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Christian Porter States "Someone" Assured Him of Legality of Robodebt, Accepts Responsibility

In early February of 2023, the former-Attorney General and Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter, appeared before the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme.

Mr. Porter told the commission of a meeting which took place in early 2017, a period where the scheme was under much public scrutiny, where he spoke to someone within one of two government departments responsible. This person, Mr. Porter stated, assured him that the scheme was legal:

“I do distinctly recall putting a question… that everyone’s assured about the legal underpinnings...I can’t recall who it was that affirmed that assurance, but someone did, and I recall that it was a departmental person...I couldn’t say if it was [Department of Social Services or Department of Human Services], and it happened quickly, and we moved on because it just wasn’t the focus of what was going on.”

The commissioner, Catherine Holmes, asked Mr. Porter if he took "any responsibility" for the consequences of the Robodebt scheme. Mr. Porter accepted responsibility and expressed regret for not inquiring about the scheme's legality further:

“I do. I look back on this and I see myself through the correspondence getting quite close at points to taking the next step of inquiry. I didn’t do that. I wish now that I had, but I also see the reasons that I didn’t.”

Mr. Porter also stated that no member of his department had passed along an internal legal opinion dated from 2014 which suggested that the scheme would be unlawful and expressed his frustration at the information he was provided with at the time. He described how, despite having given numerous interviews where he defended the scheme, he had later learned that the talking points he was provided by the Department of Human Services featured sentiments which were “inaccurate or untrue”.

He furthermore stated that his attention did not go to the legality of the scheme, as he noted that it had already passed through the relevant cabinet processes and that these departments had "many lawyers."

A few weeks following Mr. Porter's testimony, the royal commission heard from the Human Services Department's acting chief counsel, Tim Ffrench. Mr. Ffrench stated that he recalled speaking with then-Human Services Minister, Stuart Robert, after being presented with information from the government solicitor that the scheme was possibly illegal. Mr. Stuart allegedly told Mr. Ffrench that "it’s just an opinion until we get a judicial declaration from a court." Mr. Ffrench reported to the commission that he then overheard Mr. Porter say to Mr. Robert that the solicitor-general's advice regarding the scheme's legality was "right, mate."

The royal commission's final report is set to be handed down on the 30th of June 2023.

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