The Reefgate ‘rort’ may be the biggest scandal in Australian political history — but is just the latest in a long line of taxpayer cash splashes from Turnbull to his cronies, including the Murdochs.
By Dave Donovan.
MALCOLM TURNBULL giving almost half-a-billion dollars of public money to his business cronies is, perhaps, the biggest rort in Australian political history.
But the fact this so-called #Reefgate scandal has scarcely made a ripple in Australia’s mainstream media says everything you need to know about where this nation is in 2018.
Let’s look back over the facts.
THE REEFGATE RORT EXPLAINED
In a private meeting on 9 April this year, Prime Minister Turnbull met with an old business acquaintance. There was no public servant at this meeting, just one other cabinet minister.
The Prime Minister told his old mate that the small charity he chaired, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF), was to be given almost half-a-billion dollars of public money. The GBRF chair was surprised. He had never tendered for the money. Had never even asked for it. Indeed, he had no immediate way to spend the money, his charity having only six full-time employees. But he accepted the money nonetheless.
When the GBRF told his managing director about the meeting, she said it was “like we had just won the Lotto!”
— Dr Alana Grech (@AlanaMGrech) May 13, 2018
She was understating the magnitude of the prize, however. No lottery in Australia’s history had ever given out even a quarter of that amount, let alone to someone who hadn’t entered and didn’t have a ticket.
Last week, an application document eventually emerged. It was only half filled out, with key details missing.
Yesterday, 8 August 2018, news emerged that the Government had broken its own rules by not putting the grant through a competitive tendering process and also that the auditor general was considering investigating the scandal. It is hard to imagine a bigger schemozzle.
But here’s where it gets truly concerning.
In what could be construed as a calculated insult to environmentalists, the scientific community and everyone who actually cares about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, the Foundation’s “partners” make up a veritable “Who’s Who” of big business and the mining industry, including Qantas, Boeing, Rio Tinto, BHP, Peabody Energy, Shell, Downer EDI Mining, Worley Parsons, Wesfarmers and Aurizon — the very ones, arguably, responsible for the Reef becoming bleached in the first place.
And the chair of the Foundation? The one who was in that 9 April meeting with Turnbull and Energy and Environment Minister Frydenberg? That was former BHP director and Esso Australia CEO John Schubert. Esso is the Australian subsidiary of ExxonMobil — not only the world’s biggest oil company, but also the world’s biggest funder of climate change denial. They also sank the Exxon Valdez oil tanker off Alaska, causing one of the most devastating environmental disasters in human history — so they do have some experience dealing with damaged coastlines.
The Chair of Great Barrier Reef Foundation says “It’s absolutely not in our strategic view at the moment..” to lobby against new coal mines & land clearing – after being given $440 mill to save the Reef, which isn’t possible without stopping coal mining & land clearing.#reefgate https://t.co/vbiysc6dDI
— David Ritter (@David_Ritter) August 4, 2018
When asked in Senate Estimates whether they would lobby governments about emissions reductions, land clearing, or the approval of new coal mines, the Foundation said it had no plans to do so. No surprises there, because this Foundation is not designed to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s aim is to provide a public relations fig-leaf to the very polluters that are sending it to a watery grave. This insidious practice is known as “greenwashing” in environmental circles. The idea the Government would give this organisation – of any organisation – the biggest environmental grant in Australian history is beyond perverse, it is downright diabolical.
As Opposition environment spokesperson Tony Burke said on ABC Insiders on Sunday − in the brief 90 seconds they allowed him to discuss the subject – the situation is absurd. The Government has cut $100 million from the CSIRO, so that if the CSIRO wants to study the Great Barrier Reef, it will need to apply for a grant from this private Foundation run by bankers and fossil fuel company executives.
And just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, it has emerged that two colleagues of Turnbull’s from his Goldman Sachs days were directors when Turnbull gave Schubert the good news in April.
— Kristina Keneally (@KKeneally) August 7, 2018
Another of the directors, Stephen Roberts, is facing criminal charges for alegedly being part of a Citigroup cartel. Roberts has since resigned and, this week, the Foundation moved quickly to whitewash all traces of him from their website.
The Australian is now reporting that Mr. Roberts has stepped down while the investigation is underway. https://t.co/6kKF4igMA2
— Kristina Keneally (@KKeneally) June 7, 2018
TURNBULL’S MURDOCH CASH-SPLASHES
This, of course, is far from the first time Malcolm Turnbull has given millions of dollars of taxpayers’ funds to his corporate cronies with little or no public probity.
$30 million to Foxtel — for a pair of cufflinks
As Communication Minister, Malcolm Turnbull oversaw massive cuts to the ABC — cuts continued in this year’s Budget, where another $84 million has been wiped from the broadcaster’s budget. One broadcaster that has done well under Turnbull, however, is the Rupert Murdoch’s Foxtel PayTV network. Changes to media reform laws passed in September last year see Murdoch set to further dominate the Australian media market, in which News Corp produces 60 per cent of newspapers by circulation.
A week after the laws were passed, Fifield declared the gift of a set of gold cufflinks from Foxtel. Isn’t that nice?
The Government also gave Foxtel $30 million in the May 2017 Budget – also with absolutely no paperwork or tender – under the guise of promoting the broadcast of women’s sport — something many see as the natural role of the ABC.
Fifield still refuses to answer questions about this grant. That may be because he had very little to do with it.
Because, according to the Australian Financial Review, it was Turnbull who arranged this mysterious gift:
‘Some of those party to media reform talks say the $30 million sweetener wasn’t a part of most of the formal discussions, and believe Turnbull himself may have played a role in negotiating the last-minute Foxtel package – perhaps directly at that dinner in New York where Uncle Rupert introduced Malcolm Turnbull in May.’
It’s nice to be the king.
The Rainmaker scandal
A week before the 2007 election, with the dying Howard Government fully in caretaker mode, then Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull found time to award a $10 million grant to a private company. It went to an outfit called the Australian Rain Corporation (ARC), ostensibly to trial unproven Russian technology designed to trigger rain — even when there are no clouds! Given Australia is now facing its biggest drought since 1965, we can assume the trial was not a success.
The ARC’s headquarters were at Murdoch Books in Sydney, a company owned and chaired by Matthew Handbury, the wealthy nephew of Rupert Murdoch. Handbury was also chair and part-owner of the Rain Corporation, and a generous donor to Turnbull’s electoral fundraising arm, the Wentworth Forum.
The ABC 7.30 Report asked Turnbull then whether Handbury’s contribution to the Wentworth Forum helped in securing funding for the Australian Rain Corporation.
Turnbull responded angrily. “There is absolutely no connection,” he said. “That is an outrageous suggestion.”
$12 million to the United States Studies Centre
In July, the Turnbull Government announced a $12 million grant to the United States Study Centre, a think tank located at Sydney University.
The Centre’s links to the Murdoch family are deep. It is an offshoot of the New York-based American Australian Association — a group designed to foster close business relations between the U.S and Australia, co-founded by Rupert Murdoch’s father Sir Keith. These days, the Association is overseen by a group of Australian businessman who forged careers in the United States, including Rupert Murdoch and BHP chair Jacques Nasser — also on the ‘Chairman’s Panel’ of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
The U.S. Studies Centre was conceived in 2006 in the dining room on the third floor of News Corp headquarters in New York City, where then Prime minister John Howard promised to kick in $25 million of taxpayer’s money. Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan part of the US Studies Centre’s advisory council.
The Centre also has very close links to the Turnbull family, with Malcolm Turnbull’s son-in-law James Brown being research director from 2015 until earlier this year. Brown is still listed on the Foundation’s website as a “non-resident fellow”.
The Prime Minister’s wife, Lucy Turnbull, was also on the GBRF Board of Directors from 2007 to 2015. She is currently the patron of the organisation. Incidentally, Lucy Turnbull was also part of a Google judging panel that, in October 2016, awarded $750,000 to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
“The US Studies Centre was brought into life by Prime Minister John Howard. PM Malcolm Turnbull’s wife, Lucy, is its patron. The head of research is her son-in-law, James Brown.” https://t.co/frtjRZWBYr
#GBRF #auspol $443 million
— Askgerbil Now (@Askgerbil) July 30, 2018
It certainly is a tangled web.
Interestingly, all three of those examples involved the Murdoch family — which probably makes sense in a market where News Corp dominates the public consciousness. Murdoch doesn’t seem to be involved in the GBRF in any obvious way, though.
Perhaps Turnbull realises even Murdoch can’t save him now? All that is left for the Prime Minister, it seems, is to raid the Treasury and dole out the rewards to his friends and family before the Australian public kick him to the kerb sometime next year.
First published at IndependentAustralia. Thursday 9 August 2018.