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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 353

Senator SPINDLER (12.36 p.m.) —The Australian Democrats support the Export Market Development Grants Amendment Bill 1994 with one exception, and I will come to that in a moment. Generally speaking, the bill has six purposes. It extends the investigation period for approved joint venture and consortium applications and approved trading house applications from 30 days to 60 days. Further, it limits the life of the status of these consortia to three years, with a discretion in Austrade to extend for another three years.

  It then limits the maximum number of grants payable to any joint venture consortium to five—and that to us is the contentious provision. It also provides for an ongoing review of the status of these bodies, and it ties the overseas visit allowance more directly to specific promotional activity and provides for accreditation for consultants.

  Taking the last point first, there is no objection to the accreditation of consultants. It can only be of benefit to companies operating in this area to be able to choose from a range of consultants who have been accredited. We certainly support that.

  There can also be no objection to the provisions which ensure that the support funds are not misused by tying the visits specifically to days which can be defined as activity days or bridging days. That clearly is also accepted. One can have little objection to the provisions relating to the ongoing review of the status of both approved trading houses and approved joint ventures and consortia.

  However, the Australian Democrats have some concern about the extension of the investigation period for approved joint venture and consortium applications and trading house applications from 30 days to 60 days. It is somewhat surprising that Austrade, which claims to have reviewed its management procedures and streamlined its activities, cannot assess an application within 30 days. We are told that this in part is caused by the bunching of applications close to the closing date. The question arises why this could not have been dealt with by staggering the closing date; having it twice a year, which I understand was attempted but which fell down because the payment of grants was still delayed until the whole period elapsed. Obviously, companies were not impressed by that.

  Surely it should have been possible to make arrangements within the management of Austrade to keep the target of 30 days rather than extend it to 60 days, placing an additional burden on small business, in particular, in delaying crucial decisions which relate to their business activities. The reality is that if that additional time is not provided to Austrade there will be a trend to reject applications where there is some doubt about their detail rather than approve them. It would be to the detriment of small business if that particular provision was not approved. Therefore, we will not attempt to change that and will vote to pass it. However, I again place on record our disappointment that a more appropriate solution to this problem could not have been found.

  One provision that is causing us a great deal of concern, however, is the attempt in this bill to limit the maximum number of grants payable to a consortium to five. The reason given for this is that large companies—those large enough to make an application in their own right—are double dipping. They are applying once as members of a consortium and, when they have exhausted the eight applications that they are currently entitled to make, they apply again as individual applicants.

  This problem could surely have been solved in a different way. Surely the government could have found a different way to prevent this double dipping by major companies. By addressing the problem specifically, the government could have defined the size of companies that are able to join a consortium in such a way as to exclude large companies. Alternatively, the government could bring in a provision that a company which has made an application as part of a consortium would have that application counted when an assessment is made of the number of applications that that company can make in its own right. It is for that reason that I foreshadow an amendment knocking out the two clauses in the bill which specify this.

  We have had some discussions with the minister, the minister's office and the department. I understand that the force of the argument that I am putting has been recognised to some extent at least, but so far we are not certain what the government will do. The suggestion that I put to the government and to the opposition is that they should think again. Why should small business be disadvantaged because some big companies are rorting the system? The government is essentially disadvantaging small companies.

  We should think again about this provision. We should think of other ways of solving the problem. It should not be beyond the government's resources to do that. We should simply knock out those two provisions to allow the government time to think again. I repeat: why should small business suffer because big companies are rorting the system?