Josh Fry­den­berg says $444m reef grant 'not un­usual' as La­bor de­mands an­swers

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Gareth Hutchens

The en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, Josh Fry­den­berg, has again re­fused to an­swer sim­ple ques­tions about the process that led to the Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion re­ceiv­ing a $444m gov­ern­ment grant with­out a com­pet­i­tive ten­der.

The La­bor party last week called for the gov­ern­ment’s $443.8m grant to be handed back, say­ing it ought to be re­turned to tax­pay­ers and man­aged with pro­bity.

La­bor and the Greens con­tinue to pres­sure the gov­ern­ment to ex­plain whose idea it was to give the money to the foun­da­tion in April with ap­par­ently lit­tle over­sight.

Fry­den­berg told the ABC’s In­sid­ers pro­gram on Sun­day that the idea to give money to the foun­da­tion was con­tained in a bud­get sub­mis­sion he brought to cab­i­net last year, which was pre­pared by his de­part­ment, but he re­fused to clar­ify if it was his idea or not.

The host of In­sid­ers, Bar­rie Cas­sidy, asked: “Who raised the pos­si­bil­ity of putting the money into the foun­da­tion?”

Fry­den­berg: “It went through the bud­get [process].”

Cas­sidy: “Who raised the idea?” Fry­den­berg: “It was my sub­mis­sion [to cab­i­net].”

Cas­sidy: “It was your idea?” Fry­den­berg: “It was my sub­mis­sion as min­is­ter through the cab­i­net process.”

Fry­den­berg then said his de­part­ment had told him “a large fund­ing com­mit­ment” to the foun­da­tion would com­ply with the gov­ern­ment’s grant guide­lines, but he would not clar­ify if that ad­vice had been given be­fore or af­ter the grant had been made to the foun­da­tion.

Cas­sidy asked him what steps he or Mal­colm Turn­bull had taken to sat­isfy them­selves that the foun­da­tion was the best or­gan­i­sa­tion to ac­cept the grant.

Fry­den­berg did not an­swer the ques­tion di­rectly, say­ing the de­part­ment had made it “very clear” that the foun­da­tion was the best or­gan­i­sa­tion that could use the money to lever­age off the pri­vate sec­tor.

Cas­sidy per­sisted: “What steps were taken to sat­isfy your­self that’s the case?”

Fry­den­berg replied: “My de­part­ment made it very clear that this is the best ... ”

Cas­sidy: “What did you do, what did the prime min­is­ter do, to sat­isfy your­self there was no­body else out there that was bet­ter qual­i­fied than the foun­da­tion to take the money?”

Fry­den­berg: “This is the best foun­da­tion and the best or­gan­i­sa­tion ... ”

Cas­sidy: “What did you do to sat­isfy your­self of that?”

Fry­den­berg: “There was ex­ten­sive due dili­gence.”

Cas­sidy: “There was no ten­ders called?”

Fryn­den­berg: “If you want to talk about ten­ders. The La­bor party has pro­vided bil­lions of dol­lars with­out ten­der. It is not un­usual to pro­vide large grants.

“The Aus­tralian na­tional au­dit of­fice did a re­port in 2012 which found that, when the La­bor party was in of­fice be­tween 2007 and 2010, they looked at nearly 400 of their grants and more than a third of those did not go to a com­pet­i­tive ten­der process.

“Let me make it very clear. The foun­da­tion was cho­sen be­cause it is the best or­gan­i­sa­tion to lever­age off the pri­vate sec­tor.

“My de­part­ment has made it very clear that the guide­lines were com­plied with, that it rep­re­sented value for money and it was the best way to deal with the ur­gent need of putting money into the foun­da­tion.”

On Sun­day, the La­bor sen­a­tor Kristina Ke­neally said the Se­nate in­quiry into the grant to the foun­da­tion still had many ques­tions to ask.

“The de­part­ment may not have known the prime min­is­ter was go­ing to make this of­fer [of $444m] and they have been now asked, since that of­fer was made, to go and ne­go­ti­ate,” she told Sky News.

“I do not doubt that the de­part­ment, and there’s plenty of ev­i­dence to sug­gest that since 9 April, when the prime min­is­ter made that of­fer, there have been meet­ings and dis­cus­sion be­tween the foun­da­tion and the de­part­ment, but what we can’t seem to as­cer­tain is whether there was any dis­cus­sion prior to 9 April.”

In May, when news broke that the Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion had been awarded a $444m grant from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, Anna Mars­den, the group’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, said it was like win­ning “lotto”.

“We didn’t have much time be­fore the an­nounce­ment to be pre­pared for it,” she was re­ported say­ing in Fair­fax Me­dia. “It’s like we’ve just won lotto – we’re get­ting calls from a lot of friends.”

The $443.8m grant – made un­der the gov­ern­ment’s 2050 Reef Part­ner­ship Pro­gram – was awarded in the May bud­get but the en­tire thing was booked in full in the fi­nan­cial year end­ing in June.

It meant the money was handed to the foun­da­tion in a lump sum, which is un­usual for grant’s of that size.

Fry­den­berg said on Sun­day: “The money is to be spent over six years. By giv­ing it all at once, they have max­i­mum lever­age to en­ter into con­tracts and start pro­vid­ing the money as need as they meet their ob­jec­tive.”

Pho­to­graph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The en­ergy min­is­ter, Josh Fry­den­berg, says the Great Bar­rier Reef Foun­da­tion was cho­sen to re­ceive the $444m grant be­cause ‘it is the bestor­gan­i­sa­tion to lever­age off the pri­vate sec­tor’.

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