Worthy causes typically suffer years of delay and red tape in gaining gift status from Treasury. Not so the Governor-General’s favourite charity which, as Jommy Tee writes, enjoyed friends in very high places.
They constantly say – nay, insist – that it was all “arm’s length”. Whenever questioned, the Governor-General’s official secretary Paul Singer has steadfastly asserted neither he nor his boss David Hurley had anything to do with the “funding arrangements” of the $18m charity, the Governor-General’s Australian Future Leaders Foundation.
But, in the light of news to hand, the simple question must be asked, just how long are David Hurley’s arms?
We don’t know for sure, but on good authority, we can suggest they are not long enough to prevent Hurley – formerly the Queen’s, now King’s man in Canberra – from meeting with the Prime Minister and Treasurer of the day to discuss the charitable status of his at times eponymous foundation.
And, though again we only have the word of one very well-placed man for it, at this meeting the PM (of the day) told the Treasurer (of the day) to place said foundation on the “top of the pile” for deductible gift recipient (DGR) status, the key to corporate donations.
And DGR actually happened – not long after this meeting.
We can only presume this made the GG pretty darn happy, given he was so taken by the foundation he had lent his personal approval to it and made it a priority for his office in both 2021 and 2022, as MWM has previously noted.
Who is who in this vice-regal zoo?
Before we unpack this opening scene a little more, let’s turn the clock back a notch or two – and fill in the personae dramatis.
You’ll recall that Scott Morrison (yes, the aforementioned PM of the day) handed a mysterious foundation $18m to run leadership courses. The Governor-General’s Australian Future Leaders Foundation, at the time, had no office, no website and no staff.
But it did have Chris Hartley as its executive director.
Harley is no ordinary executive director. A man-about-town with links to the Royal Family, in particular Princess Anne, he enjoyed excellent access to Hurley and his office, the upper echelons of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and, as it turns out, the head of the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC).
The commission is the agency within the department of PM&C charged with keeping the Australian Public Service fit-for-purpose.
In fact, what is only just coming to light, at the same time as he was repeatedly chin-wagging to Hurley and his office and PM&C about the foundation’s lofty aims and funding needs, he was also cajoling APSC head Peter Woolcott.
Woolcott retired a few weeks back.
Hartley wanted the commission to embed an APS officer in the Foundation for three months, so that when the Federal funding flowed they could assist with implementation. He told Woolcott how the GG and Singer were “totally committed” and “tell me the PM and Treasurer are in agreement”.
The Treasurer, of course, was Josh Frydenberg, the former member for the ‘unlosable’ Liberal seat of Kooyong.
Unlocking corporate donations
One of the critical aspects of making the Foundation palatable for corporate donors was the tax write off embedded in DGR status.
The Foundation did not meet the normal criteria for DGR and would need a specific listing to have the status bestowed. That listing was eventually delivered in December 2021, via Frydenberg’s mid-year-economic financial outlook (MYEFO).
You have to hand it to Hartley. He’s nothing if not persistent. He had started the DGR process, which is overseen by the Treasury, in early 2021, but hit a wall of red tape. Luckily, he had friends in high places. On behalf of the Governor-General, Singer inquired of PM&C about the status of the foundation’s DGR application as late as August 2021.
But as it turns out, Hartley wasn’t sweating bullets – because, he said, he had the inside skinny of the meeting between Morrison, Frydenberg and Hurley. In a most extraordinary email, obtained via Freedom of InformationI, Hartley wrote to Woolcott in November 2021 to say that Morrison had told Frydenberg to elevate the foundation’s DGR “on top of the pile”.
This was a month before it was conferred.
Hartley wrote to Woolcott: “Although keen to see it enacted, I am no longer concerned about DGR status given that the Prime Minister told the Treasurer two months ago at a meeting with the Governor-General to please “put this on top of the pile”.
Governor-General Hurley, according to Hartley, was in attendance at the meeting, which would have happened in late August/early September.
On top of the pile
To recap: the man who convinced the GG & PM that the Foundation he was to head should be awarded funding – PM&C settled on $18m + $4m/year thereafter – puts it in writing that Morrison wanted DGR status: “Put this on top of the pile”.
And, of course, someone would have conveyed that information to Hartley. Who could that be now? Whoever it was filled Hartley with sufficient confidence to put it in writing to one of the country’s most senior and influential bureaucrats.
At Senate Estimates in late May, Singer was asked to provide copies of minutes of relevant meetings and to identify those meetings where no minutes were kept. Maybe more will be revealed if and when those minutes materialise. Finding out the number of meetings that were minuted versus those that were unminuted will also be interesting.
“Put this on the top of the pile” still has a certain whiff about it.
The current Federal government has rescinded the foundation’s $18m grant.
Jommy Tee is a long-time career public servant, having worked in the policy development field for 25+ years as well as an independent researcher interested in politics, current affairs, and Nordic noir.