Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (3.14 pm)-I also rise to take note of answers by Senator Arbib. The opposition’s concerns in relation to the Jobs Australia tender initially related to its design and efficacy, as Senator Arbib accurately quoted from the Senate hearing into the tender arrangements. Senator Arbib and I keep an eye on what each other says, and he was accurate in saying that that was my concern a week or so back. Our initial concern was principally that 100 per cent of provider services were put to tender, that the weighting for past performance was only 30 per cent, that many providers with great track records had lost contracts and that 47 per cent of job seekers have to find new providers and new case managers. They were our main concerns. The Minister for Employment Participation assured the Senate that all was well, that job seekers would be fine and that providers who lost work would be looked after. The minister cited in particular the Agency Adjustment Fund to assist those who had lost their tenders. There is one problem with that: there was only ever funding for 34 organisations. Of that $3.5 million of funding allocated, there was funding for only 34 organisations.
But we discovered in estimates that at that time 110 applications had already been received. The department has emailed the providers, helpfully telling them:
Thank you for your application for funding …The department received many more applications than anticipated. The assessment process is quite complex …This has meant that the original time line … is unable to be met.
It has been oversubscribed. There are far more providers than there are dollars to assist. So the minister’s assurance on that front was completely worthless. But a greater concern was unearthed yesterday by Dr Southcott in the other place. He discovered that phone calls were placed between a tenderer and the former minister’s office during the probity period-during the tender process itself. Why is this of concern?
You might think it is quite reasonable for a tenderer to make a few harmless inquiries of a minister’s office during a tender process. There is a document called the ‘Communication protocol for dealing with existing service providers and tenderers’, which states very specifically that there are:
Those who may be in positions that the public could perceive as having the power to influence the operation of the purchasing process …
The people identified in that position include ministers and their staff. This document is very clear. It says:
¬The website, Hotline and email address are the primary mechanisms for communications relating to purchasing matters. All persons, and in particular those who have been identified as being in positions of potential influence, are required to refer or direct any purchasing related enquiries to the Hotline, website or email address.
It goes further. It requires that:
details of any approaches by or on behalf of an individual Tenderer or Tenderers will be fully documented-
that is, fully documented by the person who receives the approach-and that:
communications or conduct suspected of involving a breach of the probity of the purchasing process or involving illegality will be investigated.
So it is quite clear from the communication protocol that the minister’s office was in breach. The minister’s office put out a statement yesterday saying that the contact was ‘logistical in nature’ and therefore was not required to be referred to the department. Well, the protocol does not have an exemption for discussions of a logistical nature. The protocol says that if there is communication from a tenderer to a minister or to a minister’s office it needs to be documented; more than that, it needs to be advised to the probity adviser. It also says that any tenderer who approaches a minister or the minister’s office should be referred immediately to the hotline or the website. This was entirely inappropriate. When the minister was asked today whether he had received any advice from the probity adviser in relation to this communication he refused to answer. There is only one thing to do in this situation, which is to call for a full, complete public inquiry, and Minister Arbib should do that today.