When reports emerged that a young man had taken his life after being hounded to repay a Centrelink robodebt that did not exist, former minister Alan Tudge ordered an investigation.
But rather than inquire into whether the pursuit of a false debt had contributed to a man’s death, public servants were told the minister’s office was instead after a one-sentence summary.
“The intent is to be able to update the letter to include a line … stating that he has investigated the matter and is confident the department has done everything correctly,” Mr Tudge’s adviser wrote.
The question of how much the former human services minister knew about the often wild inaccuracies in a system for collecting debts from people receiving welfare payments remained unanswered throughout Wednesday’s royal commission into robodebt.
Questions for others
Mr Tudge, the third human services minister from the previous government to appear before the commission, said he never thought to inquire about whether robodebt was illegal, even as bureaucrats from his department attended a conference where a top lawyer made a case that it was.
Counsel assisting Justin Greggery KC said it would have been a simple thing for a minister to ask for advice, but Mr Tudge said he considered such questions the domain of the Attorney-General or senior public servants.
“If they thought that there was an issue, they would have got that checked,” he said.
A court declared the scheme illegal in 2019 and the government paid $1.8 billion in compensation to victims who had their bank accounts drained or suffered even worse consequences on the basis of faulty calculations.
It was only after reading about that court case in the newspaper that Mr Tudge said that he first considered whether the scheme was against the law.
Mr Tudge said he focused on making improvements where possible, but did not question the basis of automated debt collection.
“They were the cabinet decisions, which I didn’t have the authority to overturn,” he said.
In other respects, Mr Tudge was across the finer details of his portfolio to an almost unusual degree for a minister, the inquiry heard.
Former media adviser Rachelle Miller – who later made allegations of abuse against Mr Tudge after they had an affair – said he was a “media tart”.
Treatment of critics
As criticism of robodebt grew in 2017, Mr Tudge was deeply involved in collating a document that responded to criticism about robodebt’s inaccuracy made mostly by people receiving welfare payments from the department he oversaw.
Mr Tudge personally reviewed a draft response that even included information about the circumstances of people receiving payments who had spoken out in the media in a bid to discredit their accounts.
Simon Benson, a News Corp journalist known recently for his close relationship with Scott Morrison, included the minister’s work in an exclusive news story in The Australian.
Mr Tudge said his intention had been to put accurate information on the public record.
“It made very clear that if somebody wanted to criticise Centrelink in public, they were taking a risk,” Commissioner Catherine Holmes said.
Rhys Cauzzo died on Australia Day in 2017 aged 28 and suffering from severe depression and anxiety.
Debt collectors had been chasing him for $28,000 in Centrelink ‘overpayments’ from five years ago – a bill that was later found to be based on bad maths.
“Nice start to the weekend,” Rachelle Miller, wrote in an email to the then-minister, after Mr Cauzzo’s case was first revealed in a newspaper.
Mr Tudge did not agree that the “insensitive” language reflected on the culture in his office.
The findings of the department’s investigation were relayed by Mr Tudge in a letter to Mr Cauzzo’s mother, who was in the public gallery on Wednesday.
Commissioner Holmes noted that public servants were not asked to look at two major issues raised by his death:
- That the scheme expected vulnerable people to provide information about their finances from years ago
- That it was based on faulty calculations.
“You didn’t pause the system because there was a potential suicide associated,” Mr Greggery said.
“But surely when you found this out, you must have thought that questions of accuracy and the reversal of onus (of proof) are matters of real significance to the people who are affected by this scheme?”
It was concern that led him to request the investigation, Mr Tudge replied.
“To do welfare compliance it has to be done sensitively and well and there has to be absolutely reasonable opportunities for everybody,” Mr Tudge said.
“I know from experience, even people close to me who have committed suicide that you can’t always know what causes it.”
The minister would advise the late Mr Cauzzo’s mother that while some minor administrative errors had been identified, a review by experienced public servants had found the department had acted appropriately, professionally and sensitively.
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