The former deputy secretary of the Department of Social Services has told a royal commission she denies “reconstructing events” to protect herself from claims she turned a blind eye to the robodebt scheme.
Fronting the inquiry for a second time on Thursday, Serena Wilson repeated claims her counterpart at the Department of Human Services, Malisa Golightly, assured her Centrelink would not use “income averaging” to raise welfare debts under a proposal taken to cabinet in 2015.
The commission is investigating why and how the unlawful Centrelink debt recovery scheme was established in 2015 and ran until November 2019, ending in a $1.8bn settlement with hundreds of thousands of victims.
The claim is crucial because Wilson was aware her department had already sought legal advice in late 2014 that found using annualised Australian Taxation Office data to assert welfare debts would be unlawful.
Wilson told the commission on Thursday she had previously felt “bullied” by Golightly about a decade ago but was not “intimidated” by her “forceful” counterpart in their discussions on the robodebt proposal in 2015. Golightly has since died.
Wilson’s insistence she did not know the scheme was unlawful hinged on a meeting she says was held with Golightly sometime in February or March 2015.
Wilson said the pair met for 30-40 minutes at her office in Tuggeranong, Canberra. She said she could not recall the details of the conversations other than that Golightly assured her income averaging would not be used and the way welfare debts were calculated would not change when the robodebt scheme was introduced. Wilson later said Golightly had repeated the assurance on other occasions, but she could not specify when.
The inquiry has heard that from March 2015, key language explaining the robodebt budget proposal – including references to income averaging – were deleted from documents provided to ministers, prompting suggestions cabinet was misled.
Wilson was shown detailed slides from a March 2016 Department of Human Services presentation on the robodebt scheme.
Wilson was a speaker at the seminar but said she could not recall if she had been in the room for the robodebt presentation, suggesting it was possible she only turned up for her section.
The senior counsel assisting the commission, Justin Greggery KC, put to Wilson that the presentation – which included process maps showing a computer would assess whether a person had a debt – clearly showed income averaging was being used.
“I don’t recall this presentation,” Wilson said. “I don’t know what I was thinking at the time … I can’t answer the question.”
Asked to comment on separate briefing documents she had personally annotated to show how the scheme worked in 2016, Wilson said the fact income averaging was being used had “slipped through”.
The commissioner, Catherine Holmes SC, told Wilson it appeared like she was “always looking the other way”.
Wilson said it was not a “hear no evil, see no evil” situation, saying the department was “extremely stretched” by its workload.
Holmes said: “It does look like you all may have found it just easier to accept the assurance and not look too deeply?”
Wilson replied that “it was not an environment … that encouraged us to get up in DHS’s business”.
The inquiry also heard claims Wilson had initially tried to withhold the department’s unfavourable legal advice from the commonwealth ombudsman in early 2017, before being “caught out” by the watchdog, which learned of the legal opinion through other inquiries. Wilson denied this.
Greggery put a series of potential allegations to Wilson, all of which she rejected.
Greggery said Wilson and Golightly had agreed to “change the description” of the robodebt proposal in “superficial terms” without changing how it actually worked.
He claimed Wilson then “looked away” or “ignored” information that made it “obvious” income averaging was being used.
Greggery said Wilson then defended the program’s legality in her representations to the ombudsman, contrary to the department’s legal advice.
“And your evidence here today, where you claim not to recall all of the points in time at which these things ought to have been obvious, is you reconstructing events to protect your own interests,” Greggery said.
Wilson replied: “I’ve acknowledged that I wished I’d done things differently, that I had asked more questions, but I reject that entirely.”
Greggery said: “You have no basis to claim you did not know about averaging other than being dishonest.”
Wilson said: “No, I reject that entirely.”
Wilson accepted on the stand last year she had breached the public service code of conduct and could have stopped the scheme but lacked “courage”.
The inquiry continues.