Alan Tudge, Christian Porter and Rachelle Miller to front robo-debt inquiry

Liberal frontbencher Alan Tudge and his former staff member Rachelle Miller will appear before the Robo-debt royal commission in coming weeks, joining controversial former Coalition minister Christian Porter in the third round of hearings in the high-profile inquiry.

Tudge, who was last year cleared of wrongdoing following allegations surrounding his relationship with Miller, was in charge of the illegal debt recovery program as human services minister from February 2016 to December 2017.

Liberal frontbencher Alan Tudge, his former staff member Rachelle Miller, and former Coalition minister Christian Porter are set to front the robo-debt royal commission this month.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Porter, who didn’t contest last year’s federal election following the fallout from a historic rape allegation he strenuously denies, was social services minister from September 2015 to December 2017.

The three will appear on separate days between January 31 and February 2, with Miller, who handled media inquiries regarding the scheme, fronting the commission first.

Tudge, a staunch defender of the scheme who eventually softened some of its hard edges, at one point threatened jail time to people the government deemed to be owing money.

“We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison,” he said during an interview with A Current Affair in 2016.

But a Federal Court judge found in 2019 that income averaging – the method used to calculate debts of thousands of vulnerable people – was unlawful, a conclusion that had already been reached in legal advice seen by both the departments of human services and social services several years before.

The scheme used Tax Office annual income data and averaged it over 26 fortnights, presuming income was the same across each, and put the onus on welfare recipients to prove they didn’t owe the government money.

In the last round of hearings, the royal commission was shown email correspondence to and from Tudge’s office.

Miller was responsible for responding to media inquiries regarding the scheme, including by pointing to an Ombudsman’s report on the program that had been drafted with the involvement of the now-defunct department of human services, which had primary oversight of the scheme.

Miller went public in November 2020 on the ABC’s Four Corners program to reveal she had an affair with Tudge while he was her boss.

Tudge was stood down from the front bench in December 2021 after Miller publicly alleged he was emotionally abusive and on one occasion physically abusive while the pair were travelling together for work.

Tudge denies the allegations and was subjected to two inquiries. The first, conducted by law firm Sparke Helmore, was commissioned by the Morrison government but did not find sufficient evidence to substantiate allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

The second inquiry, by Vivienne Thom, a former inspector-general of intelligence, found Tudge had not breached ministerial standards, but Miller did not participate in that inquiry.

The royal commission last month heard from former prime minister Scott Morrison, who was social services minister at the outset of the robo-debt scheme.

Morrison told the commission he was never advised the scheme was unlawful before he signed off on it, and said it was “unthinkable” that his department did not pass on crucial legal advice.

Morrison, who was responsible for taking the proposal to cabinet in 2015, said it was inconceivable top bureaucrats wouldn’t have told him of the legal issues involved in calculating welfare debts by income averaging, before he admitted under questioning his belief in the legitimacy of the crackdown had been proven wrong.

Liberal senator Marise Payne, who was human services minister at the time the program was being devised, also fronted the commission hearings in December and confirmed that she signed and annotated an executive minute in early 2015 that said the proposal would need “legislative and/or policy changes” but said she didn’t know why the advice had later fallen “off the radar”.

The third tranche of hearings will run from January 23 to February 3.

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