On April 9, Great Barrier Reef Foundation chair John Schubert was called into a meeting with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and environment minister Josh Frydenberg.
At that meeting, where no public servants were present, the prime minister offered Schubert almost half a billion dollars in funding for five projects around the Great Barrier Reef.
It was not something Schubert had been expecting to hear.
"We were informed that there was an allocation being announced in the upcoming federal budget and that they would like to invite the foundation to form a partnership with Reef Trust to distribute these funds across five component areas of the Reef 2050 plan," Anna Marsden, the managing director of the GBRF told a Senate inquiry on Monday.
"We didn't know ahead of the meeting what it was for, but, once we were in the meeting, that was the sole purpose of the meeting, yes."
That record level of funding was announced, to the surprise for many, in the lead up to the federal budget in May.
It remains unclear what precipitated the meeting, with department officials only stating during the hearing that it was "part of the budget process" and declining to say more, citing Cabinet confidentiality.
The confusion lies in that the Great Barrier Reef Foundation is a tiny organisation started by a group of businessmen chatting in an airport lounge. The foundation's chair's panel has members including executives from mining and oil companies such as Boral, BHP, Rio Tinto, Orica, and Peabody Energy.
Schubert spent most of his working life at Exxon.
The organisation has a relatively small turnover every year. In the last financial year, the group doled out $5.1 million in grants for work on the Great Barrier Reef, including to the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
It now has $44 million ($22 million direct, plus $22 million in interest) from the government alone to build capacity to fund the grants it will deliver for projects to help the Great Barrier Reef.
Marsden said Schubert was surprised to be offered that money, but the foundation has subsequently defended the funding, with Mardsen stating on Monday that the foundation has demonstrated an ability to "leverage money and drive collaboration at a global level" and to fix problems.
GBRF raises money in several ways, including via its website, where it links to corporate partners that donate to the foundation, including Oroton sales for clutches.
In March it also announced a project supported by jewelry company Tiffany & Co for a "sun shield" over the Great Barrier Reef to protect against bleaching.
Labor senator Kristina Keneally told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the foundation needed to show it had a better plan for raising money than what was currently on offer.
"The Turnbull government says it gave $444 million of public money to the private Great Barrier Reef Foundation because the Foundation can leverage additional money from the private sector. I hope the Foundation’s plan is more detailed than marketing high priced handbags, expensive salad bowls and Tiffany umbrellas. The Foundation should give an assurance that not one dollar of public money will go into promoting this marketing scheme.”
A spokesperson for the Great Barrier Reef Foundation defended the shop as just a small portion of the company's funding.
"It is a small but important part of our fundraising strategy that empowers consumers and recognises donor organisations who want to protect the reef," he said.
The spokesperson added that Tiffany & Co. is a recognised supporter of coral reef preservation around the world and the foundation did not receive proceeds from the sale of any Tiffany products.
Other environment groups such as the Climate Council of Australia have argued the money should be spent on tackling climate change to stop the impact it is having on the reef, rather than "band-aid" local projects.
The Australian Conservation Foundation has argued that such a large outsourcing of investment means that the funding won't be as transparent and accountable as it would be if it was done by government and subject to freedom of information law and federal audits. The links to business groups would also raise conflicts of interest, foundation economist Matt Rose told the Senate committee.
Although Labor and the Greens are raising questions about how the Great Barrier Reef Foundation managed to get all this money, the Environment Department has defended the government's decision, stating that there was a grant assessment process undertaken for the funding, including assessing whether it was value for money.
"The agreement is robust and comprehensive. It specifies the delivery, which must be consistent with the goals of the Reef 2050 Plan ... and that close consultation is required with the department but also our 2050 partners," department deputy secretary Dean Knudson told the Senate committee.
"The agreement includes a detailed planning and design process in the early stages, to ensure the foundation is able to build its resources, manage risk and attract co-investment, and also to engage with stakeholders and to monitor and evaluate outcomes."
Matt Rose works for the Australian Conservation Foundation. An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the organisation.
Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Josh Taylor at email@example.com.
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