This is part of an ongoing series. For the rest of the articles, go here.
A document obtained by Crikey under freedom of information (FOI) laws reveals the key role Liberal Party connections played in the awarding of a multimillion-dollar grant to the notorious Esther Foundation, a Pentecostal-linked rehab facility for girls and young women based in Perth. The facility is now the subject of a Western Australian parliamentary inquiry following our revelations of serious religion-based abuse.
As Crikey has reported, Scott Morrison announced the $4 million grant prior to the 2019 election in a visit to the foundation’s headquarters in the marginal Liberal seat of Hasluck, held by Ken Wyatt.
The FOI document reveals that the Esther Foundation sent its submission directly to Health Minister Greg Hunt rather than to the Health Department, which administers the grant. The submission highlighted that the request for funding “was suggested by our local federal member for Hasluck, Ken Wyatt AM MP”.
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The foundation’s submission was marked as being received in Hunt’s office on February 7. It was then referred to the Health Department. By March 7 the government had approved the $4 million grant in time for Morrison’s pre-election visit to the foundation, where he hailed the work of the facility. He also took personal credit for the taxpayer-funded grant, telling staff and residents: “I don’t invest in things that don’t work.”
A Crikey investigation earlier this year, however, revealed residents, some as young as 14, had been subject to physical, mental and sexual abuse at the facility over a 20-year period, including up to the time of Morrison’s visit and the approval of the grant.
Last month the Western Australian Parliament announced an inquiry into the Esther Foundation after receiving testimonies from more than 50 former residents. The scale and the consistency of the revelations led the state government to immediately suspend any further dealings with the foundation. A Facebook group set up for Esther survivors now has more than 250 members, while the foundation has gone into voluntary administration.
So, how did the Morrison government come to promise $4 million in the space of just four weeks, with no competitive tender, to an organisation that has scarred the lives of hundreds of girls, some as young as 14?
We still don’t know.
The single document released to Crikey under FOI, after a 60-day wait, sheds no light on that key question.
The Health Department told us in January that it had provided a “risk assessment” to Hunt’s office, but it refused to provide that to Crikey.
In our FOI request we asked for all correspondence between the Health Department and Hunt’s office. Ultimately the department only came up with the Esther Foundation’s submission to Hunt’s office, revealing the key role of Ken Wyatt. There was no sign of any departmental risk assessment given to Hunt.
There has also been confusion about which federal program funded the grant. The Health Department has disputed the public record, which shows that the $4 million was paid under the government’s Community Health and Hospitals Program (CHHP), a $1.25 billion fund set up by Morrison to enable direct grants from the Commonwealth. Health experts warned that the grants fund departed from the usual protocols of federal-state health funding and could be used as a slush fund for marginal seats.
The fast-tracking of Esther’s request — and the political connections behind the request — meant the religious-based foundation was able to avoid the usual processes and scrutiny applied to others.
WA Liberal connections
The Esther Foundation has for years been favoured by Western Australia’s liberal politicians. Former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett was a prominent supporter while in government. The foundation’s founder, Patricia Lavater, had cultivated relations with former federal Liberal MP Steve Irons. The foundation has also maintained close relations with Perth’s Pentecostal churches, which in turn have built close connections with local Liberal Party branches.
Wyatt also visited the foundation on a number of occasions and accompanied Morrison when he announced the $4 million grant.
According to Crikey‘s Esther sources, the foundation played up its work with First Nations young women and girls, putting them front and centre whenever Wyatt came to visit. Wyatt has been Minister for Indigenous peoples in the Morrison government and has a long record in Aboriginal education in Western Australia.
Crikey provided a series of questions to Wyatt about his support for the foundation and whether or not he was aware of any allegations of abuse. A response provided to Crikey failed to address any of the questions.
So, what happens to the money now?
The fast-track, no-tender grant made to the Esther Foundation casts a further pall over the Health Department under Minister Greg Hunt and how it manages its grant and procurement processes.
Four Corners earlier this month revealed that Aspen Medical had been awarded close to a billion dollars in federal government contracts without tender for COVID services. Aspen is a donor to the Liberal Party and it employs former Liberal health minister Michael Wooldridge as one of its key lobbyists.
Crikey asked the Health Department what arrangements had been made to recoup funds in excess of a million dollars that had already gone to Esther. We also asked for the advice it had provided Hunt’s office in the interests of transparency. The department said it couldn’t comment, citing government caretaker conventions.
Hunt, of course, is retiring in this week’s election. Wyatt is fighting for his political life in Hasluck. As far as we know, no organisation linked to him or his electorate has received a spare $4 million of taxpayers’ funds — yet.