Christian Porter tells inquiry ‘someone’ in department assured him robodebt was legal but ‘I can’t recall who’

Former social services minister and attorney general also says he accepts some responsibility for the scandal

Christian Porter has insisted someone in one of the two government departments responsible for the robodebt scheme assured him it was legal, while telling a royal commission he did accept some responsibility for the scandal.

The former social services minister and attorney general told the inquiry he could not be sure who provided the legal assurance, but he was sure he had asked about it.

“I do distinctly recall putting a question … that everyone’s assured about the legal underpinnings,” he said. “I can’t recall who it was that affirmed that assurance, but someone did, and I recall that it was a departmental person.

“I couldn’t say if it was [Department of Social Services or Department of Human Services], and it happened quickly, and we moved on because it just wasn’t the focus of what was going on.”

The meeting occurred while the robodebt scandal was the focus of intense public controversy in early 2017, though ministers have claimed they were focused on complaints about the practicalities of the program, not its legality.

The royal commission is investigating why and how the unlawful Centrelink debt recovery scheme was established in 2015 and ran until November 2019, ending in a $1.8bn settlement with hundreds of thousands of victims.

Porter, who is no longer in parliament, appeared at the inquiry after the former human services and current Coalition frontbencher Alan Tudge told the royal commission he did not accept he was responsible for his department’s failure to the check the scheme was legal.

Porter was also asked by the commissioner, Catherine Holmes AC SC, if he took “any responsibility” for what happened. He said: “I do. I look back on this and I see myself through the correspondence getting quite close at points to taking the next step of inquiry. I didn’t do that. I wish now that I had, but I also see the reasons that I didn’t.”

Porter briefly acted in Tudge’s role over the Christmas and New Year period heading into 2017, but handed over management of the scheme to the junior minister in early January.

Porter said he became very frustrated with the information being provided to him at the time. He gave a series of media interviews defending the scheme, but told the royal commission he’d since learned the talking points provided by the Department of Human Services contained several assertions that were “inaccurate or untrue”.

Porter, who is a lawyer, said he didn’t turn his mind to the legality of the robodebt scheme, noting it had been through a cabinet process and that the departments responsible had many lawyers. Porter’s department was broadly responsible for social security legislation.

Porter said no one in his department ever shared with him a 2014 internal legal opinion from within Social Services that suggested the scheme would be unlawful. Porter said he should have been made aware of that legal advice.

He was also not made aware that the department had sought new internal advice in late January 2017 that offered a weak legal backing to the program.

It is unclear upon which basis Porter was told by a departmental official that the scheme was legally sound in early 2017 because, according to evidence previously aired in the commission, the only legal advice advice possessed by the public service at that stage was the 2014 opinion that suggested it was unlawful.

Reflecting on his role, Porter said there “were many points in this process where I look back on it and think I was getting close to piercing the veil of some of these issues, but never quite got there”.

“Had some of the correspondence that I’ve now seen or some of the doubts that existed in the department been raised with me, in all likelihood that extra step would have been taken,” he said.

Porter said there were several critical points, but the “creation of the scheme” was key among them – a reference to the policy process by which Scott Morrison took the proposal through cabinet in 2015. Morrison said he was not made aware of the 2014 advice, which he said was “distressing”.

The commission continues.


Luke Henriques-Gomes Social affairs and inequality editor

The GuardianTramp

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