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BFCSA: Thanks to ScoMo How reef funds went from $5 million to nearly $500 million in five days

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How reef funds went from $5 million to nearly $500 million in five days

Sydney Morning Herald 21 September 2018 12:00am

Carrie Fellner & Peter Hannam


EXCLUSIVE  Just days before the Great Barrier Reef Foundation received a controversial $443.4 million funding package, the organisation was in talks with then environment minister Josh Frydenberg's office for a grant of just $5 million.

Documents obtained by Fairfax Media under freedom of information also show in the weeks after Mr Frydenberg met the foundation chairman John Schubert with the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on April 9 to tell him the grant had leapt almost 100-fold, officials were still scrambling to learn what the non-profit group did.

The internal emails and diary notes provide colourful details of the efforts to justify the funding, with an Environment department staffer asking the group on April 19 for "any summaries of projects that we are investing with you", and "grateful if you can send up through a package of background material".

Just a day after Mr Schubert's meeting in Sydney, the foundation's managing director Anna Marsden sought permission to begin sounding out corporate donors before the funding was announced on April 29.

A spokeswoman for the foundation said a "dialogue with the potential donor who was contacted is ongoing".

Crucial days

Environment department officials will be questioned on their preparations when a Senate inquiry into the foundation grant resumes in Canberra. Labor senator Kristina Keneally, who has helped lead the probe, said the documents zero-in on the crucial few days and their aftermath.

"What happened in the week before April 9 has yet to be explained by the government and is exactly what the Senate inquiry is targeting," Senator Keneally said, adding the apparent permission for Ms Marsden to scout for additional money from donors was a new concern.

“It is concerning that a private foundation may have been telling big corporations, including those involved in fossil fuels and mining, about a budget announcement before it was made public and using that information to do secret deals to get money for its own coffers," she said.

A spokesperson for the department said only the $5 million project had been under discussion with the Foundation before the April 9 meeting.

The project, though, was not part of the $443.4 million grant, the spokesperson said, adding terms of that agreement are "currently being negotiated between the Business Grants Hub and the Foundation".

Mr Frydenberg did not respond to requests for comment.

The foundation told the inquiry on Tuesday it had secured about $25 million in donations last financial year, or about triple their typical annual revenue.

A spokeswoman told Fairfax Mediaon Thursday those funds "were secured prior to April", implying donations have not been boosted by the grant.

'Best talent pool'

Evidence of the rushed effort to prepare for the April 29 unveiling of the massive grant includes a search for a celebrity, as requested by the minister, and schoolchildren from "the best talent pool" to front the launch.

Representatives of the foundation, which then had just six full-time staff, have stressed they had no prior knowledge of the grant before the meeting and did not ask for it.

The group had been in talks with the Environment department in the weeks beforehand over a potential ad-hoc grant of $5 million. The Reef Trust would provide the money, to be matched by the foundation on a dollar-for-dollar basis, to rehabilitate and conserve reef islands.

A ministerial briefing note dated March 21 recommended the grant be approved after the department's due diligence found it represented "value for money". A section justifying why the money was to be awarded without a tender process was redacted.

One staffer's diary entry noted the foundation funded "projects that help coral reefs" and "ideas that make sense". Another from April 4 indicated that the reef islands funding was set to be announced by the prime minister and the foundation "maybe early next week".

"In terms of meetings prior to April 9, we held meetings earlier in the year with the department relating to the Reef Islands project," a separate foundation spokesperson said.

"In prior years, we have engaged with the department on other projects, including one funded under the former government in 2013," he said.

Celebrity search

The day after the $443 million grant was offered, a staffer wrote that "Anna wants to approach major donors on no prej[udicial] basis", and needed approval from the Minister and Prime Minister's office.

The staffer noted that Mr Frydenberg "wants a celebrity" for the funding announcement.

An ideas paper for the funding announcement, prepared by Ms Marsden after a conversation with the department's media unit, included the key message that it would be "a significant day for the GBR and reefs all around the world".

One of the objectives was to: "Announce largest Reef investment package in the world's history (fact check)," it said. Among the speakers would be two students from a Reef Guardian school.

"Townsville has best talent pool", it noted.

In the end, "no celebrity attended", the department spokesperson said.

'Over the line'

On April 18, Ms Marsden sent an email to a department's assistant secretary, Deb Callister, as they worked on the draft collaboration principles for the grant.

"Let me know when you are happy for me to send to John to look at," Ms Marsden wrote. "I don't believe he would have any comments so let me know your thoughts as to whether we try and get him over the line before this goes to the Minister."

The next day, Ms Callister asked Ms Marsden if she had "any summaries of projects that we are investing in with you".

"That would be really good too I think," she said, also asking for background material on the foundation and some of its major projects.

The foundation spokeswoman said the reference to Dr Schubert was "in relation to his view on wording of the draft Collaboration Principles only (not in relation to the grant itself)," she said. "Dr Schubert has always been clear about the partnership being a unique opportunity to benefit the Reef."


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