PM's Reef Plunge Rips Up Grant Rules

The Age - Editorial

The circumstances of the Coalition government’s unheralded transfer of almost half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to a charity that was not even applying for public funding are profoundly puzzling and alarming.
The monumental payment was folded into the May budget, and has rightly been referred by the Senate to a committee. That investigation has been extended for six weeks and is due to report in mid-August.
The ALP and the Greens are agitating for the money to be reversed. That seems premature. We should all await the committee's finding and any recommendations before making any decisions of such magnitude. However, there is a compelling case the money should be frozen until the community can be re-assured.
The government appears to have broken almost every tenet of good public policy in its transfer of $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Photo: Gary Cranitch

The Auditor-General is also considering a probe. That should be launched as soon as possible, for it appears the government has brazenly broken almost every tenet of public policy and probity in its transfer of $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a not-for-profit outfit with a full-time staff of six. The organisation was shocked to learn it had, as its chief put it, ‘‘won the lotto’’, and would seem to be of insufficient scale to administer such a huge sum.
One of the foundation's earliest supporters and a former board member, Michael Myer , who left the organisation more than a decade ago amid concern about the increasing influence of big business, including fossil-fuel energy firms, on the foundation’s activities – greeted news of the grant with disbelief to the point of derision. Independent public policy experts are baffled by the government’s evident failure to follow due process, let alone perform anything like due diligence.
Were the issues not so serious, this extraordinary situation would be the stuff of stupendous political satire. Protecting the Great Barrier Reef, which is facing existential pressure from man-made climate change, is of huge importance ecologically and economically. It is welcome that the government, albeit arguably too late, is seeking to ameliorate the damage and risks of which scientists have long been warning.
But that massive sum should be frozen until the public can be confident that even a basic business case and cost/benefit analysis exists and can be tested. There should have been an open tender. There should be specific targets against which any efforts financed by that money can be independently measured and verified. The situation is even more bizarre because such an astounding series of lapses occurred under the direct watch of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, suggesting recklessness and arrogance at the very top of our government.
They both maintain a thorough and transparent process was followed. This simply does not seem to stand scrutiny. Indeed it is difficult to imagine how the process could have been any more flimsy and unaccountable without being negligent. The government looks duplicitous or incompetent - or both. It’s now up to the Senate committee and the Auditor-General to clean up this tragi-comic abuse of public trust and public funds.


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