Tasmanian auditor-general clears State Government of pork barrelling through coronavirus grants program

Tasmania’s auditor-general has cleared the State Government’s small business COVID-19 hardship grants program of accusations of pork barrelling, but found some recipients were not actually eligible for the funding, while one industry was particularly disadvantaged.

The taxpayer-funded scheme worth more than $26 million attracted controversy last year after seemingly eligible businesses publicly complained they had been knocked back for the grants without detailed explanation.

The criteria were quietly changed at one point and successful applicants received either $15,000 or $4,000 — again without clear reasons why some were given more and some less.

Releasing his report into the scheme on Tuesday, auditor-general Rod Whitehead said: “Within the context of a program that needs to be developed quickly, the application process was appropriately designed and risks generally identified and managed.”

“Due to the need for the prompt distribution of grant funds, the program could not be a truly competitive one, but there was no bias in terms of geographical location or business type.”

However, Mr Whitehead’s report also found “a small number” of cases where grant recipients were not actually eligible or had received favourable treatment over comparable applicants.

It also noted the majority of dental businesses that applied for funding had been eligible but were unsuccessful.

“The reasons for not awarding grants to dental industry applicants ranged from a misunderstanding that these businesses could apply for hardship funding from other sources and that, in an economic sense, these businesses would be able to recover more quickly,” the report said.

Opposition Leader Rebecca White said it was an unfortunate oversight.

Small Business Minister Sarah Courtney has directed State Growth secretary Kim Evans to review dental applications “to ensure equity of assessment”.

‘It was unfair for some businesses that did miss out’

Mr Whitehead’s report made four recommendations:

  • That State Growth use better web-based systems in future to reduce the risk of human error
  • That it better communicate with applicants who were knocked back
  • That any changes to assessment guidelines should be publicised
  • That eligibility criteria should be checked during design, and any changes communicated

Premier Peter Gutwein said Mr Whitehead’s report vindicated his Government’s decision to push the grants out quickly.

“The Tasmanian Government, through the Department of State Growth, will now consider and work through the audit’s recommendations in more detail,” Mr Gutwein said.

The Government came under fire last year for repeatedly refusing to publicly release the names of grant recipients — even though all successful applicants had signed off on having their information made public.

The Public Accounts Committee wrote to both chambers of Parliament urging the release of the names late last year. The issue may be debated when Parliament resumes in March.

Launceston restaurant owner Bianca Welsh said her businesses were among those to benefit.

“I think without the hardship grants it was difficult for businesses to take the risk of paying wages or cost of goods and [face] all the overheads of opening those doors.

Ms White said there were still questions over why other businesses missed out.

“The process was rushed because they needed to get the money out the door, but because of that it was unfair for some businesses that did miss out,” she said.