The Canberra Liberals have called for an audit of the ChooseCBR voucher scheme after the fund was exhausted within a day of its relaunch and revelations of “questionable transactions” from the scheme’s trial.
In a 50-minute ministerial statement this morning (22 June), Business Minister Tara Cheyne told the Legislative Assembly that an analysis of the scheme’s trial found a questionable pattern of inexplicable transactions across three businesses worth $5355.
The government did not seek to recover the money as it would have cost more than the transactions were worth, Ms Cheyne said, although the three businesses were banned from participating in the scheme’s full rollout.
The government will conduct a full and independent review of the program, and it will include an analysis of spending patterns. The report will be released by December.
But Shadow Minister for Business Leanne Castley wants the ACT Auditor-General to conduct an audit, querying if the money went to the right places and if the scheme might have been rorted after reports that a large amount of money was spent between midnight and 6:00 am.
Concerns were also raised about people using multiple email addresses to access more than their allocated amount each day, she said.
Ms Cheyne said she had heard anecdotal evidence that businesses were manually redeeming vouchers late into the night, including vouchers submitted online, which explains some of the otherwise unusual hours of some business transactions.
She also slammed “erroneous” media reports claiming many businesses had withdrawn from the scheme. She said only six businesses pulled out and three of these returned when the scheme restarted.
This number does not include businesses like Deakin IGA which stopped accepting vouchers during the first days of the scheme due to technical issues but did not officially cancel its involvement.
Government figures revealed that 19 businesses redeemed more than 500 vouchers and 133 businesses redeemed more than 100 vouchers before the $2 million scheme ended.
Ms Cheyne said it had achieved its aim as a business stimulus measure as more than $5.1 million was spent by Canberrans.
Around 30,000 customers redeemed 59,000 vouchers. On average, $34 was claimed per voucher.
But almost 180 of the 797 participating businesses received less than $50 from the scheme. Food retailers made the most from the vouchers. Almost 40 per cent of the vouchers were claimed at stores like grocers, while more than one in four were redeemed at cafes, restaurants and takeaway shops.
One in five Canberra businesses that were eligible under the guidelines participated in the scheme.
But Ms Castley said the government needs to be more transparent about where the money was spent and what safeguards were in place to ensure the money went where it was needed.
“Concerns have been raised with me about the misuse of vouchers and the inequitable distribution of funds,” Ms Castley said.
“It’s a real kick in the guts for small businesses who put in upwards of 15 hours’ work to be eligible for each of the iterations of ChooseCBR, only to receive $20 or $50 in total benefit.”
A visibly frustrated Ms Cheyne faced a barrage of questions from the opposition during question time and debate on a motion moved by Ms Castley regarding the scheme when the Assembly sat today.
Ms Cheyne challenged the Liberals to provide evidence that the scheme had been misused, saying there had been no reports of spurious conduct, but conceded that it might not be possible for the review to determine whether some customers had exploited the scheme by signing up twice.
Ms Castley’s motion, which categorised the scheme as a failure, called on the Assembly to write to the Auditor-General requesting an investigation, but it was amended by Ms Cheyne to note that a comprehensive review is already being conducted.
Ms Cheyne has written to the Auditor-General advising the office about the scheme’s review, that the findings of the review would be presented to the Auditor-General and that any engagement from the Auditor-General, including an investigation, will be welcomed.