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New details show how the Morrison government attempted to remove the chair of the National Australia Day Council. By Karen Middleton.

Board pressure after Grace Tame speech

2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame.
2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame.
Credit: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

The chair of the board that selected Grace Tame as Australian of the Year was dropped from her position after Tame made public criticisms of Prime Minister Scott Morrison – then reappointed four months later when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg intervened.

Scott Morrison’s assistant minister, Ben Morton, warned former hockey Olympian Danni Roche he was ending her tenure as chair of the National Australia Day Council’s board just weeks after Tame criticised Morrison’s response to allegations of a rape at Parliament House.

A sheaf of letters that Morton tabled quietly in parliament earlier this year reveal he wrote to Roche on March 30, 2021, the day before her year-long term was due to expire, indicating he was not automatically reappointing her for another year.

Instead, Ben Morton extended Roche’s term for just three months, until June 30, and told her he was initiating a review of the board’s operations in the meantime.

Morton indicated the review would be completed in April, but it was delayed until June 15. Roche’s position lapsed, as foreshadowed, on June 30, and was then rolled over for a further three months.

On October 10, Morton wrote to Roche again and reappointed her for another year.

In the interim, he had received the review’s findings – and appointed a new deputy chair, Stepan Kerkyasharian. He also appointed three new part-time board members – chair of Business SA Nikki Govan, chief executive of Master Builders Australia Denita Wawn and founder of the Roll’d food chain Bao Hoang.

But The Saturday Paper understands it was only after Josh Frydenberg became involved in the issue that Roche was reappointed.

Frydenberg is a friend of Roche’s brother, Jim Roche, who hosted political fundraising dinners for Frydenberg at his home in Toorak prior to the 2019 election. Their father is Melbourne mining services entrepreneur turned property developer Ken Roche, who has donated to the Liberal Party.

As chair of the National Australia Day Council, Danni Roche heads the board that oversees the Australian of the Year awards and selects the award winners from among state and territory finalists. Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed her to the position after she failed to oust John Coates as head of the Australian Olympic Committee. She has been reappointed annually since. Her predecessor, Ben Roberts-Smith, held the position for three years. Before that, former cricketer Adam Gilchrist did six years and former Olympic swimmer Lisa Curry did eight.

The Saturday Paper has been told that when her contract was only extended short-term, an unhappy Roche tabled a letter to her board at a council meeting noting that her term had not been renewed.

The National Australia Day Council declined to comment.

Morton told The Saturday Paper that the temporary rollovers of Roche’s contract were linked to his moves to implement “new arrangements for the duration of terms” on the board to ensure continuity.

“I am incredibly proud of the work the NADC board under Ms Roche’s leadership and the considerable work they have done to make Australia Day a day to reflect, respect and celebrate,” Morton said in a statement. He also praised their work in running a community grants program that had supported 550 organisations.

Government sources insist the reappointment was only delayed by the cabinet process.

The documents Ben Morton tabled on February 9 included the review of board operations, which found there had been “a general uplift in performance and focus” on performance, governance and impact during Roche’s time as chair. Morton included a cover letter saying he was tabling the documents “to ensure that there is no suggestion that the government commissioned or received a report into the selection process of the Australian of the Year Awards following Grace Tame being awarded the 2021 Australian of the Year”.

The existence of the review was revealed by The Saturday Paper on May 1 last year. Then, The Saturday Paper reported that the review was examining the board’s composition and decision-making. The board did not say it was examining the selection process.

Morton tabled the documents hours after Grace Tame made a second address to the National Press Club, alongside Brittany Higgins. There, Tame revealed she had received a “threatening phone call” in August last year from a person she declined to name, who she said worked for a government-funded organisation, and she had been asked to refrain from negative commentary about Morrison at the 2022 Australian of the Year awards ceremony. “ ‘You’re an influential person – he’ll have a fear,’ they said,” Tame told the audience. “ ‘A fear? What kind of fear?’ I asked myself. ‘A fear for our nation’s most vulnerable? A fear for the future of our planet?’ And then I heard the words: ‘You know, with an election coming soon.’ ” Morrison said he would investigate the claim. The National Australia Day Council also issued a statement denying any involvement, amid speculation someone from the council was responsible.

In November, The Saturday Paper lodged a request with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which oversees the council, for access under freedom of information law to the board review and related documents.

That request had not been fulfilled when Morton tabled the review and the letters in parliament three months later.

After that, The Saturday Paper was invited to withdraw or refine its request. It was refined to include any other documents relating to the three-month extension of Danni Roche’s position and then reappointment. Six months since the initial request, the department has not produced any documents in response.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Board pressure after Grace Tame speech".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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