A senior federal bureaucrat says she can’t recall the Great Barrier Reef Foundation being mentioned in meetings to discuss the reef in 2017 and earlier this year.
A Senate inquiry took evidence on Friday from government officials as it probed a $444 million taxpayer-funded grant provided to the foundation without any tender process.
Industry department official Jane Urquhart told the inquiry she had been involved in a series of meetings about the reef.
“I can’t categorically say we didn’t ever have any discussions about mechanisms of delivery, but I don’t recall an explicit mention of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation,” she said.
Neither Treasury nor Industry department officials could confirm whether the foundation had sought a much smaller grant, or a longer time frame for the money to be allocated, ahead of cabinet’s expenditure review committee signing off on the $444 million as a lump sum in one year.
Fairfax reported the foundation had only sought $5 million.
Ms Urquhart said she was aware the foundation had been an “active partner in reef activities” for many years and of discussions about the need to leverage corporate and philanthropic contributions.
But the focus of the meetings had been on the needs of the reef and types of activities needed to address these, she said.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who was environment minister when the grant was made, told reporters in Canberra on Friday, proper process was followed and the foundation had a “proven track record” under Labor and coalition governments.
“That spending commitment went through the ERC process and importantly that money will be spent on the reef,” he said.
“I don’t know what Labor’s got against Nemo, but they seem to have a problem with extra funding and support for the reef.”
Treasury official Meghan Quinn told the inquiry there had been “enhanced oversight” of the grant by her department.
CSIRO boss Larry Marshall said the first he had heard of the $444 million grant was in a media announcement, despite his agency having already put in months of work on a scoping study for the reef restoration program.
Labor senator Kristina Keneally, who is demanding the grant be returned, is concerned the foundation plans to spend $33 million of it this year.
“If Labor wins the next election we will cancel that contract, we will have a change in policy, and we will take that money back,” Senator Keneally said.