EXCLUSIVE: Tony Burke talks to IA: Labor to keep up pressure over Reefgate

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons)

If the Prime Minister and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation thought the heat would go out of #Reefgate over the weekend, they are in for a shock, writes political editor Dr Martin Hirst.

LABOR'S environment minister-in-waiting, Tony Burke, says the Prime Minister should simply ask the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to give the Government its money back. According to Tony Burke the public mood has gone from “curiosity, to alarm and increasingly angry” as more details emerge of the secretive process of handing nearly half-a-billion dollars to an untested and unready organisation.

GBRF managing director Anne Marsden infamously said the Foundation thought it had won the lottery when it found out about the grant.

In a wide-ranging interview with IA on Friday afternoon, Tony Burke promised that Labor would keep up the pressure on Malcolm Turnbull and Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg when Parliament resumes next week.

As Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives, Burke would not reveal the questions Labor might be asking of the embattled PM and his rattled Minister for Coal, but he did tell IA simply that he hopes the pair will “just keep talking”.

Labor’s environment spokesperson laughed when IA asked him about Josh Frydenberg’s interview with Sydney shock-jock Ben Fordham on Thursday and Burke says there’s no doubt Frydenberg felt cornered because he’s covering for Malcolm Turnbull.

Tony Burke is in no doubt that the botched decision to give the GBRF over $400 million that they didn’t ask for and don’t know how to spend rests squarely with Turnbull. “All roads lead to Malcolm Turnbull” on this issue, he said.

It was the PM’s decision, Burke says, to hold a secret meeting with the Foundation on 9 April without any officials involved; it was Turnbull’s decision to tough it out this week and Turnbull’s decision to leave Frydenberg with nowhere to hide when confronted with Ben Fordham’s persistent questioning.

On Monday this week, Labor launched an online petition around the simple proposition that the GBRF should return the funds or that Turnbull should ask for the taxpayers’ millions to be returned.

Tony Burke says it is the first petition he’s launched that attracted over 10,000 signatures in the first 24 hours.

You can add your voice to the demand for the “lottery win” to be returned to Treasury here.

There is a growing public chorus supporting the idea that it is untenable for the GBRF to keep the funds, given the questions and uncertainty around the process itself and the public disappointment that experienced organisations like the CSIRO’s Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will now have to go cap in hand to a private charity for funding.

Tony Burke says it is the Government’s job to manage such funds and grant arrangements, but this process has effectively been privatised by Turnbull’s so-called "captain’s call".

This sentiment is echoed by the Australian Conservation Foundation. ACF economics program manager Matt Rose told IA this week that the funding “should have gone to the Department to look after, rather than a private foundation”:

"The Foundation has received small amounts of money from the Federal Government previously for specific projects. If the foundation has specific projects that the fall within the usual grant processes they should be able to apply for and if they meet the criteria access some government funding in line with their size and capacity."

According to Matt Rose, the ACF also thinks that the easiest and quickest way for the PM to solve this crisis of his own making is to ask the GBRF to return the funds:

“If the Prime Minister and Minister Frydenberg could offer the money in a meeting without the recipient knowing they were about to receive it, I am sure they could pick up the phone and ask the foundation for the money to be returned.”

However, as IA reported on Thursday, this is unlikely to happen. We understand that nobody from the GBRF has spoken to the PM, Minister Frydenberg, about the ongoing public outcry.

At least that is the public position of the Foundation. IA has asked them directly about this several times and has not received any response beyond a curt “No”. The Foundation gave IA a statement suggesting that for the GBRF, it is business as (un)usual and full steam ahead:

"We’ve had many discussions with the Department about the implementation of the grant agreement. We are focused on delivering on the grant agreement and protecting and restoring the Reef. That’s our core mission – raising funds, and working to deliver the science, the research and the projects that can best help the Reef."

On Friday afternoon, we also put questions to the Prime Minister and Minister Frydenberg in an attempt to confirm whether or not there had been any contact at that level with the Foundation. We will update this story if we get a response.

IA also put to the GBRF the proposition that its brand reputation is suffering and will suffer more, the longer this scandal continues to bubble along. Again, the Foundation told IA that it can weather the growing storm:

"We have long-standing science, research, corporate and philanthropic partners who understand our mission and the work we do. They will see even greater value from our endeavours as we set about fulfilling the objectives of the grant agreement to build on the Reef 2050 Plan, and identifying, funding and delivering projects that can build a brighter future for the Reef."

IA put the question of reputational damage to the GBRF to a leading Melbourne PR and reputation management expert who believes the Foundation can recover, if it is totally transparent.

The managing director of the SOCOM agency, David Hawkins, told IA that this is the key action that the Foundation can take to recover its reputation:

"Without transparency and accurate information, we will all make up our own minds based on rhetoric and spin. This is never the best way to be judged.On the GBRF website, it says that 80 per cent of all funds raised goes to the Reef. That’s admirable, however, in this case, we could infer that more than $80 million is going to the Foundation and not to the reef. That’s a hard pill to swallow and may not be the case.The GBRF need to clarify this. Also, they need to give a breakdown of what the money is being spent on. Currently, there appears to be little commentary on this. If you do a Google search, this should be ranked in the top spot or at least in the top 5."

The Foundation is also hoping that it can ride out continuing questions about conflicts of interest given its board is top heavy with people who have close links to the fossil fuel industry.

The ACF’s Matt Rose says the conflicts are too numerous and too direct to be ignored:

The Foundation has a chairman’s panel which includes members who are CEOs of mining and energy companies. Their business activities contribute to climate change, the greatest threat facing the reef. These include Peabody Energy, a multinational coal company who have funded climate denial groups across the world. There is a direct conflict between the work of the foundation and the business interests of many of these companies.”

Both Tony Burke and the ACF are adamant they are not opposed to investment in the future of the Great Barrier Reef. However, both are also equally adamant the process of giving the money to the GBRF is fraught and cannot be allowed to stand.

Matt Rose makes this point very clearly in his interview with IA:

“The ACF welcomes increased spending on the environment, as Environment Department funding has decreased by over 30 percent since the Coalition came to government. We need strong independent advocates for the reef’s health not those who may be compromised by their business relationships.”

It’s not just the conflicts of interest. As Tony Burke points out, the Foundation does not have a great track record of attracting corporate funds and that keeping the administration of the grant funds under government control is more efficient.

Giving money to the GBRF, Burke says is the

“... least efficient way to spend taxpayers’ money on the Reef.

Tony Burke has vowed to pursue the Prime Minister in Question Time next week and the Senate Committee reviewing the issue and the Great Barrier Reef Partnership 2050 will be holding further meetings at which it is expected GBRF directors will attend.

If not, Tony Burke says, the committee has the power to subpoena them.


LISTEN to Opposition environment spokesperson Tony Burke speak to Independent Australia political editor Dr Martin Hirst about the controversial Great Barrier Reef Foundation receiving almost half-a-billion dollars of taxpayer money from the Turnbull Government with no strings attached:


You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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