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“It’s transparently bad policy”: trust concerns grow amid the controversial Reef grant

As controversy mounts, Labor has alleged confidentiality provisions in the grant procedure calls into question trust and transparency

Labor has alleged the Turnbull government’s decision to grant a controversial $444 million is protected by confidentiality provisions, calling into question trust and transparency.

Shadow Environment Minister, Tony Burke, said the almost half a billion dollar grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) rivalled the “hole in the ozone layer” and said the Coalition’s claim that it was done so with the right procedures and with complete transparency was “not the way to run a government”.

“Under the agreement they’ve signed, it is completely lawful, completely okay under this agreement, for the foundation to wine and dine the mining and banking executives who are on their chairman’s panel, up and down the Queensland coast, in the name of trying to win them over for more fundraising.

“Not only is it allowed, we might never know if it’s happened because that exact clause is covered by the confidentiality provisions, and these are confidentiality provisions that are more strict than Cabinet papers,” Burke told ABC’s Insiders. “The confidentiality clauses over the fundraising activities can go into perpetuity, forever.”

Criticisms over the grant centred on it being given without the proper tender process, that it was not requested by the GBRF and that it had only 11 employed staff.

More recent criticisms come from the revelation that the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, Environment and Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg, and Chair of GBRF, John Schubert, were in a meeting without a public servant when Turnbull personally approved the grant.

“There’s nothing transparent,” Burke said. “Well, sorry, it’s transparently bad policy what they’ve done.”

Other issues stem from the disclosure that a Queensland shale oil developer was a founding director.

GBRF released a statement confirming Sir Sydney Schubert, Sir Ian McFarlane, John Reid and John Schubert were founding members.

“It is our understanding that Sir Sydney Schubert’s idea for forming the Foundation was to create a charity to bring science and business together with a common purpose of protecting the Great Barrier Reef,” the statement read.

Frydenberg recently came out to insist that there was “a lot of transparency” around the grant procedure and added that the only reason Labor was raising the issues was because “they abandoned the reef when they were in office”.

When ABC Insiders’ Barrie Cassidy questioned Burke on Labor’s own commitment to the same foundation when they were in power, Burke insisted that the appropriate channels had been followed, unlike that of the Coalition government.

“It was assessed by the department and it was determined it was an appropriate research project and we funded it. Here – no one knows what exactly they’re going to do. The foundation doesn’t yet know what it’s going to do with the money. All that they know for sure is that they’ve been given it,” Burke said.

Burke added that the current grant was effectively the “privatisation of a large chunk of public service” and in doing so, adds to administrative costs. He said that this issue will again be raised when Parliament resumes.

“Kristina Keneally has done an extraordinary role in leading Labor’s integration of this in forensic role, in interrogating this in the senate committee,” Burke noted. “But all roads lead back to Malcolm Turnbull.”

Labor and the Greens have pushed for Turnbull to come clean on the controversy, with primary concerns being on a lack of a public record of the meeting.

Turnbull recently defended the decision with the ABC, calling it the “single biggest contribution and investment in the health of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Burke, however, said that responsibility for the huge grant lies squarely with the Prime Minister and that it was not a careful use of taxpayer money.

“If you want to get to the core of whether the foundation thought that this was a proper process, their response was to say – it was like winning Lotto,” Burke said.

“That’s not the way to run a government.”

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