Alan Tudge’s former media adviser has told a royal commission she devised a strategy to place stories in “friendly media” – including the Murdoch press – after her boss told her to “shut down” the media storm over robodebt in early 2017.
The 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.
Under questioning by the senior counsel assisting, Justin Greggery KC, Rachelle Miller, who worked for Tudge when he was human services minister, agreed that by early 2017 there was a “media crisis” over the robodebt scandal.
But Miller said she was confident the story could be “shut down”, as she claimed her boss had requested.
“[Tudge] was very firm with me that I needed to shut this story down,” she said.
Miller said the plan she devised meant placing stories in “more friendly media”, which she described as “rightwing media”, naming the Australian newspaper and “the tabloids”, as well as A Current Affair and talkback stations such as 2GB.
“That media strategy was quite comprehensive that I developed in January,” she said. “That involved placing stories with the more friendly media, the right media, about how the Coalition was actually catching people who were cheating the welfare system.”
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Miller’s statement to the commission said the plan also included “tracking down debts from the period when Labor was in government” which had not been detected at the time.
She told the commission this was a “political hit” that allowed the Coalition to “throw back to Labor that you would let these guys go”.
Miller said initially in late 2016 Tudge’s office was not concerned about the critical media coverage because it was in the “leftwing media”. Much of the early reporting of the program was published in Guardian Australia.
Asked by the commissioner, Catherine Holmes AC SC, where the ABC fit into her view of media, she said it was also in the “leftwing media camp”.
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was “unhappy” about the issue, Miller claimed, “but we were getting feedback from the prime minister’s office that actually this was playing quite well in your marginal seats, western Sydney, that type of thing”.
The inquiry heard Tudge’s media strategy expanded when the minister’s office and the department began a practice of “correcting the record”.
She said Tudge “requested the file of every single person who appeared in the media … so we could understand the details of their case”. She claimed Tudge also directed her to obtain other case studies that were also used to create “datasets” for the tabloid media.
Miller was asked about an instance where the minister’s office released the personal information of a welfare recipient who wrote an article critical of Centrelink.
Miller said she was contacted by a journalist from the Age and Sydney Morning Herald who had said the case was “disgraceful” but asked for confirmation of the details. Miller said she told him the story was not true but said she could not provide more details due to privacy laws.
The inquiry heard Miller discussed the issue with her counterpart in the department, Bevan Hannan, and eventually the department’s chief counsel, Annette Musolino, cleared the release of some personal information to “correct the record”.
That information was used by the journalist to write an article that questioned some of the welfare recipient’s claims, which sparked further controversy and criticism from Labor, welfare and privacy groups. The recipient also stated some of the “corrections” were wrong.
Musolino was not asked about Miller’s claim, but she was expected to return to the witness stand next month
The welfare recipient and the journalist who contacted Miller to inquire about the case were not named by the royal commission on Tuesday.
Miller said Tudge was “adamant” that if stories reported by the media were incorrect then “we should correct the record”.
She said the effect was “there were less people speaking out in the media, which was the intention”.
Miller said she was aware of media reports that connected the robodebt scheme to the suicide of debt recipients. She said those cases were “tragic” and that, in general, there was a “lack of empathy” in the office.
Guardian Australia reported in September 2022 that the federal government paid $650,000 in a settlement for hurt, distress and humiliation she alleges she suffered while working for former ministers Tudge and Michaelia Cash. No admission of liability was made by the government. Tudge has repeatedly and categorically denied Miller’s allegations.
Tudge is scheduled to appear at the royal commission on Wednesday.
Miller’s evidence before Holmes continues.