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Ex-minister defends response to robodebt legal advice

Liberal MP Stuart Robert says he continued to publicly back a Centrelink scheme due to his obligations as a cabinet minister despite personal doubts about the way debts were being calculated.

Mr Robert, who served as human services and government services minister, fronted the Royal Commission into the Rododebt Scheme on Thursday.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians were sent debt notices under the robodebt scheme that unlawfully recovered more than $750 million using a method of income averaging.

Mr Robert said his department did not provide advice from the Australian Government Solicitor highlighting problems with the way debts were raised when he became minister in May 2019.

He said the first he heard of the advice was in a meeting with his department in July of that year.

After the meeting Mr Robert "held a strong personal view" that the sole use of averaged income data from the tax office was insufficient to raise a debt.

Yet in media appearances following that meeting, he continued to defend the scheme.

He said it was still the government's policy and he was required to defend it as a cabinet minister.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes asked if that included misrepresenting policies to the public.

Mr Robert said he "wouldn't put it that way" because his personal opinion could be wrong until proven otherwise by the solicitor-general.

Former human services department secretary Renee Leon previously told the commission Mr Robert dismissed legal advice from the solicitor-general in 2019 that the scheme was unlawful.

But Mr Robert rejected this claim, saying he presented the solicitor-general's advice to the prime minister "within hours".

The former minister said it was his department who had "sat on" the legal advice.

"I asked for the advice on the fourth of July, I wanted it, the department took months and months to get it to me and when they had it, they ostensibly sat on it for six weeks to work through what to do," he said.

Liberal senator Marise Payne appeared before the commission for a second time and was asked how the robodebt proposal, originally flagged as requiring legislative changes to go ahead, was later presented to cabinet as not needing any changes.

Senator Payne was human services minister between 2013 and 2015 when the scheme was being established as a new policy.

She said she was told, on more than one occasion, that the two departments tasked with overseeing the scheme were working through any legislative changes.

"There was not a red flag or a stop sign placed in front of me, to the best of my recollection," she said.

Meanwhile, former social services department branch manager Emma Kate McGuirk was asked to clarify her knowledge of the use of income averaging as a last resort to raise debts.

Ms McGuirk previously gave evidence in November saying she did not know the human services department had used that method until 2017.

But an email discovered by the commission from 2015, when Ms McGuirk worked as a director in human services, indicated otherwise.

"As long as the customer is given the opportunity to correctly declare against each fortnight and apportionment is the last resort, we support what you are doing. Good luck!" the email from Ms McGuirk to another public servant said.

Ms McGuirk said she couldn't find it when she was preparing her statement and it later emerged the 2017 email trail alerting her to the 2015 advice was sent to the wrong address and therefore did not come up in her search.