The Department of Energy and Environment took just three days in March 2018 to decide that the tiny Great Barrier Reef Foundation was the best option for a record $443 million grant, an audit report has revealed.
In April last year, the government announced that the Great Barrier Reef foundation had been handed the grant for several projects to protect and repair the iconic reef.
It came after one meeting between then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, then-environment minister Josh Frydenberg, and the chair of the foundation, John Schubert.
Labor has been pushing for the government to take back the money since it was announced, on the account of concern over how the decision was made to give the foundation the money.
The auditor-general (ANAO) was called in to review the funding agreement, and in a report released on Wednesday, the office revealed part of the process behind how the foundation was actually chosen to receive the grant.
Initially, the Department of Environment and Energy was seeking to develop a $239.8 million funding package for the reef over seven years from 2017-2018 out to 2023-2024. This package ideal was provided to the executive branch of government in November 2017.
By March 6, 2018, the government had decided that all the funding should take place in the one financial year, and it should be tied to a reef fund with a partner outside the government sector.
Just three days later, on March 9, 2018, the department had decided that the Great Barrier Reef Foundation should be the proposed partner, according to the audit report.
The auditor-general's office found "the records did not evidence that, in the time that was available... there had been wide consideration of possible partners".
The department claimed that there had been "informal discussions" between departmental executives on other options, but the ANAO found no evidence that other non-government partners like WWF, Greening Australia, or the Australian Marine Conservation Society were considered.
The department's proposal to ministers recommended the foundation on the basis of its proven track record of raising funds, and having a sound corporate board.
There was no evidence that the department's recommendation for the foundation was influenced by Frydenberg, Turnbull or their offices, the report found.
One particular point of controversy is over how much the foundation can spend on administration costs, and not the reef itself. The program guideline stated there would be $22.5 million allowed, plus interest the foundation earned on the total grant. But the ANAO found that, including administrative costs for partners on projects, the total cost could be up to $86.41 million.
The report made several recommendations to the department, including introducing performance targets for programs in the reef trust, and ensure that the foundation is achieving value for money through the partners it relies on to deliver on the different projects to save the reef.
After the announcement in April last year, the foundation went through grants approval process with the department. BuzzFeed News reported in November that as part of that process the foundation supplied reference letters about its fundraising abilities from several organisations, including mining giant BHP.
Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Josh Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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