In the 2014 Budget, the Coalition cut the Grants to Voluntary Environment, Sustainability and Heritage Organisations program which has been in existence since 1974.
The program provided funds to help eligible community-based, not-for-profit organisations to value, conserve and protect Australia’s natural environment and historic heritage.
Senator Penny Wright investigated the rationale behind the decision to cut the program during Budget Estimates.
Senator WRIGHT: I want to ask some questions about the GVESHO program, the Grants to Voluntary Environment, Sustainability and Heritage Organisations program, which I understand will cease from 1 July this year. How long has that program, or a materially similar predecessor, been in existence? I believe it is quite longstanding.
Mr Thompson: Since 1974.
Senator WRIGHT: I understand that the government will save $1.3 million by axing the program. It is a relatively small saving in the scheme of things. Was that the main rationale for the cut?
Senator Cormann: It all adds up. Given the budget mess that we inherited from the Labor-Greens government that preceded us, we were in a position where we had to reassess the funding that was in place. Government cannot keep spending money it does not have. Government cannot keep borrowing money and forcing our children and grandchildren to pay the price for-
Senator WRIGHT: Can I come back to the question?
Senator Cormann: unfunded expenditure today. That is why, right across the budget, line by line, we have looked at opportunities to achieve savings so we can put our budget back on a sustainable footing.
Senator WRIGHT: Coming back to the specific program, was that the only rationale or were there other rationales for the ceasing of the program? Was it the funding reduction? Was it saving the money?
Senator Cormann: We have looked right across the government for opportunities to achieve savings. If there is anything else that the department can assist -
Senator WRIGHT: I am really interested in knowing whether there was any other rationale.
Senator CORMANN: It was a saving.
Senator WRIGHT: Was there any analysis or review of the program prior to the decision to cease the program?
Senator Cormann: All issues were considered by the department through an orderly and methodical process. Of course that process involved careful consideration including, obviously, discussions with all of the relevant portfolio ministers, including on this occasion the Minister for the Environment.
Senator WRIGHT: You said, 'All issues were considered'. What other issues were considered?
Senator Cormann: That goes to the deliberative processes of government and government processes, and you would not expect me to go into those.
Senator WRIGHT: Was there any formal analysis or review?
Senator CORMANN: The government considered it through its usual government deliberations, and we made a decision. The decision was announced and we take responsibility for that decision.
Senator WRIGHT: Was there any analysis or review of the impact of ceasing the program on funded organisations' viability?
Senator Cormann: I have answered your question.
Senator WRIGHT: No, you have not, actually, with respect, Minister. You can say yes or no. Was there any formal review or analysis, because this is going to affect the viability of organisations. Was that reviewed?
Senator Cormann: I will not go into the deliberative processes of the cabinet as we put the budget together.
Senator WRIGHT: I am not asking you to do that. I am asking a factual question.
Senator Cormann: If there is anything else that the department can add to this I invite them to do so. But from the government's point of view we obviously have worked very carefully right across the budget. We have made a lot of decisions to ensure that we put the budget back onto a believable path to surplus, as we must.
Senator WRIGHT: You have said that already.
Senator Cormann: Of course if the department has anything to add to my answer then I invite them to do so.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you. It is a factual question I am asking: was there a review or analysis before the decision? I am certainly not wanting to know what cabinet deliberations were.
Senator Cormann: You are asking me about details that go to cabinet processes and, consistent with longstanding convention in these hearings, I am not going to going to the deliberative processes of government.
Senator WRIGHT: I am not asking you to do that. Was there a formal review of the program?
Senator Cormann: You are asking me to do that.
Senator WRIGHT: Was there a formal review? I am asking the department.
CHAIR: Time is running out, Senator Wright.
Senator WRIGHT: I appreciate that.
CHAIR: Do you have another question?
Senator WRIGHT: I do have other questions.
CHAIR: Please ask the question.
Senator WRIGHT: I have questions that my constituents in South Australia have asked me to put.
CHAIR: Please ask them before time runs out.
Senator WRIGHT: I am not getting an answer to whether there was a full review?
Senator Cormann: With all due respect, I have actually answered your question.
Senator WRIGHT: I will have to take that as a no.
Senator Cormann: You might not like the answer.
Senator WRIGHT: I just do not think that you have—
Senator Cormann: What I am saying is that we have considered, as part of the deliberative processes of the cabinet, all of the issues that we considered relevant and, consistent with well-established practice, I am not going to go into the confidential considerations undertaken by cabinet.
Senator WRIGHT: I am putting these questions in good faith. I am doing my work, I am doing my job—I am putting these questions on behalf of my constituents in South Australia and generally, because these are historical societies; these are organisations that leverage a lot of voluntary work who are interested.
Senator Cormann: And I appreciate that.
Senator WRIGHT: I am interested in knowing whether there was any consideration given to a transition period to enable organisations to adjust to this funding?
Senator Cormann: Senator Wright, there are a lot of meritorious causes that, if the previous government had not made such a mess of the budget, we might have been able to continue to fund. But, given that we are on a completely unsustainable spending growth trajectory that will hurt our country's future, we had to focus very carefully on the decisions that needed to be made in order to ensure that government spending is sustainable again so that we appropriately protect our living standards and our prosperity for the future.
Senator WRIGHT: I have one last question, and thank you for that. Given that these are administrative costs—payments made to organisations to enable them to—
Senator Cormann: They are not 'administrative costs'; they are administered programs, is what you mean.
Senator WRIGHT: But it is not for salaries; it is for the organisational ability and it leverages a great deal of voluntary work in civil society throughout Australia. Was any consideration given to who would continue to do that work if those organisations are not viable? In a sense, I guess, people asking me to put in these estimates questions: is it a false economy; are you actually losing a great deal of voluntary value in civil society by making a relatively small saving?
Senator Cormann: If we hadn't have inherited $314 billion in cumulative and projected deficits from the previous government, if we didn't inherit a debt trajectory taking us to $667 billion of government debt, we might have had some spare cash to spread around. But we don't—we don't have the money—and we can't speak its spending money that we haven't got. That is the simple truth. I understand that not everybody will accept that. But we have a job to do and that job involves repairing the budget mess that we have inherited, and we are taking it very seriously because it is important for our country's future.
Senator WRIGHT: So who would do the work, then? That is my final question.
CHAIR: That is your final question, I can guarantee you.
Senator WRIGHT: Yes, thank you. I do appreciate that I had extra time to ask.
Senator Cormann: You shouldn't assume that the only way that work is done in these areas involves taxpayer funded support.
Senator WRIGHT: That is my point—they are voluntary.
CHAIR: Order! Time has expired for program 1.1. Thank you for those representatives. We now call officers from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.