Robodebt commissioner blasts top lawyer as ‘oblivious’

Robodebt commissioner blasts top lawyer as ‘oblivious’

The royal commission investigating the illegal robodebt scheme has blasted a top State Department lawyer over her involvement in the scheme.

In her second day of questioning at the royal commission, former Department of Human Services chief counsel Annette Musolino was asked how the robodebt scheme was allowed to continue despite advice that the scheme was not legal.

The Centrelink debt collection scheme used annual tax office data to calculate fortnightly earnings and automatically issue welfare debt notices.

The controversial program recovered more than $750 million from more than 380,000 people and led to several people taking their own lives while being pursued for bogus debts.

During questioning, royal commissioner Catherine Holmes took aim at the lack of response by the department and Ms Musolino to tribunal rulings on the legality of the scheme.

“You were lead counsel, you were supposed to keep an eye on this, weren’t you? It seems you were unaware of what was going on in the (Administrative Appeals Tribunal),” the commissioner said.

“It seems to me you have run this system, by getting decisions from the AAT that told you there was a fundamental problem with its legality.”

However, Ms Musolino said the department operated within the framework set out by government departments in charge of the scheme.

“Each of those decisions was looked at by an attorney, reviewed and a recommendation was made. I couldn’t do the job of every attorney in the division,” Ms. Musolino told the commission.

“But I was confident that there were systems in place.”

The former solicitor general said the department had “tight time frames” to respond to AAT decisions on the robodebt scheme.

“We followed the operational statements we had from the Department of Social Services. It basically required us to consider an appeal or implement (the findings).”

Later on Tuesday, the commission will examine the response of media advisers in ministerial offices once significant concerns about robo-debt emerged.

Rachelle Miller, the former adviser to then Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, will be among the key witnesses at the commission, as will Bevan Hannan, the former acting manager of media engagement in the Department of Human Services.

Mr Tudge, along with former social services minister Christian Porter, will appear at the commission later in the week.

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