Labor plans to snatch back any unspent funds from the $443.8 million grant the former Turnbull government gave the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) if it wins the next election.
The Opposition’s environment spokesperson says he’s written to GBRF chairman Dr John Schubert advising him that a Shorten government would terminate the grant agreement and seek to recover of uncommitted funding.
“Earlier this year, the Government recklessly gave a $444 million grant to the small, private Great Barrier Reef Foundation against Department of Finance advice, and with serious probity questions hanging over the decision,” Burke said.
“The Foundation is now on notice.”
A clause in the deal between the Foundation and Environment Department allows for termination if there is “a material change in government policy”.
Burke’s letter to Schubert says in part: “The effect of this would be that in the event of a change of government, all unspent money would be expected to be returned to the commonwealth in accordance with the grant agreement, this includes sub-contracts made by the foundation.
His letter also warns the foundation against moving quickly to allocate funds ahead of the upcoming election.
“It would be grossly inappropriate for a large portion of a six-year grant to be committed in the period before the election that will most certainly be less than 12 months,” Burke wrote.
Labor says the recovered funds will be invested in the reef via government agencies such as the CSIRO and Australian Institute of Marine Science.
The Foundation issued a statement in response to the ALP announcement saying its “singular focus has always been delivering projects that protect and restore the Reef for future generations”.
“The signed grant agreement with the Commonwealth includes obligations, processes and a requirement for annual work plans. We will deliver these obligations effectively and efficiently,” it said.
The private foundation had just six staff and a range of corporate backers when the government handed it the cash in a lump sum earlier this year, awarding the grant money without a competitive tender. The Foundation did not seek the money, which its CEO described as “like winning Lotto”.
The decision became a major policy headache for the former Turnbull government with former Environment Minister, now Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg forced to repeatedly defend awarding taxpayer funds to the privately-run foundation, but but refusing to answer questions about the process leading up to awarding the grant.
Frydenberg cited the Foundation being “pre-eminent in raising funds from the private sector” as one reason it received the $444 million.
Since it was formed 18 years ago, the GBRF had raised around $90 million, including $58 million from private donors. However, administration costs swallowed up between 62% and 23% of the organisation’s annual budget over the past decade. It has now committed to a 20% cap on administration costs.
Today’s announcement by Burke did little to impress environmental groups with Greenpeace saying that it was “an empty gesture” unless Labor focused more on the shift from coal to renewables.
“Big coal companies are killing the Great Barrier Reef, and the only way to slow its death is to phase out coal and endorse Australia’s love of solar by accelerating the transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030,” Greenpeace campaigner Jonathan Moylan said.
“No amount of money, or starfish culling, or sediment monitoring, can save the Reef unless we tackle climate change. Bleaching events driven by climate change are the main thing that are killing the Reef.”
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