Politics, Science/Environment

PM personally approved $443m fund for tiny Barrier Reef foundation

Head of Great Barrier Reef Foundation tells Senate inquiry money was offered at meeting with Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg

Malcolm Turnbull was at the meeting where $443.8m in funding was offered to a small not-for-profit foundation without a competitive tender process or any application for the money, an inquiry has heard.

By Lisa Cox

Anna Marsden, the managing director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, told a Senate inquiry on Monday the organisation was offered the funding at a meeting in Sydney in April between Turnbull, environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg, the foundation’s chair John Schubert and environment and energy department secretary Finn Pratt.

The inquiry is examining the process by which the foundation, which had just six full-time staff at the time, was awarded the funds and whether it has the capacity to deliver work required under the government’s reef 2050 plan.

“I’d like to state for the record that the foundation did not suggest or make any application for this funding. We were first informed of this opportunity to form a partnership with reef trust on the 9th of April this year,” Marsden told the hearing.

“And who was it that contacted you about that and who did they speak to?” said Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson.

“That was a meeting between the prime minister, minister Frydenberg, the secretary of the department and our chair,” Marsden said.

On Tuesday, Marsden wrote a letter to the inquiry committee saying she made a mistake in her evidence and Pratt, the environment department secretary, had not been present at the meeting.

Marsden said the foundation was informed an allocation was being announced in the May federal budget and the government invited it to partner with the Reef Trust to “distribute these funds across five component areas of the reef 2050 plan”.

She said this was the sole purpose of the 9 April meeting and the foundation was not aware beforehand what the meeting was about.

Marsden said she was not present in Sydney but spoke to Pratt and assistant secretaries the next day to discuss next steps if the foundation accepted the offer.

She said a series of “collaboration principles” were determined and put to the foundation’s board “and once they were approved there was an exchange of letters between the minister and the chairman which cemented the agreement to enter into a partnership”.

Marsden said it was the foundation’s intent to be as transparent and accountable as possible “with everything the foundation is doing under this partnership” and the organisation had, in part, been selected because of its ability to attract additional money from the private sector.

The inquiry heard the foundation’s chairman’s panel, a corporate membership group made up of chief executives and directors of companies including Commonwealth Bank, BHP, Qantas, Shell and Peabody Energy, has 55 members, each of whom pay $20,000 a year for membership.

Marsden said the organisation tried to find members that shared similar values and commitment to the reef.

Asked how the values of coal companies such as Peabody aligned with reef protection, she said “they share a commitment to moving forward and transitioning away from fossil fuels and ensuring we can build the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef”.

She said the foundation was in the process of developing an investment policy and one of the key concerns the draft would address was how it would manage any potential conflicts of interest. But she said advice on projects the funding would pay for would be “grounded in science” with advice taken from key agencies such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Later in the hearings, Labor senator Kristina Keneally asked the environment and energy department about its role in the awarding of the funds.

“It’s still not clear to us how it came to be that the prime minister felt that he could meet with this foundation and offer them $443m of money,” she said.

Officials said the decision happened in “the confines of the budget process” and the government decided to approach the foundation.

Earlier in the day, environment NGOs said they were concerned the money was not awarded directly to agencies already working on the reef, that there was no tender process and that the grant agreement had little mention of climate change, which is the key threat to the reef.


First published at The Guardian Australia.  tuesday 31 July 2018.

See: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/jul/30/malcolm-turnbull-present-when-443-million-dollars-offered-to-small-group-without-tender-inquiry-hears

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