Christian Porter to face robodebt inquiry after Alan Tudge questioned over department’s response to suicides

Former social services minister due to appear at high-profile royal commission on Thursday

Christian Porter will face questions about his role in the failed robodebt scheme at a royal commission on Thursday, after Alan Tudge deflected responsibility on to Porter and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Porter, who was social services minister at the initial height of the robodebt scandal in 2017, was responsible for the department that held conflicting internal legal advice about the program, including a damning opinion from 2014 that it was unlawful.

Despite legal doubts about the scheme internally, the royal commission has previously heard Porter’s department failed to obtain an authoritative legal opinion until the middle of 2019.

But the inquiry has heard claims no government minister was warned by the public service about the legal flaws in the program.

Appearing at the inquiry on Wednesday, Tudge denied he was responsible for his department’s failure to check the legality of the robodebt scheme, saying the issue didn’t cross his mind “until I read about it in the newspaper” years later.

The former human services minister faced intense questioning over how he and his department responded to the suicides of people affected by flaws in the scheme.

The inquiry heard that in July 2017 the loved one of a welfare recipient informed Centrelink that the person had taken their own life after getting an initial robodebt “discrepancy” letter.

The woman had applied for Newstart after facing workplace bullying and lived with depression and other mental health issues, the inquiry heard.

The commission was told that under robodebt scheme’s processes the woman may have been required to seek pay information from the same employer where the bullying occurred to disprove any potential debt – a concept referred to as “the reversal of the onus of proof”.

An internal email marked “extremely sensitive” outlining some details of the case was sent to the secretary of the department Kathryn Campbell, other top officials and Tudge’s chief of staff.

Senior counsel assisting the inquiry, Justin Greggery KC, said officials found the woman could never have owed the government money despite the “discrepancy” between her annual earnings reported to the tax office and her own fortnightly reporting to Centrelink.

“She couldn’t have been overpaid Newstart because she was paid after she stopped work,” Greggery said. “There was no overlap.”

He added: “While it’s not possible to say that the robodebt scheme was the cause of the suicide, it’s equally not possible for you to say as the minister when this occurred that it was not.”

Tudge replied: “I’ll have to say yes.”

Tudge said the woman should not have received a letter under the robodebt system because she was clearly vulnerable and this should have been indicated on her file.

Greggery said a specific issue with the program around employment separation certificates had been raised by compliance officers in January 2017 and that Tudge should have acted to address it.

Tudge said: “We should have made sure the IT systems could pick up a separation certificate.”

Tudge was unable to recall if he had ordered an investigation into the case.

He was also asked about the suicide of Rhys Cauzzo, who died aged 28 after reportedly being told he owed $18,000 and being contacted by an external debt collection agency.

Cauzzo’s mother, Jennifer Miller, has said her son had existing mental health issues but maintains the debts “pushed him over the edge”. Miller first told her story to the Saturday Paper in February 2017.

Greggery said Cauzzo’s welfare debts had been raised using the “business rules” of the robodebt scheme, which included the unlawful “income averaging” method and the “reverse onus of proof”.

Documents showed to the commission revealed Tudge asked for a departmental investigation into Cauzzo’s case.

Former human services minister Alan Tudge.
Former human services minister Alan Tudge. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

An email from an official who worked as a liaison between Tudge’s office and the department said: “The minister has a specific request to open an investigation into Rhys’ circumstances … The intent is to be able to update the letter [to Jennifer Miller], stating he has investigated the matter, and is confident that the Department has done everything correctly (etc).”

Tudge told the royal commission he sought the investigation because he was concerned and wanted to know what had happened in the case.

He noted that the scheme had been paused from early 2017 until August 2017.

Greggery said: “Surely when you found this out, you must have thought to yourself the questions of accuracy and the reversal of onus were matters of real significance to the people who are affected by this scheme.”

Tudge replied: “I thought to myself that … to do welfare compliance here, it has to be done sensitively and well and there has to be absolutely reasonable opportunities for everybody.”

He said these were “tragic circumstances”, adding he knew from experience of people “close to me” that you “can’t always know what causes” somebody to take their own life.

Tudge repeatedly told the commission he didn’t have authority to overturn the decision of cabinet to implement robodebt, saying this fell with the then social services minister Porter and the then prime minister Turnbull.

Tudge, who was not in cabinet, said both men were regularly briefed on the issues with the robodebt scheme.

Under questioning, he confirmed he never suggested that consideration be given to shutting down the program.

He said he understood the “income averaging” method central to the scheme could cause inaccurate debts, but he didn’t consider its legality because it had been through a “rigorous” cabinet process involving lawyers in two government departments.

  • In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at


Luke Henriques-GomesSocial affairs and inequality editor

The GuardianTramp

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