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Sport and Recreation – Local Communities' Facilities Fund

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Tags: Pork-Barrelling, State Budget

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, you might not enjoy this line of questioning and I apologise in advance. It is a topic that is well known to you. It is the Local Communities' Facilities Fund which has flow through consequence for state Budget. Last year in this place and subsequently in parliament, the Local Communities' Facilities Fund was discussed in detail. We acknowledge it is something you inherited, Mr Street. This is not your initiative and you did not administer the distribution of the grants. It has been a bit of a shifting sands topic with facts seeming to change over time. To clarify to start with, can you please confirm how many Local Communities' Facilities Projects were committed to and what the combined dollar values of these projects was?

Mr STREET - Ms O'Connor, I do not have that figure in front of me, but I am more than happy to try and get that figure before this hearing is finished or we can take it on notice at the end of the hearing if you like.

Ms O'CONNOR - It would be good if you can get that before the hearing is finished. That would be good. Notwithstanding that we do not have a baseline clarity on that question at the moment, the Treasury Secretary's sworn testimony to the Public Accounts Committee last year was his department received $20 million in LCFF commitments from the Premier or the Premier's office following the election. A Right to Information we received from the Office of the Treasurer revealed a question time brief from the Premier from June 2021 which also said the LCFF was $20 million. The Liberal Party's financial policy said it was $20 million, but the LCFF list tabled in parliament only totals $14.9 million worth of projects. Are you able to explain where the other $5.1 million went or what the true figure actually is?

Mr STREET - Again, I do not have that figure in front of me, Ms O'Connor but I am more than happy to take that question on notice and try and provide that detail before the end of the hearing.

Ms O'CONNOR - The list of all the Local Control Funding Formula projects you tabled in parliament from the program you inherited includes 220 projects. An RTI we recently received from Treasury includes about 230 letters from MPs sent to community groups after the election saying they'd been awarded funds through the LCFF. A brief prepared for the minister in June of 2021 put the number at around 250 and a question time brief prepared for you in February this year, obtained under RTI, says there are 255 LCFF projects.

We've gone from 220 projects tabled in parliament, to 230 projects through an RTI with all the letters from Liberal MPs and candidates and then 250 projects in the question time brief. Can you explain this and do you know what the true number is?

Mr STREET - Again, I'm more than happy to get that information on the actual number of projects under the LCFF is and try to get it to the committee before the end of this hearing.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can I just clarity then, should I put these on notice as a preliminary?

Mr STREET - If you put the question on notice and if I can get the information beforehand to save having to go through the question on notice process, I'll do that.

Ms O'CONNOR - I have a letter here to the Exeter Show Society signed by then premier, Peter Gutwein, Michael Ferguson , and the former Liberal member for Bass, Sarah Courtney sent after the 2021 election. The letter states the Government has awarded the organisation $735 000 and says, 'this funding is provided to as part of the local community facilities fund'. However, the project, the Exeter Show Society grant of three-quarters-of-a million-dollars, or close to, is not on the list of LCFF projects you tabled in parliament. Do you know how to explain this?

Mr STREET - I don't know the explanation for that, but again, if you put that question on notice, I'm more than happy to come back to you with the information that we've got.

Ms O'CONNOR - As a final question on this for now, where did you get the list that you tabled in parliament? Was that from the agency or from your advisers? Because the title of the list is 'Liberal Party list' isn't it?

Mr STREET - The list was provided to me through the agency.

Ms O'CONNOR - That one?

Mr STREET - Yes. But where the information that the agency provided to me came from, I don't know.

Ms O'CONNOR - It's a mystery, isn't it?

Mr STREET - I tabled the document that was given to me by the agency as a complete list of projects, or what was believed to be a complete list of projects. As to the other questions, I am more than happy for you to put them on notice. As I said, if we can get the information back to you before 1.30 p.m., if not, we'll provide that in due course.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Chair. Minister, back to the Local Communities Facilities Fund, I want to be clear that the Greens take no issue with the merits of those organisations that were given funding. It's the process, it's the opacity, it's whether it was merit based and whether it was equitable. Our issue is how those funds are awarded and the secrecy attached. There's a range of letters here which were sent after the 2021 election campaign, each promising money under the LCFF. Together they account for $1.2 million of funding through the LCFF that was not accounted for in the list that you tabled in parliament: to the Exeter Show Society, the Cradle Coast Mountain Bike Club, Vietnam Veterans' Association of Tasmania, Mount Nelson school oval, Migrant Resource Centre, Woodbridge School and Woodbridge School, all of which I'm sure really welcomed that funding, but they're not in the list that you tabled. How do you explain that?

Mr STREET - I don't have any knowledge of why that discrepancy exists but, again, Ms O'Connor, if you're able to table the list of those projects, we'll come back to you with the information that we have at our disposal about why they weren't on the list that I tabled. I tabled the list at the advice of the agency as a complete list. The fact that there are projects that aren't on there, I don't understand that discrepancy, but I'm more than happy to investigate why.

Ms O'CONNOR - Just to be oxygen-clear, this is not a crack at you or your integrity.

Mr STREET - That's okay.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, last year in Estimates, you apparently inadvertently provided information that was incorrect to the committee on 11 occasions about the way 111 Local Communities Facilities Fund projects were funded. That is, they were in the budget, you said; who provided you with this advice?

Mr STREET - That advice was provided to me by advisers in the agency when I was at the table. It subsequently became clear that there had been a number of different funding methods used for those projects. The initial advice that I was given that all projects were listed and funded in the budget wasn't correct. There were projects funded in a supplementary appropriation bill, I believe, as well. I would have to go back to the clarifications that I gave in the House after it became clear that I had inadvertently provided information that wasn't completely correct. I went back into the House and corrected that at the first available opportunity. I would have to go back and have a look at what the corrected information is to -

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. I'll just note there that the Premier didn't correct a similar misleading statement. Minister, when you were providing these repeatedly untrue statements to the committee last year, there were multiple departmental staff in the room who must have known these statements were not true, including the person who managed the process of funding 111 LCFF projects through the Treasurer's Reserve and the deputy secretary who oversaw the process. Both of these individuals are recorded in the Hansard as having attended the committee. Did you receive any advice, verbal or otherwise, at the time that the information you had provided to the committee was not correct? That is, I'm talking about when you were at the table or shortly thereafter.

Mr STREET - No, I did not. No.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, a senior staff member in your office was actually working in the then premier Mr Gutwein's office during the time the LCFF funding process was under way, and we know from right to information documents obtained from that office at the time that this staffer was aware that the accelerated process for funding LCFF projects was under way. That staff member was also in the room at last year's Budget Estimates. Did they not advise you that the statements you'd been provided were incorrect?

Mr STREET - No they didn't, but like I said, at the first available opportunity once it was made clear to me that the answers that I'd given were either incorrect or not completely true I'm not trying to fudge my words but there were instances where the information I gave was incorrect and there were instances where it was incomplete information. As soon as I was made aware of that, I took the first available opportunity on the first sitting day back to correct the record.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, following Budget Estimates last year, there were multiple RTIs released for areas of Government departments you oversee that showed many LCFF projects were not funded through the 2021-22 state Budget. You have been aware of the release of this information through RTI because of RTI applications often come to the minister just for noting.

Mr STREET - I have no involvement in the RTI process within my office whatsoever.

Ms O'CONNOR - That's reassuring. So you didn't become aware at any point when that happened, straight after Estimates, that the information you were providing to the committee was not correct?

Mr STREET - At the first available opportunity when I was told that the information I put before the committee was incorrect or incomplete, I corrected the record.

Ms O'CONNOR - Who told you?

Mr STREET - I don't recall. I don't recall whether it was the agency or whether it was somebody within my office that informed me.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you.

Ms O'CONNOR - Back to the LCFF, minister. If we take these letters through Right to Information that I talked to you about earlier, which are notices to recipients of funding, they seem to have mostly been sent in May/June, after the election. They total about $1.2 million in funding, so if we add that to the $14.9 million that's in your list - the incorrect list that you tabled in parliament last year - that total is $16.1 million worth of LCFF grants, but we have black-and-white evidence from the Treasury secretary who said it was a $20 million allocation, the former Premier's office and the Liberal Party that show the true amount of funds awarded through the LCFF was $20 million. Will you commit to tabling a complete list of all the projects that were awarded funding through the LCFF?

Mr STREET - I'm committed to providing the information for the questions that you've placed on notice, Ms O'Connor, and that includes the complete list.

Ms O'CONNOR - We've established that the list that you tabled is incomplete for reasons we've yet to establish and again, I'm not putting that on you. Just to be clear, you will table either at the table today or in parliament when we return -

Mr STREET - I will provide all the information I'm able to at the earliest possible opportunity. If that's before we finish today, then I will, and if not, it will be in answers to questions on notice, which I think have to be tabled in parliament - is that right?

Ms O'CONNOR - Yes.

Mr STREET - At the earliest available opportunity I will table all the information I'm able to in relation to the questions you've asked on notice.

Ms O'CONNOR - Okay.

Mr STREET - If you include that as well.

Ms O'CONNOR - I will. Just to be clear, the reason we're going through this time line so methodically is because the public's understanding of the electoral bribery scheme that the party you are part of had in place at the 2021 election - again, not a personal reflection - but then there's a false understanding of that grant fund, how much was in it and who received an allocation and through what process. If we hadn't pursued this over many months and doggedly gone after RTI information, the truth of this matter would never have been revealed.

Given that the secrecy and distortion of proper process here ended up casting a cloud over your integrity, ultimately - you were left carrying the can - do you take issue with the approach surrounding the LCFF and what are you going to do to make sure that there's not this sort of stinky grants program at the next state election?

Mr STREET - I reject the premise about electoral bribery, to be clear, Ms O'Connor. If that's your opinion, that's your opinion and you're free to put that on the record.

Ms O'CONNOR - It's actually the Integrity Commission's opinion, the borderline Integrity Commission opinion.

CHAIR - Ms O'Connor, let the minister answer. Thank you.

Mr STREET - I know you're not questioning my integrity, Ms O'Connor. I'm more than happy to stand my integrity up in terms of commitments that I've made previously around this process. I commented at the time that I would do a review as minister of any election commitments that I made in my portfolio spheres going forward if I’m a minister at the next election and that's the commitment I've made before and the commitment I'm prepared to make at the table today.

Ms O'CONNOR - Okay. Just to be clear, when I use words like electoral bribery, you might recall that after the 2018 state election, where a very similar opaque grants program was in place, there was some work undertaken by the Integrity Commission and the implication from their work was that it could be viewed as a form of electoral bribery.

Mr STREET - I lost my seat by 226 votes to your colleague at the 2018 election, so what occurred directly after that election wasn't of much interest to me, I've got to say, Ms O'Connor, but I understand what you're saying.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. I don't want to think that you're still smarting from that. I only asked two questions. Minister, under the LCFF -

Mr STREET - The fact that I remember it was 226 votes leads you to think that I might be smarting about it, does it?

Ms O'CONNOR - I'm glad you got re elected, personally. Under the LCFF, the Bracknell Football Club, where the member for Lyons, Mr Shelton, is a life member and has multiple family members on the club committee, was awarded $45 000 for new goal nets, quite the sum. I noticed the Perth recreation ground also received funding for new goal nets but only $15 000, which is a curious difference. What processes are in place to ensure that election grants decisions made by a political party result in fair and efficient expenditure of public funds in the area of Sport and Recreation?

Mr STREET - Without wanting to divert, I haven't been a minister during an election campaign, so the actual process itself was probably something that Ms Kent can -

Ms O'CONNOR - I don't think we should put that on Ms Kent, I don't think that's fair. I'm trying to protect a public servant.

Mr STREET - In terms of assessing value, Ms O'Connor, like I said, I haven't been a minister at an election so I don't know what the process was at the time.

Ms O'CONNOR - To be clear, I can put on notice the request of a complete list of LCFF grants.

Mr STREET - To be clear, as well, in response to that, I am committing to table every piece of available information that I have to the best of my ability.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, has the $45 000 grant to the Bracknell Football Club for goal nets been acquitted?

Mr STREET - That is a question for Ms Kent that I am happy to pass to her.

Ms O'CONNOR - Presuming so, could Ms Kent tell us what the money was spent on?

Ms KENT - Through you minister, the funding was provided to Bracknell - $400 000.

Ms O'CONNOR - No, that is a different one. This is the $45 000 for the goal nets.

Ms O'CONNOR - There was a lot of money given to Bracknell Football Club.

Mr STREET - We can take that on notice.

Ms O'CONNOR - What are we taking on notice? Whether it was acquitted and what the money was spent on? It would have been acquitted wouldn't it?

Ms KENT - If the money has been provided then it would have been acquitted.

Mr STREET - In terms of what the acquittal says Ms Kent can get that information and provide it.

Ms O'CONNOR - We understand the Bracknell Football Club installed their new goal nets through donated money and in-kind services, donated material and labour, but it is the financial statements of the Bracknell Football Club show they still received $45 000 in public money. It is clear the football club did not need the money for the specified purpose, which was the goal nets, because they had been funded through fund raising and the generosity of the local people. It seems they have been allowed to spend it as they see fit. Is that unusual in terms of a grant allocation where a request is made for a specific purpose and then the money is spent on another thing.

Mr STREET - If that occurs, a request comes to the minister for a variation of the grant deed. There would have been a grant deed done for the initial purpose, I would imagine. If the Bracknell Football Club have made a request to spend it on something different besides what was in the initial grant deed, a request would have come to me to approve that variation.

Ms O'CONNOR - Did it?

Mr STREET - I do not recall signing a variation of grant deed for Bracknell Football Club. We will have to check that. I have signed one for a couple of different organisations but I do not recall signing one for Bracknell Football Club.

Ms O'CONNOR - To confirm, we can put a question on notice about the acquittal and what the $45 000 was spent on and we can put a question on notice about a variation of the grant deed.

Mr STREET - I would imagine the acquittal would list what the money was spent on and we will detail the process for that.

Ms O'CONNOR - I do not want to put words in your mouth and I will be very careful here. I understand that the LCFF caused you some problems last year and some stress.

Mr STREET - Not some.

Ms O'CONNOR - You are welcome. At the time, you made some strong statements we should be doing everything we can to ensure there is integrity on the processes for committing both at elections and in grant programs, which we completely agree with. Can you update us on what, if any, steps you have taken towards reform of this sort of process?

Mr STREET - In terms of election commitments I have not done anything yet.

Ms O'CONNOR - Well, you better get cracking because we just don't know at the moment, do we?

Mr STREET - Contrary to popular belief the next election is two years away, Ms O'Connor. In terms of grant funding I am very comfortable with the process that happens for all of the grants that happened not just the Department Sport and Recreation or the area of sport and rec but also my Community Services and Development. All grants that are applied for during the year are decided at arm's length from me. As minister, my only role in those processes is I am given a list of successful applicants at the end of it which I approve, but that is all I do.

The actual assessment or consideration of applications to any of those grant programs is done at arm's length from me as it should be.

Ms O'CONNOR - What we have been trying to establish is how those grants were assessed and the basis on which they were given. We understand they were given in order to secure electoral support which is why we term it electoral bribery. Has this issue and the difficulties, that not only you as minister face, but the stain it put over the Government after the last election and not dissimilar from what happened in 2018, is there a conversation happening among ministers about how you might clean up this process and have a fairer and merits-based system?

Mr STREET - I have not had a conversation with any specific minister about the LCFF or the way we conduct election commitments.

Ms O'CONNOR - Do you think you should?

Mr STREET - I will say that just like I will stand my integrity up against anybody's, I will stand the integrity of Jeremy Rockliff up against anybody's integrity.

Ms O'CONNOR - To be clear, this wasn't his grants program either.

Mr STREET - He and I have had a conversation about it. I am not going into details about that, but he understands the difficulties I had with this particular program last year and has talked to me about it.

Ms O'CONNOR - In closing, I can absolutely guarantee you that should it happen again, the Greens will be back and we will never let go on an issue like this because it is public funding. It is opacity and to us it is unfair to other worthwhile organisations who have missed out because they did not have a candidate drop in and make friends with them.

Mr STREET - I am certain of one thing going forward, is the veracity of your questioning, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - Veracity, tenacity.

Mr STREET - Tenacity.

Ms O'CONNOR - I cannot always verify everything I say, but I never give up.