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Turnbull may face Senate inquiry over controversial Reef grant

The former Prime Minister may be summoned before the Senate inquiry when he resigns his seat on Friday

Malcolm Turnbull could be compelled to appear before a Senate inquiry due to the controversial $443.3 million grant to the small Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

The Chairman of the Senate committee, Peter Whish-Wilson, said the former Prime Minister could be summoned when he resigns his seat on Friday to speak on why he gifted the huge grant to the private sector-backed foundation.

“I’ll be seeking to work with the committee to invite him as a witness and compel him if we have to,” Whish-Wilson told The Australian. “He is the one who can answer our questions that haven’t been answered, and get to the bottom of this.”

Whish-Wilson said he wants to question Turnbull about the April meeting with Great Barrier Reef Foundation Chair, John Schubert, and former Environment Minister – and now Deputy Prime Minister – Josh Frydenberg, when the grant was discussed.

It was a heavily criticised move by not-for-profit and government groups due to it being settled without the competitive tender process. David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia, said it had confused the sector.

“[We] think there is no justice, there is no fairness in the way governments allocate money to charities,” Crosbie told The Sydney Morning Herald. “It just exacerbates the feeling that this is becoming really difficult and increasingly unfair.”

The grant was also received 11 days after cabinet’s expenditure review committee decided to seek a commercial partner for the Great Barrier Reef Plan. Labor has criticised this move as an “extraordinary abuse of process”.

While Turnbull was head of the Liberal government, the Senate’s Environment and Communications Committee could not force a House of Representative MP to appear. Once he resigns, however, Turnbull can be summoned.

“I want to know exactly what was discussed, and where did the idea start. It didn’t just materialise. Someone has come up with the idea and driven it at the highest level,” Whish-Wilson said.

The Greens and Labor have enough numbers to overrule the Liberal members of the committee should they decide to object to summonsing Turnbull.

Turnbull has come out in defence of the grant prior, insisting: “It went through a full cabinet process, it was in the budget, it was in the appropriate bills that the parliament passed, so it has been legislated.”

Schubert and Board members, Stephen Fitzgerald and Grant King, will appear before the inquiry on September 18. Paul Greenfield will appear via teleconference.

Fitzgerald is a former Chairman of Turnbull’s old investment, Goldman Sachs Australia, while King is the current President of the Business Council of Australia.

Scott Morrison told Parliament last month that he fully endorsed the grant decision and said the foundation – whose board includes corporate heavyweights and scientists – could find better ways to spend the money rather than the government’s own public servants.

“The government has gone out there and invested in the future of the reef. And we think it is the right thing to do that in partnership with others out there in the community,” Morrison told Parliament.

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