Tudge’s former adviser Rachelle Miller reveals ‘dole bludger’ robo-debt media strategy

High-profile former Liberal media adviser Rachelle Miller has told the robo-debt royal commission of how she planned to run stories about dole bludgers and welfare integrity with more sympathetic “right-wing” outlets – including the News Corp tabloids and 2GB radio station, a stablemate of this masthead – to combat the “crisis in left-wing media”.

While Miller thought the robo-debt program was “a really good story” when she first heard about the program, she told the commission there was firm pressure from her former boss, then social services minister Alan Tudge to “shut this story down” after negative coverage of the debt collection program blew up in early 2017.

Miller said she devised a media strategy to counter the negative publicity coming from “left-wing” media.Credit:Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme

“The media strategy we developed was to run a counter narrative in the more friendly media such as The Australia and the tabloids, which we knew were interested in running stories about welfare system integrity and the supposed ‘dole-bludgers’,” a written statement of Miller’s, shown to the commission, said.

Miller said the Department of Human Services’ former chief legal officer Annette Musolino cleared the use of specific details relating to welfare recipients who spoke out in the media.

The commission was told that Tudge was “adamant” the government should correct the record regarding incorrect information in news stories, which resulted in further media stories about the government releasing personal information. Asked what the result of that tactic was, Miller said fewer people were prepared to speak out in the media “which was the intention”.

Tudge 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.

The Coalition settled a class action lawsuit over the scheme for $1.8 billion in 2020.

Miller told the commission that her initial reaction to hearing about the pilot in late 2016 was positive. “I took one look at it and thought ‘there’s a good story here’,” Miller said, adding it complemented the Coalition’s narrative of saving money.

However, she said it began to generate a lot of negative publicity, particularly from the “left-wing” media camp, but wasn’t overly concerned as “it wasn’t unusual for the left-wing media to be attacking us over social policy”.

She said while Tudge was concerned about the publicity, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office was pleased as the program was well received by voters in marginal seats, including western Sydney.

Former Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller at a doorstop interview in December 2021. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

In November 2020, Miller told the ABC’s Four Corners 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.

Last year, the Commonwealth reached a deal with Miller, represented by Gordon Legal, to pay her $650,000 for loss of earning capacity, medical expenses and costs but did not admit liability for her claims of disability discrimination, sex discrimination and an unsafe workplace.

Miller told the inquiry no thought was given to the people receiving the debt notices, sometimes worth tens of thousands of dollars.

“There was a distinct lack of empathy,” she said, adding “that was the culture of the place.”

“You would think that working in human services, social services, the first person you would think about is the recipient, but that wasn’t the case throughout the Coalition government,” she said.

Alan Tudge will appear before the commission on Wednesday, February 1 and Christian Porter will appear on Thursday, February 2.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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