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Turnbull personally approved controversial grant, inquiry finds

A Senate inquiry has found the Prime Minister was in the meeting when the small Great Barrier Reef Foundation was offered nearly half a billion dollars

An inquiry into the almost half a billion dollar grant to the small Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) has revealed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull approved the move.

The Managing Director of the GBRF, Anna Marsden, told the inquiry that Turnbull, Environment and Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg, and Secretary, John Pratt, and the Chair of the foundation were in the meeting when the grant was offered.

Marsden told the hearing: “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.”

When asked who had contacted the foundation and who the Chair spoke to during the meeting, Marsden admitted: “This was a meeting between the Prime Minister, Minister Frydenberg, the Secretary of the department and our Chair.”

This follows months of controversy over the grant, which was given without the formal tender process. Most recently, it was found that the government has dispensed $22.5 million of taxpayer money that can be used for administrative costs.

In a submission to the Senate, the Department of Environment and Energy said that the proposal represents “value for money” and that the foundation was aligned with the government’s policy and program goals. It added that requirements include its relation to performance, governance and financial management.

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

She added that the foundation intended to be transparent and accountable with the grant “with everything the foundation is doing under the partnership” and that the GBRF had been chosen because of its ability to attract grants from the private sector.

In a number of submissions, non-government organisations expressed concern over the amount of money and the lack of a competitive tender process behind it.

The Science Party said: “The process by which the amount of $444 million was granted to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation violates the Science Party’s core principles of Open and Efficient Government to end corruption and reduce waste.

“Transparency and accountability in governments are fundamental to democracy; if voters don’t get what they vote for (or if they can’t tell whether they got what they voted for), then democracy is broken.”

Marsden said the foundation was in the process of developing an investment policy and would address how it would manage conflicts of interest, adding that advice on projects the funding would pay for would be “grounded in science” with advice from Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Labor Senator, Kristina Keneally, asked the Environment and Energy Department about its role in the awarding of the funding: “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 $443 million of money.”

To this, officials answered that the decision happened in the budget process and the government decided that it would approach the foundation.

Moreover, the Queensland Government admitted in its submission that it was not consulted on the budget measure and only advised the day of the announcement.

“The Queensland Government is concerned at the unprecedented approach of providing such a level of funding to a single private organisation without going to the open market to ensure a transparent and accountable procurement process.”

Other environment NGOs said in the hearing they were concerned the money would not be awarded directly to agencies working on the reef and noted that little of the grant agreement mentioned climate change, the biggest threat to the reef.

In its submission, the GBRF said: “This is a critical point and we work with scientists and researchers to ensure the projects are doing everything possible to mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

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