Morrison lashes out at robo-debt ‘political lynching’, rejects royal commission findings

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Scott Morrison has savaged the robo-debt royal commission’s findings against him, describing them as “disproportionate, wrong, unsubstantiated and contradicted by clear evidence”.

In a fierce speech to parliament on Monday, the former prime minister went much further than his previous criticisms, saying three of the key findings against him – that he allowed cabinet to be misled, provided untrue evidence to the commission and that he pressured departmental officials over the scheme – were wrong.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison says the government is spending its energy on “a political lynching”. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“I played no role and had no responsibility in the operation nor administration of the robo-debt scheme. The scheme had not commenced operations when I served in the [Social Services] portfolio, let alone in December 2016 and January 2017, when the commission reported that the unintended impacts of the scheme first became apparent. This was more than 12 months after I had left the portfolio,” he said.

“I do completely reject each of the adverse findings against me in the commission’s report as unfounded and wrong.”

Royal commissioner Catherine Holmes’ 990-page report into the scheme, which was designed to claw back $1.7 billion in allegedly overpaid welfare but instead cost the Commonwealth a net $565.2 million, found it was mishandled from conception.

The report criticised Morrison, as well as former ministers Alan Tudge and Christian Porter, over the scheme and said that even when problems came to light in early 2017, the government had doubled down and attacked recipients.

Morrison expressed “deep regret” for robo-debt’s unintended consequences – the commission heard the scheme was a factor in at least three people taking their own life – but he accused the Albanese government of conducting a “campaign of political lynching” against him.

“I was constitutionally and legally entitled to assume the officers of the departments had complied with their obligations under the Public Service Act to advise their respective ministers. As a result, my obligations were properly discharged,” he said.

He argued the commission’s contention “that ministers should not be able to rely on the advice of their department, and therefore be required to re-litigate the details of every submission their department prepares for their submission to cabinet is not only wrong but would make executive government unworkable”.

Morrison said he had asked the departments of Social Services and Human Services to work through any potential issues, including legal ones, as the robo-debt policy was developed and prepared for consideration by cabinet and that while an early executive minute had suggested legal changes would be needed, subsequent submissions had not raised a legal problem about the scheme.

That executive minute was examined in detail by the commission and prepared for Morrison and former human services minister Marise Payne as the proposed robo-debt scheme was developed.

“The final proposal contained in the NPP [new policy proposal] provided clear and explicit advice from the department that legislation was not required to implement the scheme and that the scheme was, therefore, lawful … such advice superseded all prior advice, including the earlier executive minute,” Morrison said.

He went on to note that robo-debt was one of 51 proposals brought forward in the budget process and that the department had indicated some kind of legislative change would be needed for 31 of them, but not for robo-debt.

“It is entirely reasonable for me to have formed the view that where they had explicitly noted that legislation was not required, including the robo-debt scheme, that this had been thoroughly interrogated by the department and earlier issues had been properly resolved, as I had requested,” he said.

“The commission’s suggestion that it is reasonable that I would have or should have formed a contrary view at that time is also not credible or reasonable.”

Further, Morrison said the commission’s report “unfairly and retroactively applies a consensus of the understanding of the lawful status of the scheme [in 2015] that simply was not present or communicated at the time”.

He said the commission’s finding that he had provided untrue evidence was “unsubstantiated, speculative and wrong”, while the allegation that departmental officials had been pressured into not providing frank and fearless advice was “wrong, unsubstantiated and absurd”.

Morrison pointed out that the former Labor opposition led by Bill Shorten, who is now the minister for government services who ordered the robo-debt royal commission, had not raised concerns about the scheme in 2015 and the then-opposition had banked the savings from robo-debt heading into the 2016 and 2019 elections, rather than ending the scheme.

“For the government to now condemn me for holding a view that they shared and sustained for more than three years after I left the portfolio, is rank hypocrisy,” he said.

Morrison said the attacks on his character by the Labor government were a further attempt to discredit him and “they need to move on”.

“I say to the government, instead of trying to distract attention from their own failings by relentlessly pursuing these transparently partisan campaigns against me, they get on with the job they promised to do and are failing to do.”

The commission’s report, in a special sealed section, recommended unidentified individuals be referred for potential criminal or civil action to bodies including the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the Australian Federal Police and the Law Society of the ACT over the illegal welfare crackdown.

Former Department of Human Services secretary Kathryn Campbell last week quit her $900,000-a-year job with the Department of Defence following the commission’s findings.

This masthead is not suggesting Morrison or Campbell are named in that section. That information has not been released and is not publicly known.

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