Monday, 11 November 2019
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Regional Jobs and Investment Packages
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Agriculture (Senator McKenzie) to questions without notice asked by Senators Urquhart and Green today relating to the administration of regional grants programs.
Senator McKenzie was meant to be representing the Deputy Prime Minister today. The questions that I asked and that Senator Green asked flowed from front pages in the Cairns Post and the Launceston Examiner. Both of these newspapers are fine regional newspapers, yet the Deputy Prime Minister's office failed to adequately brief the representing senator. So it appears to me that Nationals senators clearly don't follow the regional news.
Minister McKenzie also misled the chamber in her response to my primary question. She said, 'All information in relation to applications is publicly available online.' Well, it is not. So the Deputy Prime Minister's office needs to properly brief Minister McKenzie, and then Minister McKenzie needs to come in here to the chamber and admit that she misled the chamber on that particular point. Her key talking point was that the critics are cherry-picking. No-one is cherry-picking. The whole Auditor-General's report is scathing.
My first question was: 'What evidence did ministers rely upon in awarding the grant'—the grant that I was talking about was the $365,000 for a food van on Flinders Island in Tasmania—'and the co-funding exemption.' Minister McKenzie sought to take that on notice. The Auditor-General's report said that the department recommended the project but advised the ministerial panel that the applicant supplied limited evidence to support their case. That's what the Auditor-General's report said: that it 'supplied limited evidence to support their case' for a co-funding exemption. Of the 233 grants that were rewarded nationwide, the Killiecrankie food van on Flinders Island was one of just four projects that was exempted from a co-funding arrangement—just four. I go back to the Auditor-General's report, which said that the department recommended the project but advised the ministerial panel that the applicant supplied limited evidence to support their case for that exemption for co-funding. So why is the proponent not contributing even one cent to this project? What does that say about the viability of the enterprise?
My second question went to the issue of what steps the government had taken to ensure that that $365,000 for a food van represented value for money. Again, Senator McKenzie took that question on notice.
So my questions are: did the ministerial panel re-evaluate this application after it was changed? The original application was for a physical cafe and community centre. It was then changed to a food van. Did the ministerial panel re-evaluate the application based on the changed circumstances from a physical cafe—a building and a community centre—to a food van? There is a lot of difference between those two scenarios. How much does a food van cost? The minister should come and answer that. Could it really cost $365,000? It's a lot of money for a caravan on wheels—a lot of money. Is the van being retrofitted in Tasmania? That's another question I would put to the minister. And how many jobs are actually being created on North Flinders Island as a result of this? And how many jobs are actually being created in Tasmania from this $365,000 being spent on a food van?
I would go back to the minister and say: 'Come in here and clear up the discrepancies. Give us a full, comprehensive outline of the details around why this particular project does not require the proponent to put in one cent. And why has it been funded fully by the government through this project?' (Time expired)
I'm quite happy to rise in this place to defend the government's award of funding under the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages, or RJIP. I said once before in this place that if my good friends opposite refer to a document, always get the original document and read what the document says. Let me give you some of the recommendations and findings from the Auditor-General's report in relation to RJIP. Recommendation 6 says:
In total, 233 projects were awarded $220.5 million in grant funding across the 10 regions. The grants represent 32 per cent of the estimated total project costs of $688.3 million.
That's the first point I want to make: that $220.5 million of grant funding leveraged $688.3 million in total expenditure. That is a good outcome. That is, in fact, a better outcome than what was predicted in the original policy announcement made in 2016 by the then Liberal and National parties that this would leverage only on a one-to-one basis. It was only expected to leverage an extra $220 million, but in fact the total expenditure was $688.3 million. So this project has in fact been extremely successful. But you wouldn't know it, listening to those members opposite.
Another finding from the Auditor-General's report—which of course has not been referred to by those opposite; it will be very interesting to see if it's referred to by those opposite who may speak after me—was:
There was no bias clearly evident in the assessment and decision-making processes.
I'll say it again:
There was no bias clearly evident in the assessment and decision-making processes. Decisions to not approve recommended applications occurred in two Queensland regions—
my home state of Queensland—
at a rate more than three times the average across the other eight regions; these decisions affected five electorates each of which was held by the Coalition.
But you wouldn't know that from listening to those opposite.
And one of those projects—if I can refer to one of the great projects that received support under that project funding—was the construction of an aged-care facility in Mossman. The Salvation Army has just entered into a construction contract for the construction of that facility, and let me tell you that the mayor up in Mossman is absolutely delighted. Mayor Leu said the start of construction was a 'huge moment'. She said:
We are absolutely thrilled that this day has come.
The Mossman Aged Care Centre has been a high priority project that the community has been striving to get for more than 23 years.
That project is going to be delivered, in part, under regional funding provided under this program. As a senator for Queensland I say that's a success.
As for Senator Green drawing comparisons between the good people of Leichhardt and the good people of Kennedy, let me say that only a few months ago I attended the opening of an extra wing of a beautiful aged-care facility in the lovely town of Tully, in the seat of Kennedy. That was, in part, funded by Commonwealth government funding—even though it's in the federal seat of Kennedy. Even though it's in the federal seat of Kennedy it was funded by the Commonwealth government.
It doesn't matter which bucket of money it comes out of, Senator Green. As long as it's delivered to my constituents, in my home state of Queensland, I'll be extremely happy. It doesn't matter which bucket it comes out of. As long as the funds reach my constituents, in the state of Queensland, I'll be happy.
Senator Green, I'm very happy to take your interjection but, can I say to you, I hope that if you do get up in this place and speak on this question you actually address that finding of the Australian National Audit Office, which says there was no bias evident in the decision-making process under this scheme.
The point I'd make, Senator Scarr, is that if this audit report was so good why was it released an hour before the Melbourne Cup? If it's so good, why didn't they release it so everyone could pay attention to it? They tried to bury it. This was done before the Melbourne Cup because they're embarrassed by the rorts it identifies that those opposite have partaken in. That's exactly what it does. It is telling that the Deputy Prime Minister was hanging out with the inner-city lunatics when it was released. He likes to say they're inner-city lunatics. Where was he? He was at the Melbourne Cup. This morning he said that the inner-city lunatics are so out of touch, yet there he was at the Melbourne Cup hanging out with them on the day this audit report was released.
I don't begrudge him having a day off and going to the races. Good luck to him. But he needs to be held accountable for what this report says. There is a history to these packages. They were announced in the lead-up to the 2016 election, and we know in regional parts of Australia, and I know in regional Queensland, that there are significant job challenges. They announced these packages throughout regional Queensland in the lead-up to the 2016 election, yet they sat on them for 12 months. They did not announce the guidelines, they did not spend one cent, they did not create one job for 12 months after that election and they said, 'We're working on the guidelines.'
After they sat on it for so long—they didn't spend a cent and it didn't create one job—we see the reality of what they created, through this audit process that highlights serious problems with this program. We see that as many as 64 applications deemed eligible by the department were rejected, and they favoured, in what could only be called political decision-making, their preferred proponents of some of these projects. We see the history of these programs and the fact that regional Australians are desperate for jobs, and this is the way they are treated by the government. They don't take these things seriously. They sought to bury this report on Melbourne Cup day. The Deputy Prime Minister himself—and you would have to question his judgement after his behaviour over the last couple of weeks—was at the Melbourne Cup when it was released.
This project, dreamt up by the National Party, has failed to deliver for regional Queenslanders. That is what the Audit Office identifies today. As to the projects throughout regional Queensland that were supported, there's been no transparency about why some of those projects were rejected or why decisions were made to favour some projects over others, and there's been a failure to account for how many jobs could've been created if other projects were supported at the expense of the ones the National Party focused on to deliver.
There's no doubt that, after winning that election in 2016, this government went into hibernation on these projects. Clearly, they scrambled, behind the scenes, to try and get guidelines in place, which they've then gone about ignoring as part of the process of identifying which projects were going to get funding at the expense of others. Now that it's been exposed, we see sitting members try and justify the projects that were supported. We've seen that with Ken O'Dowd in Flynn and with Llew O'Brien in Wide Bay. They've tried to highlight some of the projects that were supported, but what they haven't done is give any justification for the projects that were rejected. There's been no evidence provided nor any correspondence back to proponents who put forward proposals that the department supported and ticked off on yet were rejected on political grounds.
That is what happened as part of this process: projects in areas throughout regional Queensland that needed jobs on the ground—projects that the department said they had approved—were rejected through the political process that was set up by those opposite. And it's actually the local chambers of commerce and local business representatives that are calling on the government to provide answers. We've seen that in Bowen, Gladstone, Gympie and throughout various parts of regional Queensland. This program was supposed to provide regional jobs, and we've seen no correspondence and no effort by the government to explain why some projects were rejected. We will absolutely hold them to account because we want to ensure regional Queenslanders get a fair deal. (Time expired)
It's good to be able to stand here today and talk about what this government is doing to create jobs. Time and time again those opposite use this time, in taking note of answers to questions, to give us another opportunity to talk about the great record of this government in creating jobs. So I thank those opposite for raising this and giving us that opportunity again.
This particular program, the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages, is creating thousands of jobs in regional Australia. The Australian government committed $222.3 million of funding in RJIP to help diversify regional economies, stimulate economic growth and deliver sustainable employment. In the first half of 2018, 233 projects across the 10 pilot regions were approved. Projects are expected to create more than 12,000 local jobs. As the ANAO report acknowledged, for an investment of $220.5 million in grant funding the program has leveraged an estimated additional $467.8 million in project costs to support projects that drive economic growth in regional Australia. That is a fantastic return that the Australian government has been able to get on behalf of taxpayers in investing that money and creating jobs.
But that isn't all that the Australian government is doing. The Liberal-National government has a tremendous record in creating jobs in regional Australia through other programs, such as the $841 million Building Better Regions Fund, which is delivering 832 projects. There's one particular project I'd highlight, which is in the very southern part of Western Australia, in the town of Esperance. Through this fund we are enabling the development of a jetty that's going to enable deep-water vessels to come in there, and, again, it's creating jobs. There are projects right across regional Australia that we on this side of the chamber could all point to where the Liberal-National government is investing significant sums in great investments that are returning amazing outcomes. We could have asked some questions. We could have taken note of the question that I gave to Senator Cash where we talked about, in another regional part—although it's very close to a major urban setting but, nonetheless, an outer urban area—and that's in my neck of the woods in the city of Mandurah, where we had the Jobs Fair just over a week ago. There were 91 apprenticeships on offer in that job fair. Apprenticeships are life-changing opportunities for people, and there were 91 apprenticeships that were on offer in that area. We saw the whole place filled with people. There were plenty of other jobs there. Many hundreds of other jobs were available. The place was there. People were optimistic. They were looking forward to it. You only need to go back a few years in Mandurah and you would know that there have been significant and high levels of youth unemployment, but the ship is turning. There is significant change happening there, and there's optimism. People are looking forward to the opportunities that are being created in this economy.
Over 300,000 additional jobs were created last year, in 2018-19. That's a growth of 2.6 per cent. These are big numbers, but it represents families. It represents individuals who have been able to get ahead and make a better life for themselves and their families. It is a significant impact upon their lives. This government has a tremendous record when it comes to creating jobs, particularly in regional areas.
The National Stronger Regions Fund is a $611 million program that's delivering 225 projects. The $272 million program of the Regional Growth Fund is delivering 17 projects, and there's over $157 million going, importantly, to the Drought Communities Program, which is delivering 489 projects across Australia.
I rise to take note of the answers provided by Senator McKenzie to my questions about the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages and the audit by the Australian National Audit Office, which was scathing of the processes conducted by this government. This government blocked recommendations made by the department and instead handed out grants to projects not approved, not considered on the basis of value for money or on how many jobs they would deliver but approved by this government because they were in a marginal Liberal-held seat.
I'm really pleased that the gentlemen opposite have stayed to hear a little bit more about what's in the report, because I know they want to quote one little section of it. But here we've got some other things that were found in the report that I think they might be interested in hearing about. The Audit Office also found that they approved an ineligible application for funding. They approved five late applications for funding, with no exemption reasons recorded. They failed to verify the claims around ongoing jobs created for each proposed grant. They did not provide reasons when rejecting 28 per cent of applications recommended by the department. They approved 17 per cent of applications not recommended by the department without adequate reasons. They failed to appropriately consider co-funding exemptions awarding four applications, a total of $1.74 million, without any private co-investment.
We're not standing here trying to say that this investment in regional areas in Queensland is a bad thing. We're certainly not trying to say that the projects that received this funding didn't deserve the funding or need the funding, but what we are here trying to ask and find out the answer to is: why was this process so skewed by ministerial intervention to lead to a situation where one electorate received 89 per cent of the funding pool?
I also want an answer to the question that I asked Senator McKenzie about the statement that was made to TheCairns Post, and Senator Urquhart did refer to those announcements in TheCairns Post and in Tasmania. It is a surprise that she wasn't able to answer that question today. But I asked her about the process conducted by the department. The Cairns Post on Saturday reported that a statement from the office of Warren Entsch, the member for Leichhardt, said that these decisions had been made by the department. We know that's not true. We know that is a misleading statement. The department didn't agree with the statement, of course, and told The Cairns Post that this was an issue for the government to answer. So we've come here today looking for that answer, and of course we haven't received it. We know that the ministerial panel, including the Deputy Prime Minister, was responsible for assessing and awarding grants. The statement by the member for Leichhardt's office is completely misleading. Why is the member for Leichhardt's office giving misleading statements to The Cairns Post? Perhaps it's because 12 months ago The Cairns Post broke a story about a $2.4 million grant being awarded under an extreme cloud of conflict of interest. I would want to avoid front pages like that as well if I were in the government.
Let me be clear: people on this side do support investment in regional Queensland. We want these jobs to flow and these projects to get off the ground, but surely questions must be answered when the member for Leichhardt's office is giving misleading statements to The Cairns Post, when 89 per cent of a funding pool goes to an electorate, and when we know that tropical North Queensland is a region that covers two electorates. These are questions that need to be answered, and I would be happy if the minister would come in here and answer these questions, would make this information public, would tell us which projects missed out, and would tell us what has happened to the $2.4 million for QRX Group 1. All they need to do is release this information, but they won't do that, because we know that this is a rort for regional votes. While parts of regional Queensland missed out and while parts of Kennedy missed out and while the jobs that this investment was meant to create go wanting in a place that needs them more than anywhere else, one job was protected, and that was the job of the member for Leichhardt.
Question agreed to.