Malcolm Turnbull

For the man who once demanded Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan resign because of fabricated claims about grants given to mates, Malcolm Turnbull’s role in the emerging scandal of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation is ironic indeed. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a small charity run by senior business figures and Business Council members from the fossil-fuel and banking sectors, was handed over $440 million by the government after a meeting between chairman John Schubert — former Commonwealth Bank chair — and Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg.

The money was not sought by the foundation, there was no tender, grant approval or allocation process in relation to the grant and the meeting was held in secret, without any public servants participating. No due diligence was conducted on the foundation. The performance indicators for the grant — or more accurately, handout — haven’t yet been determined.

All of these facts had to be painfully extracted from bureaucrats of the Department of Energy and Environment via Senate estimates and, now, the foundation itself via a Senate committee inquiry, despite the refusal of Business Council figures like Schubert and Grant King, who is on the board, to attend hearings. 

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Strangely enough, there’s a near-absence of the kind of media hysteria that greeted the invented claims of Turnbull back in 2009. Perhaps that’s because we’ve now become used to the idea that this government punishes its critics and looks after its friends. Tens of millions of dollars for News Corp, a gong for the head of Sky News, funding cuts for the ABC, vexatious complaints for ABC journalists. High-paying government and judicial jobs for former MPs, prosecution for those who embarrass the government, etc.

With four Business Council members on its board, including a current and former chair, the foundation has ready-made links with the Liberal Party, given the Liberals, the Business Council and News Corp now form a virtually seamless network of personnel and ideology (and News Corp is an official “Queensland Reef Champion” for the foundation, a hilarious designation given the company’s relentless promotion of climate denialism).

But Turnbull has some form when it comes to unusual grants: on the very eve of the calling of the 2007 election, as environment minister, he handed $10 million to the Australian Rain Corporation, founded by Rupert Murdoch’s nephew Matt Handbury, who was also a donor to and friend of Turnbull. That sum was five times the amount recommended by his department’s bureaucrats to test “rainmaking” technology dismissed by a variety of reputable sources. It was left to the incoming Labor government to try to claw back as much of the wasted money as possible.

But $10 million now looks a pittance compared to the largesse gifted to the foundation — the best part of half a billion dollars handed to a small charity run by mates of the government, after a secret meeting with no process or paperwork. Hopefully, we’ll be spared “Reefgate” as a moniker, but from the man who brought us “Utegate”, perhaps Turnbull might apply the same demands to come clean that he once hurled at Rudd and Swan.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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