It was the most unusual pet project for a serving Australian Governor-General, a project where the highest office in the land, on multiple occasions, lobbied then Prime Minister Scott Morrison, to support a mysterious foundation to the tune of $18 million. Ronni Salt and Jommy Tee report.
New documents obtained via FOI reveal the Governor-General, David Hurley, and his top bureaucrat, Paul Singer, underplayed the level of their behind-the-scenes involvement in prodding the Morrison government to fund the Australian Future Leaders Foundation.
The documents are the internal annual statements of key deliverables for the years 2021 and 2022 which are set in January each year and sent out to all teams across the Office of the Governor-General. They clearly transmit the top priorities for the year ahead.
The annual statements, never publicly disclosed, were obtained by Jommy Tee and Ronni Salt and show how the Governor-General’s Australian Future Leaders Program (Editor’s note: GGAFLP, not Gigaflop as the spellchecker helpfully suggested) was afforded top priority status in the Governor General’s office for two straight years.
Despite the high priority attached to the GGAFLP, Paul Singer, the Official Secretary to the Governor-General, has never volunteered the information to Senate estimates since the story first broke back in April 2022.
Not one of the over 200 organisations the Governor-General is actually a patron of rates a mention in the key deliverable statements for 2021 and 2022.
In other words, the Governor-General chose to make obtaining resources and support for the entire Future Leaders folly a priority over anything associated with his other well established patronages.
In previous statements, after the right royal manure hit the fan over this issue, the Governor General flagged becoming the Foundation’s inaugural patron – despite the Foundation not meeting his own guidelines for patronage.
Those guidelines refer to a 5 year track record of achievement – a hard ask for an organisation only formed in April 2021.
The 2021 priority: “win resources”
At the beginning of 2021, the Annual Office Strategy Statement was released and one of the top priorities was:
Work with the Government and industry to win the resources and support required to establish the Governor-General’s Australian Future Leaders Program.
MWM understands the 2021 Office Strategy was the first time staff, aside from Paul Singer, saw references to the Future Leaders program.
The rowing triumvirate
Hurley and Singer had been previously acquainted with Chris Hartley through rowing/military circles and via the Commonwealth Study Conferences respectively.
Both the Governor-General and Mr Singer met with the soon to be installed head of the Foundation, man-about-town, Chris Hartley, during the course of the previous year (2020) to discuss the program.
Discussions between the three led Hurley to send a letter to Scott Morrison in late November 2020.
The letter, tabled at Senate estimates, referred to previous multiple conversations between Morrison and the GG and flagged future discussions between the pair on the “Governor-General’s Australian Future Leaders Program”.
Singer has always consistently and steadfastly claimed, “the funding arrangements for this particular program have always been at arm’s length from my office and from the Governor-General”.
Despite what Singer told Senate estimates however, the FOI documents indicate it was not an arm’s length project.
The documents show this was not a side project where David Hurley and Paul Singer were supporters cheering from the sideline; it was in fact a top priority within the hallowed halls of Government House.
The program was never treated in line with normal office processes. It was all done at the highest levels and among a select few – until it was announced by vice-regal decree to the remainder of staff at the Office of the Governor-General in January 2021, as part of the Annual Office Strategy.
Open the door to access
The top priority given to the scheme afforded unprecedented level of access by the Foundation’s head, Chris Hartley, to government departments and agencies – in particular the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet who were co-opted to arrange the funding for the program.
There were multiple meetings between the Governor-General and the Foundation’s head Chris Hartley. There were so many meetings, that only the matters of state via the Federal Executive Council outnumbered the Governor General’s meetings with Hartley over a two year period.
Various roundtables were organised by the GG and no doubt various conversations between Singer and Hartley also took place to win the resources and support for a future leaders program and an entity to run it.
It’s my initiative and I’ll cry if I want to
At the Roundtables in May 2021 the Governor-General delivered a speech taking possession of the Future Leaders initiative where he claimed, “my intention to create a program” and
my proposal has received support from the Government and the substance of that support is being finalised.
According to other FOI documents, Chris Hartley was also approaching other Government agencies in late 2021 claiming it was the “Governor-General’s initiative” and he was “tasked with delivering a remarkable initiative from the Governor-General”.
His penchant for memorabilia was also to the fore when he discussed with an agency the striking of a commemorative coin for the yet to be established Future Leaders Foundation.
The Governor-General’s brand was certainly opening plenty of doors for Hartley. The gambit used by Hartley to get his foot in the door also lines up with the high priority the Yarralumla duo had conferred on the program.
The “arm’s length” selection of the board
Advice from Mr Hartley to PM&C in early 2021 shows that the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was originally going to be involved in the two committees overseeing the governance of the Foundation.
The two roles included chairing the nomination committee that selected the Foundation’s board and an involvement on the selection panel that determined who would obtain leadership seats.
PM&C put an end to the latter.
However, the Official Secretary, or his nominee, chairing the “nominations committee” which would effectively control the makeup of the board (of the foundation) was part of the governance model submitted to PM&C in early 2021.
Because of previous FOI redactions it is unclear whether the Offical Secretary’s role was later culled from the governance model.
However, Singer at Senate Estimates (4 April 2022) conceded he knew who was on the Foundation’s board but would not offer up who had been approached: “but nor do I wish to stray into territory and speak for a foundation which is at arm’s length from my office”.
Shoddy record keeping
Despite the claims of being at arm’s length, other previously released FOI documentation shows the GG and Singer were very much interested in receiving updates on the Foundation’s application funding,
Senate Estimates had previously heard testimony from Singer that no minutes were kept of the meetings, and that no conflict of interest policy existed to guide the involvement of the GG and his chief adviser.
The highest office in the land appeared to have the lowest administrative practices in place.
The 2022 priority: support the delivery
By the time 2022 ticked over, it was time to produce a new Annual Office Strategy and again the GGAFLP was given a key deliverable badge of honour. This time the statement said:
“Support the delivery of the Governor-General’s Australian Future Leaders Program”.
Remembering that the statements are produced in January, and Singer testified at estimates that he was unaware of the funding being finalised until two months later (March 3, 2022) it is perplexing how the Office had made it a new priority to support the program’s delivery given at that stage Mr Singer claimed he was unaware it had been funded.
The GG’s properties as classrooms
What that level of “support” entailed is not fully established – certainly the foundation’s promotion material envisaged both Government House and Admiralty House being used as classrooms for the program for the anointed future leaders. Three days were to be spent at Admiralty House, Sydney, and a further three days at Government House, Yarralumla in each of the programs.
Thankfully the election intervened before any money made its way out the door, and post-election, after pressure from the independents and cross-bench, the Albanese government rescinded the largesse.
The Vice-Regal continues to wave for the Foundation
The Foundation – which began life with no website but grand ideas that were to be funded by the government – still has no website and very few staff if any other staff aside from Chris Hartley.
The Foundation in its first annual statement to the charity regulator advised it raked in income of over $2 million from private sector donations, no doubt aided by the Deductible Gift Recipient status conferred on it by the Morrison government.
Remarkably, nearly all of its outgoings were paid to its CEO, Chris Hartley, banking nearly $500,000 in salary. At the time of writing, Mr Hartley continues to label the program as the “Governor-General’s Australian Future Leaders Program”.
MWM understands that the intention was for Mr Hartley to see the program through as the inaugural CEO for a few years, before passing the baton onto someone else.
At the most recent Senate Estimates hearings, Singer was taken to task by Greens Senator David Shoebridge for not being aware the vice-regal moniker was still associated with the Foundation.
Singer promised to look into it, but based on a long-winded non-answer to a question on notice appears to have had no success in getting the Foundation to rescind its use of the “Governor-General” brand.
Nor did Singer’s answer provide any confidence that any due diligence was ever undertaken by the Office of the Governor-General – aside from claiming to run a quick eye over the alignment of the nascent Foundation and its capacity to qualify for patronage.
This was a test the Foundation should have failed, but inexplicably, it was given the all clear.
This entire issue had been an unbelievable series of mishaps and follies, follies characterised by a right-royal appalling lack of judgement by the highest office in the land – one that really should have seen both the Governor-General and his number one lieutenant, Paul Singer, considering their positions and falling on their swords.
David Hurley’s term as Governor is due to end in 2024 and SInger’s current contract term as Official Secretary ends on 3 April 2024.
The Office of the Official Secretary of the Governor-General did not respond to the written questions MWM submitted to the office.