A chief government department lawyer who was involved in part of the robodebt scheme has admitted there were “massive failures” about how the scheme was implemented.
The royal commission examining the unlawful debt recovery scheme heard on Monday from Annette Musolino, who was the former chief counsel at the Department of Human Services, one of the government agencies administering the program.
The Centrelink debt recovery scheme used annual tax office data to calculate fortnightly earnings and automatically issue welfare debt notices.
The program recovered more than $750 million from over 380,000 people and led to several people taking their own lives while being pursued for false debts.
Ms Musolino told the commission while there was concern within the department as to how robodebt was rolled out, there was no indication that the scheme was unlawful.
“There’s no doubt … that there were massive failures in how this was implemented, from the letters, to the online portal … the content of the letters, the extent of the training provided … all that media told us there are massive problems here,” she told the commission.
Ms Musolino said once an ombudsman report came out about the robodebt scheme in 2017, it gave the department assurances that issues reported about the program were all fine.
The former chief counsel also told the commission she saw no issues with robodebt following departmental advice she received in 2017.
“It was pretty short advice, but I had no reason to second guess what was in it – it was coming from the policy agency who owns the legislation,” she said.
“We’re a service delivery agency. When we’re given a program to deliver or implement, we don’t generally look behind how that decision was made or designed or the legalities.
“We look to implement it in a lawful fashion, but we wouldn’t look necessarily behind a budget measure to determine if the thinking and the reasoning and the legal advice behind it was sufficient.”
Ms Musolino said payment averaging was not the only piece of data used to calculate debt.
She told the commission the averaging could be replaced with better data that was available to officers enforcing the compliance.
The latest block of hearings will examine what department officials knew about the potential illegality of the scheme, and how officials communicated information with the government and other staff.
Former human services minister Alan Tudge and former social services minister Christian Porter will be among the key witnesses during this week’s hearings.
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