming weeks.
The royal commission is expected to hold its third series of hearings from 23 January to 3 February 2023, examining, among other things, how the department and ministers reacted when the scheme came under sustained criticism in late 2016 and early 2017.
Tudge, as human services minister, was in charge of running the scheme when questions were first raised about the accuracy of welfare debts. He routinely dismissed criticisms of the scheme, describing them at one point as “philosophical objections” to welfare debt recovery in general.
Tudge boasted of the system’s ability to recover $4.5m of debt each day, threatened to jail welfare recipients and mounted a prolonged defence of the scheme after Guardian Australia revealed the deeply flawed method of income averaging.
Despite a flood of complaints about inaccurate debts, Tudge said in early January 2017: “I’m not aware of individuals who are completely convinced that they don’t owe money but have been given a debt notice.”
At other times, Tudge appeared not to know details of the way his department was retrieving debts. His office was also accused of leaking sensitive personal information about a welfare recipient who criticised the system, but was later cleared of any breach of privacy laws.
Miller was fielding media questions in Tudge’s office about the scheme when it came under fire in late 2016 and 2017. She is expected to appear before the royal commission first, on 31 January.
Tudge and the then social services minister, Christian Porter, are expected to appear one and two days after Miller’s evidence respectively.
Tudge was last year cleared of wrongdoing surrounding his relationship with Miller.
Also on the witness list is Hank Jongen, the public face of Centrelink during the crisis, and other departmental media and freedom of information officers.
Terry Carney, the former Administrative Appeals Tribunal member who penned an explosive paper on the illegality of the scheme in 2018, is also scheduled to appear on 24 January.
Lyndsey Jackson, one of the leading members of the #notmydebt group, which helped expose the robodebt scheme in its early stages, is expected to be among the first witnesses.
“Hearing block 3 will continue the Commission’s focus on the fairness, legality and policy considerations of the Robodebt Scheme in the face of increasing criticism and scrutiny including in the media, by the AAT, the online forum #Not my Debt and the Ombudsman,” the royal commission’s website says. “The hearing block will also consider the enforcement measures where alleged debts were not paid, the Government’s continuing defence of the scheme and the impact on individuals.”
The royal commission will examine the impacts of the scheme on individuals, the growing criticism of the scheme after its implementation, the way the department of human services and various ministers reacted to criticism, and the way the AAT handled appeals against debts. It will also examine “the use of the media by ministers and government departments”.