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Premier – Small Business Hardship Grants

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Monday, 23 November 2020

Tags: Treasury, Small Business, Public Accounts Committee, Transparency

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, I want to ask you about another issue that goes to the lack of transparency around your Government, or the Government that you have been part of for the past six-and-a-half years, and that is the Small Business Hardship Grants. In Budget Paper No. 2, in State Growth, under Table 11.1, is the line item that says Small Business Sustainability and Recovery Assistance Package for $20 million for Hardship Grants for 2020 21.

Mr GUTWEIN - That is the extension program that was announced by the minister.

Ms O'CONNOR - This is the first time in my experience as a parliamentarian where the outcome of a grants process has not been made public. This is despite the quote on the program guidelines from the website -

The Department of State Growth disperses public funds and it is therefore accountable for the distribution of those funds. As part of the accountability process the department may publicise the level of financial assistance, the identity of the recipient, the purpose of the financial assistance, and any other details considered by the department to be appropriate.

So, you would agree, every business that applied for a hardship grant did so on the understanding that the information may be made public. Subsequent to that, Tasmanians are told that no detail will be provided on how, my understanding is it is a total of $26 million, is being dispersed. Can you explain that to the committee? Can you tell us where the secretary of State Growth received his qualifications in mental health, and further, can you reassure the committee that this won't become standard practice in State Growth for money that is given to small businesses.

Mr GUTWEIN - No, it will not become standard practice. This is a program one out of the box. From the emergency and hardship grants, around 14 000 businesses benefited. The advice from the secretary of State Growth was that it would not be in their best interests to release that information. We saw a number of businesses that were prepared to stand up and say that they received the grant. I have been contacted by others that are feeling very frail and worried.

Could I make the point -

Ms O'CONNOR - It is public money, though.

Mr GUTWEIN - This is a circumstance out of the box. We closed businesses down with no warning. We shut them down. We damaged value. People had to put their hand up for an emergency grant and a hardship grant. It was the most difficult and challenging period for them.

I know I will end up being castigated for this, for holding this position. Right through this process I put the health of Tasmanians at the forefront of my thinking.

When provided with advice by the secretary, his view was that this would cause further distress, and actually lead to harm for some of these businesses, I was happy to take that advice and not publicly release that long list of names.

There are processes in place, though. If the Public Accounts Committee believes that there are any matters of integrity that have been breached, they have the list of grants. I can honestly say that apart from being aware of a couple of grants where I have seen people raise them publicly, or when a couple of small businesses have been in touch, I haven't seen that list.

I had nothing to do with the assessment process. The secretary, in providing that advice that they should not be released publicly, because he thought it would cause further distress, I think is sage advice.

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, can you explain to Tasmanians why it is you are relying on the secretary of the Department of State Growth for advice about the mental health of businesses? Can you understand how that strains credulity, when you have a secretary of a department that is about economic development that as far as I know has no qualifications in mental health, on whose advice you have chosen to be completely untransparent about the allocation of $26 million in public funds? Can you understand why this has a stink around it? That stink is not going to go away because you have gone to Kim Evans for mental health advice.

Mr GUTWEIN - No I haven't. Mr Evans is a very experienced bureaucrat who has dealt for many years with businesses and Tasmanians more broadly in his role. My recollection is that he indicated on the ABC Mornings program that there had been forums that had been held around the state that his people, and he also indicated that he had been involved in. An experienced individual like Mr Evans -

Ms O'CONNOR - Not a mental health expert.

Mr GUTWEIN -is able, like you and I are able to, to sense or feel or understand when someone is in distress. He said that was one of the overarching messages that was received back through those forums. Regarding your claims about transparency, those members of the Public Accounts Committee have all that information with them. As I have said, if they believe that the awarding of those grants was inappropriate or that there were integrity matters, they can refer it on. They understand who is on those lists; I do not, I have not seen them.

In terms of the Auditor-General -

Ms O'CONNOR - It didn't come to Cabinet?

Mr GUTWEIN - Cabinet doesn't make decisions about -

Ms O'CONNOR - Cabinet usually signs off on grants.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, I ask that you allow the Premier to speak, please.

Mr GUTWEIN - The grants program was put in place and then it is administered via the agency. I can assure you that these grants were not brought to Cabinet, I can assure you of that. We had no involvement at all in the decision making process. The process that was at arms' length from the minister and certainly it was at arms' length from me.

What you might be confusing there is there was an allegation that was made that Michael Ferguson had been ringing grant recipients. He wasn't. He signs off on loans which is his role under the TDR act as I understand it and therefore was notifying applicants in that process.

Ms O'CONNOR - Ms Courtney signed off on the hardship grants.

Mr GUTWEIN - It is my understanding that is not correct.

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, you said something in your previous answer to my question about the Small Business Hardship Grants that I just don't believe. I don't believe that the minister for Small Business would not sign off on a $26 million grants program. I've been in government and even the smallest grants program comes up to the minister as a minute or a brief for sign-off. Are you prepared to sit at this table and try to have us believe that Ms Courtney did not sign off on the Small Business Hardship Grants?

Mr GUTWEIN - Sorry, if you are asking me if minister Courtney made the individual decisions of which businesses received funding, she did not. That's what I took your question to be. In terms of the program, obviously as ministers we agree to what the program is, but as to making decisions regarding those individual businesses, no government minister was picking or choosing businesses. That was a matter for the department.

Ms O'CONNOR - I get that. Despite your previous answer, we now have confirmed that Ms Courtney signed off on the Small Business Hardship Grants. Did she make any representation to you about not detailing any information on the grant recipients?

Mr GUTWEIN - The decision not to release that information was based on advice provided by Kim Evans.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can I ask when you heard that advice? Was that advice made to you, was it in writing, or was it verbal?

Mr GUTWEIN - I spoke directly with Kim Evans and he provided me verbal advice.

CHAIR - Last question.

Ms O'CONNOR - I'm trying to understand how it can be that information about $26 million in public funds can be kept secret from the people who provide that money, that is the people of Australia and Tasmania. We've confirmed that the minister signed off on the grants, we've confirmed that -

Mr GUTWEIN - I want you to be cautious with your language.

Mr GUTWEIN - I want you to be cautious with your language. The design of the program would have been the remit of the minister. The decisions on grants were made at arm's length by the department. Let us be clear on that.

Ms O'CONNOR - Sure, I understand that.

Mr GUTWEIN - The advice that I received, which was provided to Ms Courtney as well from the secretary of the department, was that it could cause distress if the names of those businesses were released publicly. They have been all provided to the Public Accounts Committee. If they believe that there is any integrity issue they can refer it on or make other decisions themselves. The Auditor-General is going to consider the arrangements and the processes that supported that program.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can we get some clarity here -

CHAIR - Mr Ellis has the call next.

Ms O'CONNOR - Hang on. With respect, Chair, I just asked a question and a half and was interrupted by the Premier through my second question.

CHAIR - No, you have actually asked three questions in a row, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - As soon as the heat is on the Premier the Chair runs cover for a Liberal member.


Ms O'CONNOR - Closing on the small business grants, you are confirming to us today, Premier, that the decision not to release details of $26 million in public funds that was dispersed to businesses that knew when they applied that it was likely to be made public. That decision was based on verbal advice to you and the minister for Small Business from the secretary of State Growth.

Mr GUTWEIN - Regarding the advice to the minister you would need to ask her about. I took verbal advice from Kim Evans on that matter.

Ms O'CONNOR - It is pretty low bar to be withholding information about $26 million in public funds.

Mr GUTWEIN - That is a slight on the secretary. He is a very experienced secretary. In the same situation you would have made the same decision, because you like me value the health and wellbeing of Tasmanians. There are processes available here through PAC and through the Auditor General for considering whether anything inappropriate has been done. I can assure you these matters were concluded at arm's length from ministers and from me.