Furore grows over Tasmania’s coronavirus business grant process

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Almost as swiftly as the coronavirus restrictions that battered Tasmania’s small businesses came the support measures aimed at helping them survive unprecedented shutdowns.

Tasmania’s Premier promised $15,000 grants for small businesses experiencing hardship, and thousands put their hands up.

The $26 million program was a lifeline for many who could not otherwise see a way through to surviving with little or no income for untold weeks or months.

But, as it rolled out, questions about the process began piling up.

The amount being made available to some businesses fell from $15,000 to $4,000 — there’s little clarity around why some received the lesser amount.

Then the goalposts were moved — extra eligibility rules were added, despite not being part of the advertised selection criteria that businesses were told to address in their original applications.

It’s still not clear whether all businesses that received the $15,000 also ticked those extra boxes, or whether some received their funding early in the process, before the changes were made.

What is known is that the Small Business Minister Sarah Courtney has apologised to some businesses, after their applications were incorrectly assessed.

The State Government reassessed 262 applications and ultimately changed the funding for 75 of them, more than a quarter of applicants.

Despite the series of unanswered questions about how this program worked, and the Government’s own concessions that there were issues with it, the minister has refused to shed any light publicly on which businesses were successful, or which missed out.

The ABC asked the State Growth Department for a breakdown of the grants awarded by electorate, but was told there was no data to provide.

The minister has told a session of the Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into the coronavirus response that her advice was not to release the list, because of the risk it could exacerbate the distress felt by some business owners.

That view was reiterated by her department secretary Kim Evans.

The stance has also been backed by Premier Peter Gutwein, who said the Government was attempting to support the mental health of a group of Tasmanians who had been through a stressful period.

An offer has instead been made to provide the information to the committee confidentially.

It is an extraordinary step away from usual process.

The $26 million was, after all, public money from the pockets of Tasmanian taxpayers.

Usually, the names of successful grant recipients are released, to ensure the department providing the money is accountable for its decisions.

Businesses who applied for this money were even warned in the guidelines that this would happen — effectively, all businesses signed up knowing the public would be told if they were successful.

The Labor Opposition has called for the release of the names, arguing no-one would judge businesses for seeking help in the midst of a pandemic, and that the Government’s refusal to provide “basic details” was shameful.

There is no doubt many business owners across the state have experienced distress as a result of the situation that has unfolded since coronavirus arrived.

But that includes those who missed out on the $15,000 grants — many of whom have spoken with the ABC — whose stress was in many cases exacerbated by their confusion and concerns over how the program was run.

Only recently, the Federal Government’s handling of sports grants ahead of the 2019 Federal Election demonstrated the need for outside scrutiny of government spending.

Tasmania’s hardship grants program has caught the attention of Tasmania’s Auditor-General, leaving open the possibility that more answers on the lingering questions around how it was delivered may come further down the line.

By state political reporter Alexandra Humphries (Original ABC Article)