Senate debates

Monday, 18 March 2013

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Contractors Voluntary Exit Grants Program

3:34 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Senator Ludwig) to a question without notice asked by Senator Milne today relating to the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement Contractors Voluntary Exit Grants Program.

This was a program of $44 million of taxpayers' money that was to go into Tasmania to basically help people exit the Tasmanian public native forest industry. The department estimated that the $44 million would result in the order of 1½ million tonnes from both harvesting and hauled wood exiting the industry. The whole point of that was to enable forests being saved to go into protection and people to be paid out of the industry. That was the reason it occurred and that is why it should have been properly oversighted.

I have to say, Mr Deputy President, this is deja vu. I do not know how many times I have brought the administration of grants programs by DAFF into this parliament, into the rural and regional committee, and every time in response to these audits they say to the National Audit Office, 'Oh yes, we will do better next time,' and they never do better next time, and in fact they do worse.

On this particular occasion, and contrary to the minister saying that I do not have the evidence, I was actually quoting from the Auditor-General's report. The report said that 10 applicants had been offered grant funding totalling $3½ million, despite not providing the required documentation to demonstrate eligibility. In fact they could not even demonstrate that they had an ongoing contract to log native forests. How is it possible that they get paid out $3½ million when they cannot even demonstrate that?

In two cases, two applicants scored zero on a score of zero to 100 in terms of merit, and yet they were deemed appropriate to be paid out. Meanwhile, people who scored a merit of 92—so they clearly had been able to demonstrate that they were logging native forests and were entitled to a payout—got less than they were entitled to in order to facilitate the payments to people who were not entitled to them. How is that fair or reasonable?

What is more, in relation to Forestry Tasmania—and this is where I do believe that there has been a criminal offence and that is why I am going to report it, and the minister should have reported it—evidence of support contributed to the applicants' merit score. They needed to prove that they had an ongoing contract to log native forests. Forestry Tasmania gave them a letter to say that they had an ongoing contract and on that basis they applied for exit. Then Forestry Tasmania notified DAFF that all letters of support provided to their contractors were not duly authorised and should be disregarded. Somebody in Forestry Tasmania wrote those letters and then they had to be disregarded because they were not authorised and seven of the contractors, who were then told that they had to go and get a letter that was properly authorised, could not do so. That meant that they could not demonstrate that they had an ongoing contract. So if that is not defrauding the Commonwealth then I do not know what is.

As for DAFF not keeping the records, every single time their excuse is: 'We can't find the paperwork; we didn't keep the records.' Under the Financial Management and Accountability Act, you have to require that proper accounts and records be kept in relation to the receipt and expenditure of public money. The Auditor-General has made it clear that DAFF did not keep the records that it needed to keep to demonstrate why the money was authorised to be paid out.

Somebody has to be responsible. Is the minister responsible? What happened to ministerial responsibility? This is taxpayers' money leaving the department without proof of eligibility and, what is more, people were meant to have left the industry for 10 years. In some cases, people were paid out when they had already left the industry and sold their machinery. How is it possible they got an exit grant when they had already exited the industry? Others took the money, transferred their logging equipment to their sons, brothers, uncles or whoever else and kept on in the industry and kept up to $3 million. And the logging goes on. The result of it all is that only 58 per cent of the forests they were meant to exit was achieved. They got the $44 million and, on the other equation, the forests were not able to be saved. Now there is an argument that they should continue to log forests. Forestry Tasmania continued to give out contracts to log at the same time as the Commonwealth was paying the exit funds to get out of logging.

This has been a complete shemozzle, and I believe there have been breaches of legislation. I am disappointed that the minister is not prepared to refer it, but I will.

Question agreed to.

Comments

Charlie Schroeder
Posted on 20 Mar 2013 12:21 am (Report this comment)

If the situation is even in a small way as Christine Milne describes, if there has not been fraud, there has been some real problem with the way the scheme was engineered. To know if fraud has taken place, there is a good reason to create an inquiry into these activities. It's bad enough that the money has been used badly to appease or please certain people and the system abused and not detected or a Nelsonic eye turned to the matter by the minister. But worse is that logging of these important forests continues.

Something must be done, some pressure to discover if there was wrong doing and to stop the logging must be applied now.

In passing, I personally have no confidence in the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Senator Ludwig) who has handled his portfolio and it's challenges very badly. As can be seen with the live animal export debacle, the cruelty that others had to expose and then the way it was botched from then on.