Kristina Keneally: Malcolm Turnbull Needs To Take Back His $444 Million Reef Grant

Kristina Keneally Great Barrier Reef Foundation

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Senator Kristina Keneally has called upon Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to take back his $444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, claiming that “maladministration” of the grant was bad enough to warrant a federal anti-corruption commission.

In an interview with Junkee, the former NSW Premier said that Turnbull, along with energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg, were wrong to hand the money over to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

“Labor is calling for PM Malcolm Turnbull to take this money back from the foundation,” Keneally said. “Use the public sector agencies that are set up and resourced, and use their expertise to look after the reef.”

The managing director of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation has confirmed that she would return the grant to the government if asked.

Keneally questioned whether the small foundation — which employs 15 full-time staff and has plans to expand to 34 personnel by the end of the year — had the capacity to administer the money.

“This is beyond the historic capacity of this foundation by such an extraordinary measure,” Keneally argued. “Their funding has gone from about $8 million a year, to $444 million given in all one hit. The foundation has never carried out work in this magnitude.”

John Schubert, the chairman of the foundation, has previously defended his not-for-profit organisation by saying that it produces “smart, wise projects which are already making a difference to the reef.” One of the foundation’s projects used an underwater robot that could efficiently kill the pesky crown-of-thorns starfish. Another project attempts to shift a huge turtle nesting area to safer areas.

While Keneally stopped short of suggesting that favouritism was at play in the grant process,  she speculated that upcoming public hearings may reveal more damaging details about the scandal.

“In this case, the foundation has got the money all upfront. And that is incredibly unusual,” Keneally said. “There are a lot of very odd questions raised by the process by which this grant was given. You have to wonder — how did we arrive at this point? Is this the right use of public money for protecting this incredibly important public asset?”

“The government cannot point to any process whatsoever, any judgment that they made, any criteria they have applied, and when a government can’t demonstrate those things, there are legitimate questions to be asked.”

Last week Frydenberg defended the grant by saying that the government conducted extensive due diligence, and that it was not unusual for governments to provide large grants without a tender process.

Keneally also said that scrutinising the reef grant has strengthened the case for a national integrity commission.

“This is an example of why a national integrity commission is needed,” Keneally said.

“The Senate can call on ministers from the [House of Representatives], but it can’t compel them to appear. A national integrity commission wouldn’t face those same limitations. But it’s mere existence could have been enough to compel the Turnbull government to ensure… that there was a demonstrable process and probity and the highest level.”

In January, Labor announced that it would legislate for a federal integrity commission given the chance.

Keneally refused to say what should happen to Turnbull and Frydenberg if incriminating details emerge over the coming weeks. Regardless of where the scandal ends up, Keneally suggested that the process had already been unjust.

“We make ordinary people jump through extraordinary hoops to get the basic support they need to live well in the community. We should apply those same rigorous standards to a private foundation getting half a billion dollars of our money.”

“It’s a simple request.”