The former Department of Human Services boss Kathryn Campbell has told a royal commission she relied on her staff and another department to ensure what became the robodebt scheme was legal.
Campbell, who continued her evidence to a royal commission into the scheme on Wednesday, faced sustained questioning about her role in February 2015 advising the former social services minister Scott Morrison about a proposal for what became robodebt.
Under questioning from the senior counsel assisting, Justin Greggery KC, Campbell was asked about her involvement in an executive minute for Morrison that outlined what would become the robodebt scheme, along with other welfare compliance policies.
Campbell has said she worked on the minute with one of her deputies, Malisa Golightly, after discussions with Morrison, who wanted welfare compliance measures considered for the upcoming budget.
The document – which has been a key focus for the royal commission – warned that the policies which became robodebt could only go ahead with legislative change. This never occurred.
Greggery suggested given Campbell had been involved in drafting the document, she must have known that the proposed scheme was unlawful if no laws were changed.
Campbell repeatedly rejected this, insisting she had not turned her mind to questions of legality, and noting the document she prepared was not the final proposal.
“I understood from the brief that we would need to work with DSS on policy and legislative change,” she said.
Campbell repeated her evidence that she did not see the final robodebt policy proposal that was ticked off by ministers.
She later added: “I wish I had [checked the legality of the scheme] but at that stage [in 2015 when it was developed] I relied on DSS.”
She said this was “unwise”.
Greggery replied: “It’s not a matter of wishing or not wishing, it’s a matter of obligation. You ought to have been concerned about it because it was your obligation.”
Campbell said she could not be across every policy proposal, arguing the robodebt plan was not “contentious” at the time, and that she was leading a department with 35,000 staff.
At the time of the 2015 budget, there were dozens of measures that involved her department, Campbell said.
Greggery said: “You took a calculated risk in the context of a large volume of work that it would get sorted out?”
Campbell said “calculated risk” was not the way she would describe it but that it was “necessary” to delegate roles to others in a department that large.
Campbell said she had also signed off on budget costings for the department’s administrative costs for running the robodebt scheme without seeing the final policy proposal. This referred to DHS’s staff and IT costs rather than how much money might be recouped in welfare debts.
Greggery suggested she had signed off on those costings “in a vacuum” without seeing what was being preparing by the department.
Campbell has said she began paying close attention to the robodebt issue when it became controversial in early 2017.
She noted by then there was legal advice from DSS saying the “income averaging” method was legal.
Greggery pointed out that even if the scheme was lawful, the nature of the “income averaging” method meant people could still receive debts that “did not exist”.
He asked: “Didn’t it trouble you that using averaging might lead to the calculation of debts which did not exist in whole or in part, irrespective of the legal advice about their validity?”
Campbell said her focus was ensuring people could engage with the robodebt system. This referred to a process in which welfare recipients provided payslips so their debts were calculated with the best information.
Greggery repeatedly questioned was “that more important to you than the concern about the prospect that averaging might create debts that didn’t exist?”
Campbell responded that she “didn’t want to use averaging”, and had only done so because legal advice said it could be used.
Other legal advice provided by DSS in 2015 suggested the robodebt scheme would be unlawful. In early 2017 DSS provided new advice suggesting it was legal.
The royal commission also heard on Wednesday that the commonwealth Ombudsman, which has faced criticism during the hearings, had now agreed to cooperate voluntarily with the inquiry.
It cannot be compelled by the royal commission and there were earlier doubts about whether it would fully participate.
The royal commission continues.