By ERWIN CHLANDA
Chief Minister Michael Gunner is running a $60m hand-out scheme which is fully protected from actions by the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) formed recently to combat government corruption and other offences.
This came to light when two applicants under the government’s much touted Home Improvement Scheme (HIS) lodged complaints with NTCAT against the government and the Department of Trade, Business and Innovation for declining the grants.
The applicants are a Top End lawyer and the Alice Springs writer of this report.
Relentless propaganda about HIS had convinced the public that it can benefit from it, and that it has a right to.
However, the order handed down by NTCAT President Richard Pruxner on January 8, dismissing the proceeding, made it clear that the cards are stacked against the public: NTCAT is powerless.
Says Mr Pruxner: “It is well established that NTCAT is a creature of statute and has no inherent jurisdiction. The tribunal has no jurisdiction to deal with a matter unless such jurisdiction is conferred by legislation.
“No Northern Territory Act specifically confers jurisdiction upon NTCAT to review a decision made in the administration of the HIS.”
It is hardly surprising that Mr Gunner will deny NTCAT the right and opportunity to have judicial oversight of a scheme from which he gets a great deal of kudos – albeit using public money.
Furthermore, the department running the program with “overwhelming success,” as claimed by the Chief Minister, reserves the right to –
• vary [its] terms and conditions, the eligibility criteria or any other documented rule or procedure at any time;
• accept or reject any application in its absolute discretion;
• decide in its discretion whether a business, an applicant, a property or works do or do not meet the intent of the eligibility criteria for participation;
• remove a business where the department has reasonably determined that the Business is no longer an eligible business, is in breach of these terms and conditions or is otherwise not complying with the objective intent;
• cease the program at any time.
The complaints followed a startling announcement by Mr Gunner on April 16, 2020, ten days after the scheme started, that the scheme would close the following day, not on October 31, 2020 as initially set down.
That means he replaced 194 days – during which people could contemplate, plan, budget and apply under the scheme – with eight hours. And those eight were on a Friday, to boot.
The frenzy involving traders and customers on that day has become legend. Evidence of this was put initially before the department and finally before NTCAT.
Having made phone calls to several air conditioning businesses and ultimately finding one, negotiating a purchase including assessing the requirements of the building, I emailed the department at 3:24pm on 17 April 2020: “I am applying for a grant of $6000 under the Home Improvement Scheme for our family home [the address is given here]. Please find a quotation attached. The quoter is seeking registration. Please provide it. I will be contributing $2250.”
At 4:38pm I received an email from government contractor Smartygrants saying “Submission JRRP-HIS22226 started.”
Finding this somewhat cryptic I repeated my application (text above), emailing it to the department again at 4:48pm, 12 minutes ahead of Mr Gunner’s deadline.
NTCAT’s take on that: “It appears clear that [my] application was not made in the manner required by the terms and conditions; namely, by completing and submitting the online application form.”
NTCAT mentions the issue about a form a second time, ignoring that all salient information had been transmitted to the department in the two emails, whose receipt it acknowledged.
Mr Pruxner did not acknowledge that Mr Gunner’s choice of deadlines did not allow time for pedantic paperwork (12 minutes left at the end of the day). Of course the original deadline in October would have permitted that.
The author does not know how many people missed out on a grant in similar situations.
Mr Gunner has not responded to an invitation to respond.