Scientists, conservation groups welcome senators' call for Great Barrier Reef cash to be returned

A Greens-chaired Senate committee has recommended all unspent government money from a $444 million grant for a Great Barrier Reef charity be returned.

Great Barrier Reef

A file photo of the Great Barrier Reef Source: AAP

Scientists and conservation groups have welcomed calls for unspent money from the $444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to be returned to the government, but pointed to the need for greater transparancy.

On Thursday, an inquiry led by Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson zeroed in on the controversial funding arrangement which was made without the foundation soliciting it or going through a competitive tender process.

As a result, the committee recommended that the money be returned to the federal government.

The report called the awarding of the grant last year "a highly irresponsible decision".
The report called the awarding of the grant last year "a highly irresponsible decision". Source: Supplied

Australian Marine Conservation Society campaigner David Cazzulino said the government had made a "big mistake" when it gave the funds to the private foundation.

“We support the money being handed back but want it to go to a transparent, open and accountable special purpose fund," he said.

"The new fund should be in public hands and provide a long term commitment to invest in the health of the Reef in the face of escalating climate change."

Marine Biologist and director of science at the Great Barrier Reef Legacy Dean Miller said "they were super keen to see some action take place".

"What needs to happen is a very quick response into what is going on, especially leading into another bleaching year."

He said the returned money should be given to government organisations to take urgent environmental action.

On Thursday, Senator Whish-Wilson said there was significant shortcomings with the intent, design and proposed implementation of the Foundation Partnership Agreement.

"The granting of $444 million to the Foundation was a highly irresponsible decision, hastily concocted by relevant ministers, without proper consideration of risks and potential effectiveness, no consultation with key stakeholders, and without having undertaken due diligence," he wrote in the report released on Thursday.

The committee was made up of three Labor senators, two coalition members and Senator Whish-Wilson.

Coalition senators issued a dissenting report, saying there had been "exceptional transparency" around the grant and rejected the majority of the Senate report's findings.

Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson.
Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson. Source: AAP

"Coalition senators reject the findings of the majority report and support the foundation's essential work that will protect and preserve the reef for future generations," Liberal senator Jonathon Duniam wrote in his dissenting report.

The report recommended that if the government decides to maintain the funding arrangement, it should take all necessary steps to ensure the foundation can't invest in anything that directly or indirectly contributes to climate change.

An annual performance review should be tabled in parliament, with independent and audited financial statements.

In the event the grant isn't paid back, the report recommends the auditor-general to undertake a second review of the partnership in late 2019/20.

The committee also urged the federal government to tackle climate change as an underlying cause of economic, social and environmental damage to the reef.

With Maani Truu

3 min read
Published 14 February 2019 at 5:56pm