Guide Dogs Victoria appears to have broken federal law and could have its charity status disqualified with its CEO appearing in election advertisements heavily advocating Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
The emerging scandal comes as it has been revealed the “support” Frydenberg provided the group in its “darkest days” of COVID-19 – including $3.5 million in JobKeeper payments it didn’t need – went to bolstering its already bulging “cash at bank” to $18.75 million, up from $16.65 million a year earlier.
Under the heading ‘Why I am voting for Josh Frydenberg?’, the CEO of Kew-based Guide Dogs Victoria, Karen Hayes – who in the ad goes simply by “Karen” – is quoted lavishing praise on the Treasurer.
The advertisement states:
‘He has always maintained his strong and unwavering commitment to his local Kooyong community for whom he has delivered in so many ways.’
‘In our darkest moments Josh was there providing support,’ Hayes says in the advertisement, which appears on Frydenberg’s website and on flyers handed out in the inner-Melbourne electorate.
The advertisement begins:
‘Hi, I’m Karen and I’ve known Josh for over a decade and I could not have asked for a better local Federal Member for Kooyong than Josh Frydenberg.’
The political advertisement appears to place Guide Dogs Victoria in direct breach of charity laws, which state a charity will be disqualified if it engages in ‘promoting or opposing a political party or candidate for political office’.
In the advertisement, Hayes is shown holding a guide dog in training, her title is stated twice – ‘Chief Executive Officer, Guide Dogs Victoria’ – and she is quoted extensively and effusively praising Frydenberg.
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) lists the promotion of a political party or candidate as a ‘disqualifying purpose’, of which it lists three.
Its website states:
‘Purposes that will disqualify an organisation from being a registered charity are... promoting or opposing a political party or candidate for political office.’
The scandal is particularly damaging for Frydenberg, who is already down in the polls, because it was the Federal Coalition that brought in highly controversial and retrospective laws around charities and political influence in December.
The Federal Treasurer has also come under pressure amid revelations he oversaw the secret deletion of key findings of the investigation into corruption at the top of corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).
Guide Dogs Victoria and Karen Hayes have not responded to a specific request for comment.
In a statement, Guide Dogs Victoria said its board had ‘no prior knowledge of the distribution of this material’, that it had requested the material ‘be immediately removed from circulation’ and that it had ‘launched an internal investigation’.
The statement goes on to say:
‘Guide Dogs Victoria has been made aware of the distribution of political material which includes comments from our CEO who appears to endorse a local candidate in the upcoming Federal Election.
The board had no prior knowledge of the distribution of this material and does not endorse it.’
In the advertisement, Guide Dogs Victoria CEO Karen Hayes is quoted as praising the support the group had received from Josh.
Hayes is quoted as saying:
‘The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on our clients, who experienced isolation like never before.
In our darkest moments, Josh was there providing support.
I have lost count of the number of times Josh called me personally during the last two years to check in and encourage me, my team and the thousands of people with low vision and blindness we support who were struggling.’
Frydenberg as Treasurer oversaw the JobKeeper program, which has been criticised as one of the biggest wastages of public money in Australian history, with at least $38 billion going to companies and other entities that didn’t need it.
Guide Dogs Victoria is one of those entities.
Aside from millions of dollars in other government support, grants and subsidies, Guide Dogs Victoria received over $3.5 million in JobKeeper benefits, despite delivering multi-million dollar surpluses.
In 2019-20, the group received $1.45 million from Frydenberg’s JobKeeper, underpinning a $3.42 million “surplus” for the year.
In 2020-21, the group received $2.07 million in JobKeeper and delivered a “surplus for the year” of $5.92 million.
Over those two years, Guide Dogs Victoria also received other unspecified government grants of $2.2 million, taking its receipts from taxpayers to $5.72 million.
The group’s 2020-21 financial reports show those millions of dollars in taxpayer grants are despite it being awash with cash.
At 30 June last year, it held $18.75 million just in cash at bank.
That figure has swollen from $12.32 million at 30 June 2019 to $16.65 million at 30 June 2020.
Over the past two financial years, the amount of cash or cash equivalents held by Guide Dogs Australia increased by $6.52 million. In that same time, the taxpayer grants it received were $5.72 million.
At 30 June last year, the total accumulated funds of Guide Dogs Victoria was $30.67 million, up from $24.74 million the year before.
Anthony Klan is an investigative journalist and editor of The Klaxon. You can follow him on Twitter @Anthony_Klan. This article was originally published on The Klaxon and has been republished with permission.
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