Shadow environment minister says researchers would be forced to apply to private foundation for taxpayer funds

The shadow environment minister has condemned the “completely unprecedented” grant of $444m to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, claiming the not-for-profit group “doesn’t yet know what it’s going to do with the money”.
Appearing on ABC’s Insiders on Sunday, Tony Burke questioned the appropriateness of conditions on the federal funding, which he said would allow the foundation to lobby the mining industry for sponsorship but force researchers to apply to the private foundation to get taxpayer funds.
Labor has stepped up pressure on Malcolm Turnbull over the grant, insisting he appear before a Senate inquiry to explain what was said at an April meeting with the environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation chairman, John Schubert.
On Thursday Frydenberg dismissed concerns about the grant, arguing there was “a lot of transparency” because the agreement with the foundation was public and the audit office will be able to track all its spending.
But Burke said the reef grant was “transparently bad policy” and the agreement had holes in it that “would rival the hole in the ozone layer”.
He argued that although the agreement banned taxpayer money buying a prize for fundraising purposes, it would be “completely lawful” for the foundation to “wine and dine mining and banking executives ... in the name of trying to win them over for more fundraising”.
The shadow environment minister said that “confidentiality clauses over the fundraising activities can go on in perpetuity” meaning “we might never know” what was done to raise money.
“This is effectively the privatisation of a large chunk of the public service. But doing so in a way that just adds to administrative costs.”
Burke said a scientist from the public CSIRO agency would “have to go to a private foundation run by banking and mining executives to ask permission to get taxpayer money” for reef research.
Asked about a grant given to the foundation while he was environment minister, Burke replied that it was for “a specific research project” and the foundation had approached the government, not the other way around.
“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.”
Burke was also quizzed about what he knew about embattled Labor MP Emma Husar, who is under a New South Wales Labor investigation for alleged bullying. Burke revealed he “knew some time ago about the high turnover in her office” but said he did not learn of the investigation until it was first reported.
“I know all the people involved are good people who have dedicated their professional lives to the Labor party,” he said. “That goes for Emma Husar, and it goes for her staff.”
Burke refused to say what would happen if the findings of the Whelan investigation are adverse to Husar, and noted the allegations were “categorically denied” by her.
In Senate estimates hearings in May, environment and energy department officials revealed there had been no tender process before the grant was awarded and the foundation itself was only made aware of the grant a few weeks before it was announced.
The foundation is backed by business and its chairman’s panel includes executives from Qantas, Downer Group, AGL and Peabody Energy.
When the grant was unveiled weeks before the 2018 budget, Turnbull said the foundation was a “highly respected philanthropic organisation” that had been chosen because of its strong fundraising track record that will allow it to “seek corporate contributions to further enhance this work”.
The funding package includes $201m for improving water quality with changed farming practices such as reduced fertiliser use, $100m for reef restoration science, $58m to combat the crown-of-thorns starfish, $45m for community engagement, including drawing on Indigenous traditional knowledge for sea country management, and $40m for monitoring reef health.
According to Labor senator Kristina Keneally – who has spearheaded Labor’s attacks against the grant – the agreement allows $22m to be spent on administration plus a further $22m from interest earned.
On Saturday Keneally said the grant amounted to the Turnbull government giving away “$444m in public money to a private foundation so it could spend that money on consultants to come up with a plan to raise an unspecified amount of money”.
Frydenberg has accused Labor of attacking the grant “as a distraction from the government’s achievement in investing in the reef”.