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Senate to probe $444m Great Barrier Reef grant

An inquiry into why the small Great Barrier Reef not-for-profit was granted nearly half a billion dollars is set to go ahead

A parliamentary inquiry will look into why a small not-for-profit was awarded a $444 million grant without the competitive tender process.

The Turnbull government came under scrutiny when they awarded the grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) in April. The inquiry, which was moved by Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, has the support of Labor, Greens and crossbench senators.

Labor environment spokesperson, Tony Burke, told the media there had been no proof of correspondence between the Great Barrier Reef marine park authority and the office of environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, in the lead up to the grant.

“It beggars belief that a record-breaking donation to a private foundation would take place without the minister seeking any advice from the Great Barrier Reef marine park authority which is charged under Australian law as being the principle advisor on matters about the Great Barrier Reef,” Burke said on Wednesday.

Under Freedom of Information laws, Labor requested all communications between the authority and the minister’s office but received no documentation. This came after the Greens called for an inquiry into the grant at the end of May.

Labor Senator, Anthony Chisholm, had demanded accountability from government officials during a Senate estimates hearing earlier this month, adding: “You’ve forked out $450 million to this group that have 10 staff.”

The inquiry will examine the GBRF’s capacity to work with the reef 2050 plan, determine whether other organisations and agencies would have been better placed for the work and look into the governance of the foundation and the process of the grant.

Public hearings are likely to take place in Canberra and Queensland with a report to come from the Senate committee in July.

“It is still not clear that the Great Barrier Reef Foundation is even able to cope with a grant of this size,” Burke said. “Their previous revenue for 2015 and 2016 was $9.6m and $8m respectively. The foundation has six full-time and five part-time members.”

Whish-Wilson said this was a case study in how the government has outsourced its core environmental obligations to the private sector.

“In this case we have seen them outsource the control of the purse strings for reef science and repair, and in other cases we have seen the government seek funds from the private sector to save endangered species or help manage its own national parks.

“There can’t be any more important task for the Australian government than being steward of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the true natural wonders of the world, and with this Senate inquiry we will get to the bottom of what it means to have had this funding redirected away from the existing public agencies.”

The GBRF has come under significant scrutiny since the grant was announced. It has said that it did not apply for the funding but was contacted by the Australian government before the announcement in April.

According to a statement released from the Australian government last month, the money would be used to improve water quality, resources and raise awareness.

“It is an investment not only in the future of the Great Barrier Reef, but also in Australian jobs and our economy through the tourists the Reef attracts each year,” the statement read. “The Great Barrier Reef is under pressure. A big challenge demands a big investment – and this investment gives our Reef the best chance.”

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