SUBJECTS: Great Barrier Reef Foundation funding; Ongoing ecological disaster Murray Darling Basin - fish kills from algal blooms.

CATHY VAN EXTEL: Meanwhile Labor has vowed to take the money off the Foundation if it wins Government. Tony Burke is the Shadow Environment Minister. Welcome back to Breakfast.


VAN EXTEL: Now the report finds no wrong doing either by the Prime Minister or the Ministers involved. This clears the Government doesn’t it?

BURKE: It finds they had a process and it explains why their process was a shocker.

VAN EXTEL: They have criticised the Department’s process but they have said that the Ministers followed Departmental advice.

BURKE: But let’s have a look at how the Ministers then characterised it when they went public. So Josh Frydenberg, now the Treasurer, at the time he was the Environment Minister in charge of this grant. He said the reason for the money going to the Reef Foundation was because it had this extraordinary capacity to raise private funds and yet the Audit Office have made clear in yesterday’s report that the Departmental advice didn’t go to their capacity to raise funds - it hadn’t gone back through the history of the organisation’s capacity. So it’s a bit much for the Government to now claim they relied on Departmental advice when they completely misrepresented that advice publicly and the reasons they gave for this money to all go, six years’ worth of funding, to go to a small private foundation in one hit, single transaction on one day, was unprecedented and a whole lot of the problems that the Government now faces are as a result of a bad decision.

VAN EXTEL: The Government is arguing though, and we heard that quote there from Simon Birmingham, that due diligence was done ahead of awarding the grant and certainly the audit report suggests that as well.

BURKE: Well it also says they hadn’t scrutinised the capacity of the Foundation's delivery partners to scale up because they were going to have to scale up massively because they were suddenly doing the job of an entire Government department. It didn’t look at their past fundraising performance, it didn’t look at the fact that the administration costs were significantly more. The Environment Minister told the Parliament only 5% of this money could be spent on administration. That’s around $22 million. The audit office revealed yesterday $86 million can be spent on administration.

VAN EXTEL: Potentially.

BURKE: Potentially, that’s right. That’s exactly what the contract allows. That’s more than we spend on combating crown of thorn starfish. It’s an extraordinary amount of money.

VAN EXTEL: So are you planning still, if you win Government to take this money back?

BURKE: Oh that’s right. Absolutely.

VAN EXTEL: How can you do that though because the full grant money was paid and accounted for in the 2017-18 budget?

BURKE: Section 25 of the contract between the Department and the Foundation allows for remaining moneys and the interest that has been earned to be repaid if there is a change of Government policy. As a matter of policy it should never the be case that the CSIRO or the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority have to go to a small private foundation to get permission to get tax payer funds.

VAN EXTEL: The Government does point out that Labor Ministers in the past have in fact been endorsing the foundation. In fact you were quoted in 2012 when you gave funds to the Foundation as saying it had the capacity to ensure the reef’s unique values were protected.

BURKE: For that particular research project. I don’t think you can compare a research project where the funding went through each year, from recollection around the tune of $10 million in total, where they had to meet their milestone targets before they got the next payments. I don’t think you can compare that to nearly half a billion dollars in one hit. It’s a cute argument from the argument to say oh Labor gave some funding. We gave some funding to a small private foundation to do its work as a small private foundation. They gave nearly half a billion dollars to a small private foundation to do work that is properly done by the CSIRO, by the Department of the Environment, by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, by our Universities and our scientists.

VAN EXTEL: This audit report though does point out that it was the Department that put forward this Foundation as the best place to do this and to deliver value for money.

BURKE: But you can’t start the story at chapter two. The first thing that happened was there was a Cabinet decision, from the expenditure review committee, that they wanted to look beyond any Government department. So the Cabinet had already made the decision. All the usual agencies that would be responsible for protecting the Great Barrier Reef were to be ignored. Where was the Department left to go? There was only one organisation dedicated to the reef and it was completely ill-equipped to deal with this sort of funding.

VAN EXTEL: I think the Queensland Government was also on the table at one stage.

BURKE: At one stage but not once that Department advice came through, they were told to find a non-Government partner.

VAN EXTEL: So last week the foundation has started announcing how it’s going to spend the money. It includes $42 million, or 10% of that money for protection by indigenous owners. This sort of building capacity with indigenous rangers and sea country groups?

BURKE: Of course we support that work. The first election promise that Bill Shorten made this term was in his budget reply which was we would double the number of indigenous rangers around the country. Our commitment to the indigenous rangers program is the strongest that any party has taken to an election. So we are completely committed to the indigenous rangers program. How this money should be split as the additional funding for the reef, I have no doubt if we win and the money is returned the Department will advise for various funds to go to rangers, various funds to go to the CSIRO, various moneys to go to a series of organisation. But that should be the question the Department is asked. The first question should be how do we best protect the most fragile, ecological system on the planet. There is nothing of its size in the Great Barrier Reef. We are the custodians. The first question should be how do we best protect the Great Barrier Reef. It should not be which non-Government partner should we start with.

VAN EXTEL: This is the single largest investment in reef protection in Australian history and it is certainly more money than Labor ever spent on the reef. Shouldn’t we be welcoming this?

BURKE: I’ve never objected to the level of funding. I’ve never had one word of objection to the level of funding. I completely reject privatising the work of all our agencies so that they then have to go cap in hand to a small private foundation begging for money. That’s not the way to look after a resource, a natural wonder, that belongs to all of us.

VAN EXTEL: So if you take this money back if you win Government how are you going to redirect the funds? And are you going to redirect the funds in total.

BURKE: Every single cent returned will be spent on the Great Barrier Reef. Every cent. But we will take advice from the Department on how that money is best divided up with science based answers in terms of how we best protect the Great Barrier Reef. All of this is before we get to the challenges of climate change and the failure of the Government to act on climate change and get our emissions down. It’s all before that. But there is extra work that needs to be done on the Great Barrier Reef and every single cent of money returned will be spent on that.

VAN EXTEL: Just to another matter Tony Burke, your portfolio of water and the mass fish kill in the Menindee Lakes. I know you went there earlier this week. NSW Labor has called for an enquiry do you agree that we need a State enquiry and a Federal task force?

BURKE:  There are some decisions made at a state level and some at a federal level, some made jointly. The enormity of what we are looking at south of Menindee warrants every bit of scientific analysis of what we can get done and get done quickly. There are strong views from locals about the management of the lakes. Some of that management is tied up in agreements that go back to the 1960s and the rainfall coming into the system has significantly changed since then. So there’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done if it’s done at both the State and Federal level. Any scientific work that can be done I just think it’s smart. We are looking at a complete environmental catastrophe and most of the focus on the Murray Darling of late has been limited to volumes of water, all of which the system depends on obviously but we don’t have good enough biological data and eco system data across the system and we need it urgently.

VAN EXTEL: Tony Burke thank you for joining us today.

BURKE: Great to be with you.

VAN EXTEL:  Tony Burke is the Shadow Environment Minister and we invited the Environment Minister, Melissa Price, onto the program but we did not receive a response.


Tony Burke