Robodebt witness breaks down on the stand

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A senior public servant has cried while giving evidence at the robodebt royal commission after alleging her superior threatened her when she tried to raise concerns about the botched welfare compliance scheme.

Former Department of Human Services director Tenille Collins broke down on the stand at the inquiry in Brisbane on Friday as she recalled an alleged incident with then DHS deputy secretary Malisa Golightly.

Ms Collins told the commission that she “switched off” automatic debt raising for people who hadn’t responded to letters from Centrelink informing them they had received overpayments in December 2016.

The commission was told media pressure and Ms Collins’ own misgivings about the scheme contributed to this decision.

Under questioning from counsel assisting, Angus Scott KC, Ms Collins said she believed that “some months” later, the system reverted to averaging welfare recipients’ income for the purpose of calculating entitlements if they did not respond to attempts to contact them.

She cried as she recounted the moment Ms Golightly found out about her decision to turn off the automated component of the scheme, claiming her boss was “furious”.

Robodebt ripped off thousands of welfare recipients. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Brenton EdwardsRobodebt ripped off thousands of welfare recipients. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Brenton Edwards

“My recollection is that for about the next hour Ms Golightly screamed at me irrationally, is the only way I could describe it,” she said.

Ms Golightly died in 2021 aged 58.

The alleged incident came at a time when public criticism and intense media scrutiny over robodebt were building, Ms Collins said public servants in the department were “overwhelmed” by problems with the program.

“It was like not being able to see the forest for the trees, we became very distracted with things that did not matter,” she said.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes countered: “The trouble is, the trees were falling on lots of people.”

Ms Collins replied: “I know.”

The program which became known as robodebt was an automated method of calculating welfare recipients’ alleged debts by matching their reported pay with their supposed annual incomes, which were estimated by averaging data from the Australian Taxation Office.

It falsely accused thousands of people of owing the government money and ended up costing the commonwealth nearly $1.8bn in written-off debts and compensation paid to victims who mounted a class-action lawsuit.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is due to front the commission next week. Picture: SuppliedFormer prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is due to front the commission next week. Picture: Supplied

The royal commission is examining why the scheme was set up in 2015 and how it ran until to 2019 – when it was discontinued after it was found to be unlawful – despite its serious flaws being widely known from 2017.

At the inquiry on Friday, Ms Collins claimed Ms Golightly told her on numerous occasions – usually when she was trying to elevate concerns or risks – that “I was not a very good public servant and perhaps I should reassess my career choice”.

“She did threaten me numerous times with, you know, ‘You’ll be lucky if you have a job by the end of the week’,” she said.

Ms Collins also admitted during the hearing she had been concerned that the robodebt program’s development hadn’t been thought through carefully enough.

But she said she didn’t consider whether it was lawful.

“My concerns were more that this was very rushed, and we might be overlooking things that were important as opposed to being a specific concern about the legal position,” she said.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was in the top job when the controversy over robodebt blew up in 2017, is among the witnesses who have been called to appear before the royal commission next week.

The inquiry is conducting its final two weeks of public hearings before a final report is due to be handed down on June 30.

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