Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, the program guidelines for the Small Business Hardship Grants Program advised participants that their details may be made public and specifically it said -
The Department of State Growth disperses public funds and 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.
Treasury's best practice guide for the administration of grants, fourth edition says -
It is important the agency reports regularly to parliament about the Grants Scheme and its use of public funds. Reports should be in a form that aims and objectives of the Grants Scheme.
It is clear that grant applicants were advised their details may be made public and the Government own best practice guidelines consider reporting to parliament to be important. Minister, how can you argue the successful applicants do not want their information to be made public when they have accepted this when they applied for the grant?
Ms COURTNEY - Dr Woodruff, as I outlined in my opening we are delivering a nation-leading level of economic support for our small businesses. Our $80 million of small business support has provided more than 20 000 grants to more than 14 000 individual Tasmanian businesses across the state including some of those industries that have been hardest hit. The Department of State Growth has administered the assessment and allocation of these grants at arm's length from government, with a robust and proper process. Many businesses may have closed without this assistance - I am very conscious of that - and we welcome the scrutiny of this grant program as well as other grant programs. I welcome the scrutiny currently being undertaken by the Public Accounts Committee as well as the Auditor General. These are the appropriate mechanisms for scrutiny of this process at the highest level.
We have received strong advice from the Secretary of the Department of State Growth that there is real potential to cause undue harm through publicly identified individual grant recipients. This is because publicising the names of applicants or recipients could seriously exacerbate the already high levels of personal stress that many small business operators are feeling. The recipients of these grants are Tasmanian families, often mum and dad businesses who have been experiencing severe hardship, and as a result are in distress and sadly some are suffering from mental health impacts as well.
Disclosure of the applicant business names could provide information to each other's business competitors regarding its position of distress and vulnerability, and this could expose those businesses to disadvantage. I am advised that this approach is in line with many other states and territories. The department openly reports on the expenditure of public funds in accordance with the requirements of the Treasurer's Instruction under the Financial Management Act. Furthermore, our approach is supported by the business community, including the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Tasmanian Small Business Council. I also note that many of the small chambers of commerce have also come out in support of our approach.
In terms of businesses, I acknowledge, yes, that the guidelines state that they may be disclosed, but we also know that people were often in a very distressed state when they were putting in their applications. That was quite evident from feedback from the team at Business Tasmania. Many businesses have told me they don't want their details disclosed. I am conscious that the conundrum is that a business can't state that publicly without revealing they received a grant themselves. I am also aware there are many businesses who received a grant and are happy to have that publicly disclosed; and other businesses have disclosed that publicly themselves. However, I am aware there are businesses in enormous hardship, they have been through the most horrendous circumstances and I think is inappropriate to do anything to exacerbate their situation. As I have outlined, we welcome the scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor General regarding these processes.
Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, no one doubts that the need for small business grants was very great. No one doubts the hard work that would have gone into providing them.
The question is the need for the public to have good understanding and transparency around your Government's management of $26 million. You refused to provide a list of the grant recipients in a public hearing to the Public Accounts Committee. Section 7(3) of the Public Accounts Committee Act states -
Except where it considers that there is good and sufficient reason to take evidence in private, all evidence shall be taken by the Committee in public.
While that section allows for information to be taken in private, when there is good and sufficient reason, the act only allows for the committee to make that determination, not yourself as minister. Section 3, paragraph (a) of the Parliamentary Privilege Act 1858 empowers the House of parliament to summarily punish a person, including a member of the House, for -
The disobedience of any order of either House, or of any Committee duly authorised in that behalf, to attend or to produce papers, books, records, or other documents, before the House, or such Committee.
Minister, did you seek any legal advice before you unlawfully refused to provide these documents to the Public Accounts Committee?
Ms COURTNEY - Let me make it very clear that the details have been provided to the Public Accounts Committee in camera. The Auditor General is also undertaking work on this matter. Given the remit of the Public Accounts Committee, it is appropriate mechanism to scrutinise the arrangements.
I have appeared a number of times before the Public Accounts Committee under different portfolios and the secretary and I would be happy to appear, either publicly or in camera, to discuss the details if the Public Accounts Committee has concerns around that, or has questions that they would like us to answer.
The secretary of the department has publicly stated his advice about the disclosure of this information. This has been extraordinary difficult time for small business. I take my responsibility very seriously, and I believe in scrutiny - which is why information has been provided to the Public Accounts Committee. I welcome their scrutiny of these grants. We have provided many responses to questions on notice from the Public Accounts Committee. The Auditor General is working on this as well.
I am not going to pre-empt the outcomes of any of those inquiries. There might be recommendations, there might be learnings I don’t know; we will wait for the inquiries to go their course. However, I am clear that these programs were set up in an extraordinarily difficult time We had an extraordinary amount of support for small businesses. I know from speaking to small businesses that the support helped them to stay afloat.
Dr WOODRUFF - Excuse me, minister
CHAIR - The minister is still answering the question, Dr Woodruff.
Ms COURTNEY - I take the welfare of businesses in Tasmania very seriously. As I said earlier, I understand there are some businesses which would be comfortable to have their information disclosed. There are other businesses which would not. I don’t want to take any steps to put any further hardship on any business in what has most likely been the most difficult year of their business life.
Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you, I respect your opinion but could you please answer the question I asked - which was did you receive any advice any legal advice or any other advice before you unlawfully refused to provide that material to the Public Accounts Committee in a public forum.
Ms COURTNEY - As I stated in a hearing earlier today, I am not going to provide detail on advice I seek in terms of any legal mechanism. I am not going to respond to the question of legal advice about the disclosure of this information publicly. It is the clear advice of the secretary of the department it would have significant undue hardship on some businesses. I accept the fact that not all the businesses are in that cohort, however there were some. I take that situation very seriously in terms of their welfare, and also for some businesses their relative competitive situation compared to other businesses.
Dr WOODRUFF - Did you cross-check that advice with say the chief psychiatrist or somebody who is an expert in mental health? I take it the secretary is not an expert in mental health. Was that verbal advice or written advice? Did you cross-check it in anyway with a suitable medical practitioner?
Ms COURTNEY - The secretary of the Department of State Growth, Mr Evans, has been engaged at very senior levels for years and years in Tasmania supporting businesses. He has played a key role within government through significant upheavals in industries including upheavals in the forestry industry and other sectors. At times when businesses are for whatever circumstances on their knees, it is the Department of State Growth that deploys staff and works with them to look at how we can not only support the business but importantly support their employees.
I think Mr Evans is very qualified to comment on small businesses. He has held this senior role for a number of years. He has high levels of engagement across industry sectors and I take the advice he provides me very seriously.
Dr WOODRUFF - Minister, this isn't the first time that your Government has unlawfully refused to provide documents to the Public Accounts Committee. Do you understand, that as a minister in the Westminster system, you are accountable to parliament, including a properly constituted committee of the House of parliament. Your Government has the national moniker now for being the most secretive Government in the country. Your Government has also run a hard line law and order agenda. How do you justify having an agenda which is about law and order, pretending that your Government stands for openness and accountability, when you put yourselves above the need to comply with the legislative requirements of the state?
Ms COURTNEY - I make no apologies for our law and order agenda. That has been well supported by the community in terms of the initiatives we have undertaken. It is going to be a continued focus of this Government. I feel confident the Minister for Justice, as well as the Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Management will be able to outline the important work we have done in our law and order agenda.
Regarding disclosures, as I have said in one of my previous statements, we have provided the details of the grant recipients to the Public Accounts Committee for them to scrutinise. We have the Auditor General also, I understand, doing work on this. We will look to the recommendations, and see how we can ensure we are always continually improving.