A Centrelink employee describes the pain of introducing Robodebt

Few of the state officials appearing at the royal commission on the Robodebt program seemed to be speaking off the cuff. Some bureaucrats were legally represented and others were real lawyers. The words are carefully chosen.

The memories have also faltered at crucial moments to explain how the federal government was able to unleash an illegal program against hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients, with a $1.8 billion settlement and the prospect of a public “conspiracy”. service ended.

And so, observers of this week’s high-profile investigation were likely impressed by Jeannie-Marie Blake’s evidence.

Speaking in simple English and with a striking clarity, Blake was overcome with emotion as she recounted the agony the Robodebt program had inflicted on welfare recipients and the staff who were forced to implement the program.

“We talked about the inaccuracy from start to finish,” Blake, who has worked at Centrelink since 2000, told the inquiry.

Generally speaking, she added: “And all the management – all the higher levels … I’ve been listening to this, who can’t remember, can’t remember, can’t remember, couldn’t focus, I can do not forget.”

As the inquiry nears its conclusion, Commissioner Catherine Holmes SC has raised the prospect that the 2015 coalition program against legal advice was launched due to “collusion” between public officials in two departments. Another possibility, Holmes said, is that Department of Human Services officials were “deceiving” their colleagues in Social Services.

Anyhow, the inquiry has found that the Abbott government cabinet was likely “misled” when it signed the Robodebt proposal advocated by then-Social Affairs Secretary Scott Morrison in 2015. The scheme ran until November 2019, when another minister, Stuart Robert, suggested it had only affected a “small cohort”.

“It was really a bit unnerving and frustrating,” Blake tells Guardian Australia while watching the commission. “As I said in my statement, we were sending stuff to these people all the time… and just got shut down.”

The outcome of the decision by senior officials in Canberra to dismiss complaints from Blake and her colleagues – notably another Centrelink worker, Colleen Taylor, who took her concerns to the very top – was revealed this week.

Jennifer Miller, whose son Rhys Cauzzo took his own life in 2017 aged 27 after being contacted constantly by Centrelink and private collection agencies about a $17,000 debt, told the commission she had been looking for answers for several years fought but was blocked by the government.

A response from then Human Services Secretary Alan Tudge ignored her key questions, her Freedom of Information requests were blocked, and it was only through the Royal Commission that Miller learned the government’s demands on her son were unlawful.

“When I saw all of the information … it was both heartbreaking and confirmation that we were able to uncover the truth,” Miller said.

Between Miller and Blake, the commission heard from key officials involved in setting up and overseeing the program and from government attorneys responsible for defending the legal challenges that eventually halted it.

Serena Wilson, the assistant secretary for the Department of Social Services, claimed she was unaware that the Robodebt program would use the “earnings average” debt calculation method, which her department had told her was unlawful. Questioningly, Wilson denied wanting to “reconstruct events” to protect her interests.

Another official on the DHS side, Mark Withnell, was shown evidence contradicting his claims, also unaware that “average income” was used. He claimed he didn’t know.

Scott Britton and Jason Ryman worked under Withnell and were closely involved in formulating the plan. Both said they knew it would use “income averaging,” but denied they were aware their DSS colleagues had said it was unlawful.

Related: The minister said “opinion is just an opinion” when told about Robodebt’s legal “challenges,” the inquiry said

Ryman showed him a document sent to him by Britton in February 2015, which spelled out DSS’s concerns: “I’m looking at the advice – ‘cannot be inferred in accordance with the legal framework’. So it doesn’t specifically say it’s illegal.” Ryman also suggested that he may not have read the document.

In examining the government’s response to the eventual successful court challenge to Victoria Legal Aid in 2019, the commission heard that Paul Menzies-McVey, a top counsel at DHS, was previously aware of three legal opinions warning of legal problems.

The scheme continued while the government sought further advice from the Attorney General throughout 2019 – a decision that saw another 50,000 in illegitimate debts. Lead counsel assisting the commission, Justin Greggery KC, said the decision to continue with the program while more advice was sought had “very significant consequences” for welfare recipients.

“I’m not sure I thought of that,” Menzies-McVey replied, adding that his focus is for the “matter to be finally decided,” by the attorney general or the courts.

Under the scheme, Centrelink would use annualized data from the Inland Revenue to accuse welfare recipients of misreporting their fortnightly earnings up to six years previously.

While neither said they knew it was unlawful, frontline compliance officials Blake and Taylor both said it was obvious the calculations would be inaccurate and therefore unethical.

Menzies-McVey explained how welfare recipients were “always struggling with their debts” and suggested “clients generally had … bank statements or whatever that would show their actual earnings over certain periods of time.”

It echoed comments from Morrison when asked if he appreciated the irony of having to recall events from previous years while on the Stand. “The difference between that and what you’re referring to is if I had to know what was on my bank statement seven years ago, I’d be able to look it up,” Morrison said.

Miller and Blake told a different story. The commission was shown a Facebook post by Cauzzo, who wrote: “I have received a huge warning from Centrelink which I believe is wrong but I am not sure how to proceed as my evidence (payroll records etc .) are long gone from five – more than years ago. Help.”

Related: ‘Platitudes and false words’: Mother of robodebt victim who took her own life opens up about investigations into government blockades

After taking his own life, Miller discovered a hand-drawn picture on Cauzzo’s fridge, suggesting suicide and debt, alongside several letters from Centrelink and a private debt collection agency. Cuzzo had serious mental illnesses, but his death came as a shock to Miller and those who knew him.

In Blake’s statement to the commission, she recalled a phone call where she had to tell a person with stage four cancer that “he has to show his payslips or we’d have a robodebt against him”.

“After that call I felt horrible and ashamed to work for Services Australia. I remember him saying he was living week to week and didn’t have the money to get bank statements,” she wrote.

Blake and her colleagues understood that the “reverse obligation” of welfare recipients to produce payslips or bank statements going back six years to refute a debt based on opaque, incorrect calculations was too much for many.

“We knew our demand was unrealistic,” Blake told Guardian Australia.

For Blake, who is now a municipal and public sector union delegate, running the Robodebt program was the “saddest part of my career”. She contrasted it with other parts of her job, such as helping people receive income support during the pandemic and natural disasters.

Blake raised “ethical” concerns about the program to her managers in 2016 – a key moment when employees learned the Robodebt program would be rolled out at scale. A single mother of three, she “went through a very bad family breakdown” dealing with justifiably angry welfare recipients on a daily basis. She says both customers and employees felt like they were going “crazy.”

“I didn’t have a chance to just leave, my family depended on my income,” Blake tells Guardian Australia. “We talked to each other as much as we could at every opportunity. I had to believe that eventually they would be held accountable.”

The royal commission continues.

• In Australia, the crisis support service is Lifeline 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123 or by email at jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 988 or via chat for assistance. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis SMS advisor. Visit befrienders.org for more international helplines

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