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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29430

Mr PROSSER (10:24 AM) —I rise to support the Export Market Development Grants Amendment Bill 2004 following my colleagues the members for Cook and for Ryan. The bill contains one substantive measure, which is to ensure that export market development grants do not go to applicants or their associates who are deemed not to be fit and proper to receive such a grant according to the guidelines to be tabled by the Minister for Trade.

The Export Market Development Grants Scheme is the Australian government's principal financial assistance program for small and medium sized exporters. It provides grants that reimburse up to 50 per cent of the money spent by eligible exporters during the financial year on specific export promotion activities, minus the first $15,000. The scheme has a budget of $150.4 million per annum and provides around 4,000 grants each year. Currently, a grant to which an applicant is otherwise entitled is not payable if certain provisions of the EMDG Act apply. These include checks for outstanding disqualifying convictions and insolvency administration. The legislation does, however, allow for grants to be paid, even though the applicant or an associate of the applicant may be viewed as an inappropriate person to represent or promote the public interest of Australia in relation to trade outside Australia, or for other reasons to receive directly or indirectly the benefits and recognition of a government grant. It is considered that paying grants in such cases may lead to the mistaken perception that the government condones disreputable behaviour and supports the individual that engages in it.

The changes proposed in the Export Market Development Grants Amendment Bill 2004 will ensure that Austrade, in accordance with ministerial guidelines, can determine whether the applicant or associate of the applicant is or is not fit and proper to receive a grant. The proposed changes are to take effect for the EMDG claims from the 2003-04 grant year onwards. This means applications received and grants paid from 1 July 2004 onwards. The proposed changes will ensure that the export market development grant funding remains focused on cultivating new exporters and is available to those applicants who are most deserving of assistance from this government.

I am sure you will agree with me, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, and I am sure the Australian public will also agree with the federal government, that we do not condone disreputable behaviour and we will not support individuals or companies that engage in it. The scheme is consistently hailed as a benchmark of effectiveness in terms of government industry support programs. In recent years it has become increasingly popular with the export community. Last year some 3,700 small and medium sized businesses received grants under the scheme. These businesses generated $5.5 billion in exports and reportedly employed 122,000 Australians.

The government has a continuing focus on assisting small- and medium-sized Australian businesses. This is evidenced nowhere better than through the EMDG Scheme. Last year, 65 per cent of EMDG recipients were employing 20 people or fewer. Equally importantly, some 860, or 23 per cent, of the grants were paid to businesses in rural and regional Australia. In fact, in my electorate of Forrest in the south west of Western Australia, in the year ending 2003 over 29 companies—comprising small and medium enterprises producing export products such as mining, construction machinery, toys and sporting goods, furniture and wood products, meat processing, vegetable exports and of course wine manufactures, for which the south west of Western Australia is famous with its fantastic Margaret River region—have been rewarded by this government for their export promotion activities and have received more than $740,000 in grants as reimbursement for their 2001-02 export operations. These businesses are the quiet, solid achievers and are most deserving of these grants. They are longstanding, well-established businesses operating within my regional electorate. They are the most appropriate businesses to receive benefits and recognition from this government for their continued trade efforts in cultivating export markets.

Currently, under the EMDG Act 1997, even if an applicant may otherwise have been eligible for the grant, there are no provisions to determine the circumstances in which a grant will not be paid, such as if the applicant is not a resident of Australia, does not have an Australian business number, has an outstanding disqualifying conviction or is under insolvency administration. The legislation does not presently allow for the non-payment of a grant to an applicant who may be viewed by the Australian community as an inappropriate person to represent and promote the public interest of Australia in relation to trade overseas, whether by reference to his or her trading history or otherwise.

This government does not condone behaviour considered by the Australian electorate to be inconsistent with acceptable community standards of commercial and personal propriety. We have a duty to taxpayers to ensure that grants paid via government schemes are not paid to recipients other than those who meet these standards. The proposed changes are to take effect for EMDG claims from the 2003-04 EMDG grant year. In other words, this provision will apply to applications received and grants paid from 1 July 2004 on. I commend the bill to the Committee.