Robodebt minister tells inquiry: I was the one responsible but it wasn’t my fault

The former minister in charge of robodebt has told a royal commission he was aware the scheme had the potential to create inaccuracies.

Feb 01, 2023, updated Feb 01, 2023
Former Liberal minister Alan Tudge is seen on a screen  at the the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. (AAP Image/Jono Searle)

Former Liberal minister Alan Tudge is seen on a screen at the the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. (AAP Image/Jono Searle)

Former human services minister Alan Tudge, who was in the role between 2016 and 2017, said on Wednesday the program’s means of calculating debt had the potential to “not be a perfect surrogate” of a recipient’s earnings.

The controversial scheme, which used averaging on incomes to determine debt levels, ran from 2015 to 2019, continuing to operate despite concerns over its legality.

It recovered more than $750 million from more than 380,000 people and several people took their own lives while being pursued for false debts.

Tudge told the commission he was made aware of robodebt having the potential to contain inaccurate information in January 2017.

“I was aware that the system even from an income averaging perspective, had the potential to create inaccuracies,” he said.

“The way the system was designed was that the onus was put on the recipients to provide the evidence of their income if – through the data-matching process – there was a discrepancy between what was self-reported.”

The former minister also said he was “careful” in media interviews in trying to make a distinction between those who had debt notices who had committed fraud and those who were inadvertently overpaid.

The comments came after Tudge was asked questions about a media interview he gave in 2016 where he said those with debt notices would be tracked down and may end up in prison.

Tudge said the comments were about a broader integrity program looking to crack down on welfare fraud, rather than on those who had been issued with robodebt notices.

“Could I have gone further in terms of saying that fraud which is a very small part (of robodebt)? In hindsight I probably could have,” he said.

“If I wanted to completely clarify, I could have gone further in terms of pointing out how small (fraud was in robodebt).”

Earlier, Tudge said although he was in charge of department matters it was not his responsibility to ascertain whether the robodebt scheme was legal or not.

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However he was responsible for its “lawful implementation”.

During his appearance at the commission, Tudge said while he did not consider the legality of the scheme, questions were raised about the program’s fairness.

“It is unfathomable for a (department) secretary to be implementing a program which he or she would know to be unlawful. It is unfathomable,” he said.

The former minister said he had no recollection of being “excited” about the prospect of recovering money as part of data-matching activities, despite emails between tax office staff presented to the commission stating he was.

Tudge told the commission he could not remember looking to extend the time period officials could use to recover debts.

Concerns were raised that the time period could have been stretched back to as far as 2000.

Not long after Tudge became human services minister, then finance minister Mathias Cormann asked if there was any way to find more budget savings in the portfolio, the commission was told.

Former Liberal minister Christian Porter, who was in charge of social services during the scheme’s operation, will appear before the royal commission on Thursday.

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