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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
Australian Trade and Investment Commission

Australian Trade and Investment Commission


CHAIR: I welcome Dr Stephanie Fahey and officers from the Australian Trade and Investment Commission. Do you have an opening statement, Dr Fahey? No? Thank you for that. Senator Ayres.

Senator AYRES: I understand Austrade is running the regional tourism events initiative. Can you advise where that's up to?

Dr Fahey : We've been funded through an allocation of the $76 million that was allocated. We have $10 million to put towards those initiatives. It has two streams, stream 1 and stream 2. Stream 1 is for smaller grants, and it's specifically targeted at events to attract visitors to come into bushfire affected areas, and stream 2 is for larger grants and for the same purposes.

Senator AYRES: Is it allocated regionally?

Dr Fahey : There are a number of organisations that have been deemed as eligible to put in applications for the funding. It's quite comprehensive, and it's been ratified by the bushfire recovery group, so it's not a list that Austrade has created. So there are a number of—

Senator AYRES: Sorry. Just take me through that: who are the organisations and how are they selected?

Senator Birmingham: Maybe Mr Hazlehurst was about to say this, but, from my recollection, stream 2, which is the larger grant stream, are all those designated category D bushfire regions under the arrangement that exists between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. I think the stream 1 eligibility are all cat C and D—

Mr Hazlehurst : A, B, C and D.

Senator Birmingham: A, B, C and D. There we go.

Senator AYRES: So there are two D streams, if that makes any sense—is that right?

Mr Hazlehurst : For stream 1, the smaller grants, it's all A, B and C declared local government areas, and regional tourism organisations who work in those local government areas are eligible to apply—the local governments and the regional tourism organisations. And for the larger grants in stream 2, it's as the minister described, those that have been declared category D.

Senator AYRES: Have the allocations been finalised?

Mr Hazlehurst : The grants are now open for applications. The allocations between the two streams are $7.5 million for stream 2 for larger grants and $2 million for stream 1, with the remaining $500,000 able to be allocated to either stream depending on demand.

Senator AYRES: When will that process conclude?

Mr Hazlehurst : In relation to stream 1, the organisations can make applications all the way up to 20 November and, in respect of those applications, we are processing those as we receive them. In other words, we're not waiting until all the applications are received.

Senator AYRES: So if somebody makes an application and they're eligible—

Mr Hazlehurst : Correct.

Senator AYRES: they'll—

Mr Hazlehurst : Correct. That's in order for the smaller—

Senator AYRES: Sorry to interrupt you. So you'll allocate those until the $2 million runs out, with some discretion to go another half a million dollars depending upon a judgement about what's happening in the other stream?

Mr Hazlehurst : Indeed. And the intention of the government there is that those funds can be paid out in respect of eligible applications as soon as the applications have been received and processed rather than waiting for all of the applications to have been received.

Senator AYRES: You're about to tell me about stream 2, but how does the parliament or people have visibility in the process? How do we understand how much has been allocated and where it's been allocated to?

Mr Hazlehurst : When the grants are made I'm quite sure there'll be announcements of those grants to the relevant local government areas.

Senator Birmingham: And they'll all be made publicly available. I'm not sure quite what that requires in terms of whether there's an official website they need to go on, but I can assure you they will go on Austrade's website.

Senator AYRES: Could you come back to me on notice about how you intend to do that?

Senator Birmingham: Yes, absolutely. And the point there is they're small grants to help with those regional events and regional promotion activities, and we expect to see—I trust from next week, now that there are applications in and under assessment—that there will just be a rolling kind of approval of them, giving those communities flexibility to do the things they need to do quickly, rather than waiting for some designated time frame.

Senator AYRES: And the larger stream?

Mr Hazlehurst : Senator, in relation to stream 2, applications opened on 17 February and close on 20 March, with a view to then assessing all of the applications that have been received and making determinations on the payment of grants.

Senator AYRES: What's the minimum and what's the cap for those grants?

Mr Hazlehurst : We've not specified a minimum grant or a maximum grant. And the reason for that is the government is also seeking to encourage collaboration between local government areas and regional tourism organisations—and, indeed, the organisations within those areas—so that there may be opportunities for projects or initiatives to come forward that could be quite large. We're waiting to see what sorts of collaborations might emerge from that.

Senator AYRES: I'm wondering about the impact of the coronavirus. There is some overlap, and I'm thinking in particular of parts of Queensland, and parts of the South Coast of New South Wales. Is the impact of the coronavirus being considered in the way that that process is going to work?

Mr Hazlehurst : Not at this stage, Senator, in the sense that the guidelines for this program have been settled and approved by the minister and published. But, inevitably, there may be some connection in terms of the events or attractions that might be proposed by the affected communities that might also relate to attracting visitors to stimulate tourism activity and that would also be relevant in the context of recovering from the coronavirus.

Senator Birmingham: A higher proportion of the fire-affected towns and communities and regions are more domestic-tourism oriented. So, in that sense, the downturn visitation related to coronavirus shouldn't impact on their ability to successfully run the types of regional events and festivals that we are talking about, and to hopefully increase the number of domestic visitors who come and participate in those types of events. Obviously, there is a hypothetical risk that could emerge down the track to the conduct of large events and festivals. That's something that, of course, everyone will have to confront if and when it comes about. But, at present, we're pushing on and encouraging those communities to plan to operate those events, as we are everyone else to go about their normal business.

Senator AYRES: So it's just for local government authorities and regional tourism organisations. Is that correct?

Mr Hazlehurst : That's correct: those are the organisations that can apply. That said, it's of course open to them to be engaging within their communities, and, indeed, that is what they're doing. And so, in many instances, there'll be collaboration within that community, including with relevant community organisations and industry groups and commercial operators to propose events and/or the development of attractions through stream 2.

Senator AYRES: What should individuals or community organisations do if they can't get the support of their local government organisation and their regional tourism organisation?

Mr Hazlehurst : They will need to engage with their local government organisation.

Senator AYRES: So that's the gateway.

Mr Hazlehurst : That's correct.

Senator AYRES: Do you anticipate any difficulties there?

Mr Hazlehurst : We are also directly engaging with the affected communities and, indeed, the government appointed an expert panel who are also working with those communities to facilitate that kind of discussion. We're also working with our colleagues in state government who have direct connections with both the local governments, the regional tourism organisations and of course the communities themselves, and they're also seeking to facilitate that interaction.

Senator AYRES: So it's more of an issue for the larger stream, but what happens if there's an underspend?

Mr Hazlehurst : We're not anticipating that there will be an underspend, Senator. However, the government has determined and made clear through the guidelines that, should there be funds remaining in the second stream after consideration of the first lot of applications that close within a few weeks, it's leaving open the possibility of having a further call for proposals.

Senator AYRES: So there's a review panel—who are they?

Mr Hazlehurst : It's made up of three experts. It's chaired by Sandra Chipchase, who's the former CEO of Destination New South Wales. There's also Michael Luchich, who's a South Australian state director of Optus and chairman of Country Arts South Australia and Sarah Quon, CEO of Sovereign Hill Museums Association and a board member of Visit Victoria.

Senator AYRES: How were they selected?

Senator Birmingham: They were selected by me following consultation with the state tourism ministers.

Senator AYRES: So it was a ministerial decision?

Senator Birmingham: Yes.

Senator AYRES: How did these people come to your attention?

Senator Birmingham: Through consultation with state tourism ministers.

Mr Hazlehurst : Senator, just for clarity: the role of the expert panel is to provide advice both to the minister and to Austrade on the guidelines, for example, and the way in which we're running the program. It is also to engage with the affected communities, including local governments and regional tourism organisations, and to provide us with some advice around applications and opportunities for further collaboration. The expert panel is not going to be involved in the actual decision-making.

Senator AYRES: So who makes the decision?

Mr Hazlehurst : The guidelines stipulate that the CEO, Dr Fahey, or her delegate will make the decision.

Senator AYRES: What does the expert panel do?

Senator Birmingham: So they will provide advice—

Senator AYRES: So they will provide advice to the CEO?

Senator Birmingham: on the merits around applications. That advice may also contain suggestions. As you can hear from the three individuals, they all have tourism and events experience, and so it may be that sometimes they see an opportunity to suggest to a grant applicant: have you thought about doing X or Y?

Senator AYRES: So there's sort of an iterative process. There's a set of guidelines for stream 1 and stream 2. You, Dr Fahey, make the decision. Is there an additional set of guidelines in the minister's office? Do you make the final call or do you, Minister, make the final call?

Senator Birmingham: The guidelines are structured such that the Austrade CEO or her delegate is the decision-maker.

Senator AYRES: There's been quite some attention on these sorts of things recently.

Senator Birmingham: I'm quite clear there. I'd have been quite relaxed to make the call frankly, particularly for something like this where I think, overwhelmingly, people will be supportive of wanting to see the types of things that are happening to support those fire-affected communities. In the end, the guidelines, which I of course have approved, now set Dr Fahey, your delegate, as the approval-making entity—and I doubt that she's about to make me the delegate.

Senator AYRES: My next question of course is: does the Prime Minister's office have any role? It's just with the CEO. The final decision, advice from the board or expert panel is to you, Dr Fahey, and then you make the decision—no role for the PMO this time?

Senator Birmingham: No, Senator Ayres. Although if they choose to advocate for projects, you were proposing scenarios before—

Senator AYRES: A very unfortunate turn of phrase, Minister!

Senator Birmingham: where project proponents might have difficulty getting their local government association on board or the like then perhaps they might.

Senator AYRES: I would like, on notice, to hear back about that question itself. What happens if people can't get through that gateway of either their local government organisation or regional tourism organisation supporting their application? Is there a way that they can have their applications considered? I'm not suggesting that whatever story it was that was cooked up about how other grants might have been considered should be the approach. Can you come back to me on that question?

Senator Birmingham: We can come back on that. First and foremost, Senator Ayres, I'd encourage anybody in those circumstances to, perhaps, contact me, or even you. I'm sure any one of us could apply a little bit of pressure to a council, if they needed it to open their minds a bit.

Senator AYRES: Can I also, on notice, have a copy of the guidelines for each of the streams. Are they consistent with the administration, frameworks and practices that are outlined in the guidance from the ANAO's report into the Community Sport Infrastructure program? Is it consistent with Auditor-General's guidelines coming out of that assessment?

Mr Hazlehurst : They're consistent with the Commonwealth grants guidelines, which, of course, the Auditor-General had as the framework for his review of the program you're talking about.

Senator AYRES: But you can provide me with a copy of the guidelines, on notice?

Mr Hazlehurst : Of course. They're available on the web, but we'd be happy to provide those.

Senator AYRES: More generally, has Austrade assisted any other departments in the development or delivery of other assistance for bushfire areas?

Mr Hazlehurst : We have provided advice to other departments on the extent to which bushfire affected regions have tourism that would have been affected by the bushfires. I don't believe we would have provided advice or support to other departments in terms of direct provision of services. But, of course, we also have our trade and investment responsibilities, and we've been engaging with business clients who will have been affected in those locations.

Senator AYRES: I'll put on notice my questions in relation to Chinese students in Australian universities and Mr Babones' Centre for Independent Studies.

CHAIR: Thank you very much to Dr Fahey and officers of the Australian Trade and Investment Commission. This concludes the examination of the commission.