Government fights to keep secret Robo Debt documents

The government is fighting hard to prevent the disclosure of documents that stand to expose the political  nature of the Robo Debt program. Allegations that the creation of debt was deliberately engineered to discourage applying for benefits. These documents may shed some light on his. Luke Henriques-Gomes writes (The Guardian 23 June 2021) about IT expert Justin Warren, who has been fighting to get them.

The Morrison government is fighting to keep under wraps documents that a former public servant says could show “what went wrong” with Centrelink’s botched robodebt program.

The man seeking the documents, IT expert Justin Warren, argues they should be released so the public could learn lessons from the scandal.

Lawyers for Warren, who has sought the documents under freedom of information laws, argued in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on Wednesday that it was “difficult to conceive of a stronger case for the most robust accountability”.

But the government says cabinet confidentiality would be undermined if the documents were released, and its counsel, Andrew Berger QC, flagged this week the case may yet head to the federal court if government agency Services Australia loses the case.

The three-day sitting is the latest development in a four-year freedom of information battle between the government and Warren, who has requested the “business case” documents for what became the robodebt program.

Officially known as the income compliance program, robodebt led to 443,000 victims being issued unlawful welfare debts in what a federal court judge this month labelled a “shameful chapter” in public administration.

Labor and the Greens are among those who have called for a royal commission, pointing to the estimated $1.7bn in unlawful debts and the serious mental health and financial distress experienced by some victims.

The information commissioner granted Warren access to 10 of the 13 documents in 2019 but the government appealed to the AAT.

The tribunal this week heard the documents contained “detailed costings”, requests for these costings, and other financial data about the proposed Centrelink debt recovery system.

They include what are known as draft “new policy proposal” documents and purported attachments about what was a massive ramp-up of compliance against welfare recipients using increased automation.

At issue is whether the documents in question were prepared for the cabinet process or were simply being worked on internally by the Department of Human Services which later became Services Australia.

Under cross-examination from Warren’s lawyer Tom Brennan SC, a former human services official, Scott Britton, agreed some of the documents could help to ascertain “what went wrong” with the program.

That included knowing what particular ministers had been told about the proposal at the time.

Senior ministers between 2015-16 included the former social services ministers, Scott Morrison and Christian Porter, who were members of cabinet, and the former human services ministers, Marise Payne and Alan Tudge, who were not.

Despite the court case, ministers have so far escaped scrutiny about what they were told about the risks of the program.

Britton, a former manager of compliance at the Department of Human Services, was shown a risk management plan, previously reported by the Guardian, that said possible severe risks of the proposal included “national public outrage” and a “significant breach of legislation and/or judicial inquiry”.

Britton left the department in 2016, a year into the robodebt program’s operation, to join the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

He told the tribunal on Wednesday he was not the author of the documents sought by Warren, meaning he could not give evidence as to what happened to them up the chain.

Brennan said keeping the documents secret would create a risk that “we as a country fail to learn the lessons of robodebt”.

There was likely “granular detail” in the documents and there was “great public interest” in ensuring that “everybody is able to understand” what went wrong, he said.

Photo by David Kelly/The Guardian: Robodebt wrongly issued debts to thousands of victims, including Nathan Kearney, who was forced to move back in with his parents for two years.

Brennan pointed to the federal court judgment – which noted the government’s debt recovery method was “unlawful” – and said the public ought to be able to learn more about what led to the “disaster that occurred”.

He also questioned why the government had not called more senior officials, such as Kathryn Campbell, then boss of human services and now the secretary of the Department of Social Services, to give evidence showing a link between the documents and the cabinet process.

Berger told the tribunal there was “extremely strong public interest” in keeping the documents secret to avoid an “intrusion into … confidentiality”. He said releasing them could have a chilling effect on public servants who may be less frank in their advice to ministers due to the fear it could be made public.

Berger also played down the significance of the content of the documents, saying they would “reveal little if anything” about the income compliance program

The government also called Leonie McGregor, a top official of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, who gave evidence that she believed the documents had been prepared as part of the cabinet process.

Some were “well advanced” drafts of policy proposals, and others contained information that fed into that proposal, the tribunal heard. This meant they should be considered part of the cabinet process, McGregor said.

McGregor said her expert view was based on the appearance of the documents, her experience of the cabinet process, and searches of the cabinet portal. She did not work in either of the departments in question at the time.

Warren’s case is being run pro bono by Maurice Blackburn and the Grata Fund’s FOI Project.

The AAT deputy president, Peter Britten-Jones, will consider further written submissions from the parties before a possible final hearing at a later date.

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