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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1873

Contractors Voluntary Exit Grants Program

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (14:10): My question is to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Minister Ludwig. Minister, are you aware that regulation 9 of the Financial Management Act legally binds a minister or a decision-maker to authorise expenditure only if it is 'proper use' of Commonwealth resources? If so, have you referred to the Federal Police findings by the Auditor-General that payment of $3.59 million was made to 10 applicants under the Contractors Voluntary Exit Grants Program who did not provide the documentation to prove they were eligible, not even proving that they had ongoing contracts with Forestry Tasmania or in native forest logging? If not, why haven't you referred that matter to the Federal Police and will you do so?

Senator LUDWIG (QueenslandMinister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister Assisting on Queensland Floods Recovery) (14:11): I thank Senator Milne for her question. DAFF worked quickly to establish the program to distribute the majority of funds within the timelines established. I think it is reasonable to put the facts on the table first. Potential applicants were appropriately informed and provided with timely access to the program guidelines and additional guidance materials. The department established detailed administrative arrangements to process applications and grant payments. The review that the department's own grants management manual developed was in response to those audits.

In relation to the claims, if Senator Milne does make any allegations and has any evidence of them, she should bring those to the attention of the authorities. Can I say that Senator Milne has made a range of allegations in the media over the weekend, but they do seem a long way away from the actual ANAO report itself. If you look at the ANAO findings themselves, in this case they made three recommendations: improve the quality and transparency of grant assessment processes for future programs consistent with the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines, provide advice for applicants of any significant changes to assessment processes or the methods used to determine grant offers outlined in the guidelines, and that the department develop compliance strategies consistent with the terms and conditions of funding.

Senator Milne has, as I indicated, made a range of allegations. If she does have any evidence to substantiate those allegations then I would encourage her to bring that to the attention of the authorities. I suspect that, again, it is Senator Milne using colourful language to make her point in respect of an ANAO report which, for all intents and purposes, referred to processes of the department rather than actual substantive matters. The program is one of low significance— (Time expired)

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (14:13): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer and I refer him to page 20 of performance audit report No. 22, where the 10 breaches were outlined. I ask the minister: are you aware that section 19, part 4, of the Financial Management and Accountability Act requires proper records be kept in relation to the receipt and expenditure of public money? If so, why didn't DAFF clearly record the basis of assessments of eligibility where applicants had not provided the required documentation? To which investigative agency have you referred this breach within DAFF?

Senator LUDWIG (QueenslandMinister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister Assisting on Queensland Floods Recovery) (14:13): The ANAO report has made findings that go to the heart of best practice grants management. Senator Milne is, quite frankly, distorting the ANAO's report findings in her comments both now and last week, using what I would describe as a mode of language to describe the actions of the department and others. Her primary interest does seem to be smearing the reputations of officials in this endeavour. It seems to be that Senator Milne wants to smear the reputations of those who demonstrated their eligibility and have received an exit grant within the appropriate guidelines. For those not eligible and unsuccessful in their applications, it does appear that Senator Milne is playing politics with emotions and giving false hope to those people who may not have been successful in getting a grant. It is one of those attacks that I think are not appropriate for a leader of the Greens to be running. (Time expired)

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (14:14): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Again, I refer the minister to the report showing DAFF did not keep the records. Further, I ask: given that under section 134.2 of the Criminal Code it is a crime to obtain financial advantage by deception, have you referred Forestry Tasmania to the Federal Police with regard to letters written to support contractors' eligibility which were later revealed not to have been authorised? If not, why not?

Senator LUDWIG (QueenslandMinister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and Minister Assisting on Queensland Floods Recovery) (14:15): While the guidelines for this important program took some time to develop, to put this in context, once developed and finalised the program was implemented over a relatively short time frame. A number of the assessment processes were not consistent, it is conceded, with best practice management. The assessment plan was not finalised before the guidelines were published, but the ANAO had found no deficiencies to the degree that Senator Milne is alleging. But in this instance the ANAO report only found that there was room for improvement, and the department has accepted that. Senator Milne or any other member of the community who has evidence to support the serious allegations Senator Milne is making should bring it forward, because it is a very serious matter to raise them and accuse the department of these misdeeds without those allegations being fully supported. (Time expired)