Top officials shut down robodebt criticism – Michael West

A senior public servant told a Social Services official to tone down language indicating the robodebt welfare management scheme wouldn’t be lawful before it was introduced.

Andrew Whitecross, from the Social Services department, told the royal commission investigating the scheme it “couldn’t be clearer” calculating welfare debts based on an average income would require laws to be changed in 2015.

The scheme, which went from 2015 until 2020, wrongly recovered more than $750 million from 381,000 people, with a number of victims committing suicide while being pursued for false debts.

Mr Whitecross strongly advised against using income averaging in 2015 and said he was surprised to learn the scheme was implemented the following year.

He told the commission he’d had a meeting with Social Services’ Cath Halbert and Human Services’ Mark Withnell in 2015 where he outlined income averaging wouldn’t be legal. He said Mr Withnell was frustrated with the feedback because it could mean a promised $1.2 billion saving wasn’t achieved.

Of the saving, Mr Whitecross later added: “It was a sense … this was a number that had come out of a methodology, but the number itself was a goal of the process”.

The commission heard he was told by Ms Halbert that DHS deputy secretary Malisa Golightly “didn’t want us to go in so hard” with feedback income averaging was illegal.

Asked by senior counsel assisting the commission Justin Greggery if he had pushed back, Mr Whitecross said he had but she had continued to ask him to change the language.

Source: Top officials shut down robodebt criticism – Michael West

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