Senate debates

Monday, 13 August 2018

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Great Barrier Reef Foundation

3:34 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by the Leader of the Australian Greens (Senator Di Natale) today relating to a grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

Our job in this place is to ask questions. Our job is to scrutinise. We are the house of review in this country. Senator Di Natale asked some very important questions today in question time about a highly irregular grant of $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. The Greens initiated a Senate inquiry into this issue—and I am chairing that inquiry—and let me say here today that there's still, after a whole day of evidence and after two weeks of this issue being raised repeatedly in the national media, a large number of important questions that have not been answered. And the ones that have been answered have not been answered with any reasonable explanation.

For a start, whose idea was it to give this money to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation—a foundation that has no track record and no experience in administering large, complex projects and significant sums of money? I asked that question to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation nearly three weeks ago in Brisbane, and that answer has still not been forthcoming. According to insiders, Minister Frydenberg said that he would not go on record saying that he was the one who came up with this light-bulb moment to give all this money to a foundation that is essentially becoming a clearing house so the funds can go back to the same organisations that used to administer funding for the reef. By the way, if you look at the historic administrative costs of the foundation, between 30 and 40 per cent of that money will go to administrative costs rather than to the reef and to important projects.

We heard on the weekend that the Department of the Environment and Energy, apparently, had contacted the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to do due diligence. Once again, as pointed out in Senator Keneally's question today, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation have come out and said that that was not the case. How is it that the managing director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation didn't know or wasn't contacted about any so-called due diligence by the Department of the Environment and Energy? By the way, one of the facts that they quoted was the amount of money that this foundation had raised from private donations. They didn't get it wrong just once or twice but three times in one week—so much for due diligence being done by the Department of the Environment and Energy.

There are so many unanswered questions. Why was this money in one lump sum? It was nearly six years' worth of funding rushed through in time for the 2017-18 budget. What was the key purpose behind giving that money in a rush to a foundation that didn't ask for it, had done no work, had put in no application and were completely surprised—I would say shocked—when they found out that they'd received this money? This has never happened before in this country. A small, private charity with no track record or experience in administering large, complex projects has never been given that kind of money without asking for it.

Overarching these probity questions that we are still asking and will continue to ask in our Senate inquiry is the bigger issue of why $444 million is being given to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation for bandaid projects when the Great Barrier Reef Foundation say on their own website that they want to tackle the big issues around the reef. They want to save the reef and they want to provide hope through communications to stakeholders around the Barrier Reef. The only thing that is going to give hope to the Great Barrier Reef is for us to reduce emissions, build no new coalmines and stop wholesale land clearing around the Great Barrier Reef. They are the only things that will give hope. I directly asked the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, 'Will you be spending some of this money on projects relating to those three critical things that can save the reef?' 'No, no and no,' was the answer. They said, 'That's not in our remit.' So you have to understand the frustration and the angst amongst the scientific community and campaigners who do want to save the Barrier Reef. It comes back to this question: why? Why that foundation? Whose idea was this? Why was no public servant present in the most important of meetings when this grant was raised? There are so many questions. We will get to the bottom of it. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.