23 June 2021

Libs renew calls for ChooseCBR probe following "questionable transactions" from scheme's trial

| Dominic Giannini
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Tara Cheyne addressing the Legislative Assembly

Business Minister Tara Cheyne delivered a 50-minute statement about the ChooseCBR scheme to the Legislative Assembly this morning. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

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.

READ ALSO Opinion – ChooseCBR vouchers a waste in ACT’s boom economy

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She also slammed “erroneous” media reports claiming many businesses had withdrawn from the scheme.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.

READ ALSO Onboard bus CCTV not being destroyed properly: Auditor-General

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.

Leanne Castley

Leanne Castley said the scheme was a kick in the guts for small business. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

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.”

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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.

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At least 15% of the budget went to 19 (2%) businesses whilst 23% of the businesses received less than $50? Was the scheme intended to mirror the nation’s wealth distribution?

HiddenDragon6:06 pm 23 Jun 21

Unless there’s a strong likelihood that the scheme will be re-run, with a somewhat larger budget next time, it might be better to just rule a line under it and move on, particularly as the ACT has thus far (fingers crossed) shown admirable restraint, compared to some other parts of the country, in resorting to renewed restrictions on businesses.

If it’s not worth chasing after money which went on a “questionable pattern of inexplicable transactions”, then it’s probably not worth having a bunch of highly paid people examining the chicken’s entrails of a scheme which, even in the ACT context, is fairly tinpot – unless there might be broader lessons to be learned about the handling of the scheme, particularly the scope for drawing to the maximum extent possible on the experience of other jurisdictions when implementing initiatives such as this.

There’s definitely a lot of spin going on from the government here but precious little transparency.

The data is clearly now available from the ministers statements yet they won’t release it in detail and have arbitrarily selected specific talking points to attempt to so I an argument that it was successful.

Why not just release the full data with the individual business names removed if it was a success? They could just be categorised by type.

Not to mention the clear risk of fraud that only needed an email address and phone number to sign up.

Tom Worthington4:30 pm 23 Jun 21

Clearly the ACT Auditor-General needs to look into what went wrong with ChooseCBR.

It may be more beneficial, efficient and cost effective to have an independent audit carried out than to have the Auditor General do it, on the basis that the government is prepared to release it publicly of course.

Much as it may offend the public and the liberal party, $2 million is hardly a material amount. The Audit office, while appearing to be reasonably funded, could be better utilised in reviewing larger “ticket” items and programs to make best use of the budget that they have.

A review will find some minor fraud but the main rort was the whole scheme itself. It fails on equity and efficiency grounds. It was first in first served so not delivered or available fairly to all eligible residents. Nor was it an efficient way to achieve its purpose of assisting business because of confusion and technical problems and because more effective assistance could have been given by cutting business rates and taxes.

I don’t agree that an audit might only find minor fraud, but it’s debatable. It will definitely find that the scheme was exploited by both individuals and some businesses.

But regardless, we are talking about $2million here, cutting business taxes or rates would cost many, many times that amount and would similarly lead to problems that don’t necessarily achieve a beneficial policy outcome.

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