I don't know': Marise Payne isn't sure why the advisory for changing the law to robodebt has disappeared from the policy plan

"Responsibility always rests with the minister," the then human services minister told the royal commission into the failed scheme

Former human services minister Marise Payne told the royal commission she doesn't know why the suggestion that robodebt needed a change in law disappeared from plans for the failed scheme before it was launched.

The Commission is investigating why and how an unlawful Centrelink debt recovery scheme was set up in 2015 and ran until November 2019, ending in a $1.8 billion settlement with hundreds of thousands of victims.

It was heard Tuesday that Payne, who became human services minister in early 2015 when the program was designed, was closely involved in preparing a brief on welfare compliance measures – including robodebt – that was sent to Scott Morrison. Payne is the junior secretary, while Morrison is the social services minister and brought the plan to the cabinet.

Asked by Justin Greggery KC, the assisting senior adviser, why the brief's reference to changing the law was not included in the final policy proposals brought to cabinet by Morrison, Payne said he had no idea.

"I don't know the answer to that question," he said. "And I say that with all transparency."

Payne said it was expected "when agencies tell you "they" are working together to address these issues", officials "do that".

The initial briefing described by Payne noted that the social services (DSS) and human services (DHS) departments were working through legislative matters. The brief covered a major dispute between the DSS, which opposed the plan and deemed it unlawful, and the DHS, which supported the plan.

“If [departments] tell their ministers that this may or will … require policy or legislative changes, then yes, there is responsibility on both departments,” Payne said.

"Does that mean the responsibility also falls on the two ministers," Greggery replied referring to Payne and Morrison.

Payne said: "Basically the onus has always been on the minister."

The royal commission heard discussions around the plan come as the Abbott government faces a hostile Senate, which is making it difficult to legislate.

Payne does not remember receiving "any formal advice even on the nature of policy and legislative changes", even while he was working on the initial briefing.

The commissioner, Catherine Holmes AC SC, asked if it was not a "burning question" to find out what changes were needed given the parliamentary numbers.

Payne said in general the law would be drafted after the budget was passed, adding: "I don't ... operate on what I can get through the Senate."

Payne said he could find no evidence that he had seen the final policy proposal. The royal commission heard he was invited to appear on the spending review committee (ERC) and set up a meeting with Morrison and other officials to brief beforehand.

Holmes repeatedly stated that it would be "incredible" if he did not see through the plans.

“Isn't that amazing considering it's a policy proposal, one that concerns your department, both in terms of preparation and execution, if you don't see it?” said Holmes.

Payne said there were about 30 policy proposals at the time and noted that the policies were on behalf of cabinet ministers, a reference to Morrison, who will give evidence on Wednesday.

Documents shown to the commission on Tuesday also reveal that the Treasury Department initially rejected the robodebt proposal, questioning the legitimacy of the fee.

The inquiry heard disagreements were resolved between ministers at the next ERC meeting.

Payne was asked if he had turned his thoughts back to the 2015 budget process after the robodebt erupted in controversy.

He said he had not turned his mind to legal questions, although he was concerned about "the impact described at the time on the individuals or families who were the target of the scheme's operations".

"I think other people have said before me that the implementation is less than perfect," Payne said. "Of course the impact is obvious for me and for others to see."

The version of the robodebt briefing completed by Payne was shown to the commission on Tuesday.

The version prepared by the civil service noted: "The comprehensive nature of this review will send an important message to people across the country that they can be next and it is very unlikely they will escape punishment."

Payne's annotation changes "they could be next" to "you are next".

The royal commission continues. This article was written by EDUKASI CAMPUS.  

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