New details have emerged in the governor-general’s grant saga, with David Hurley hosting fundraising events for the leadership foundation at Admiralty House. By Karen Middleton.

New details in governor-general grant saga

Governor-General David Hurley at Government House in Canberra this week .
Governor-General David Hurley at Government House in Canberra this week .
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

One Monday, in the middle of last year, Governor-General David Hurley and his wife, Linda, blocked out half a day at their harbourside vice-regal Sydney residence, Admiralty House, to help raise money for a new organisation.

Hurley gathered leaders in science, education, politics and government, captains of industry and titans of finance to hear a pitch from a man named Chris Hartley about donating either their cash or talents to the work of the newly created Australian Future Leaders Foundation.

It was May 17 and the foundation had only officially existed for a month and a day. It had no website, no published contact details, only a partially constituted board and no staff, aside from three directors: Hartley and husband-and-wife advertising executives Andrew and Julie Overton.

Hartley had met Hurley through the King’s Cup Regatta, a rowing event for military veterans in which both had been involved. Hurley’s official secretary, Paul Singer, had known the British expatriate for longer, the two men having both been involved in the Commonwealth Study Conference, an initiative the late Duke of Edinburgh founded in 1956 to bring people from across the Commonwealth together.

Hartley had persuaded both Singer and Hurley to support his vision for a new leadership program, to nurture young Australians with leadership qualities to reach their potential. He had registered the Australian Future Leaders Foundation Ltd as a company on April 16, 2021, created solely to run the proposed program that didn’t yet exist.

A month later, the governor-general gathered these influential people to hear pitches from both Hartley and himself on the idea and on how his guests should and could be involved.

Less than a year after that, and following direct personal advocacy by Hurley, then prime minister Scott Morrison awarded the foundation an $18 million five-year grant – and promised another $4 million every subsequent year – to set up and run the leadership program.

Morrison made the grant without an open tender or merits review, exempting it from the usual process involving the government’s online GrantConnect hub and from being published there. Singer’s spokesperson says Hurley did not discuss a quantum of funding with the prime minister and was unaware of the size of the grant or other details until it was published in the budget documents.

This week, as part of a pre-budget review of grants the former government promised but had not delivered by the time of the May 21 federal election, the Albanese government cancelled it.

“I confirm the decision has been made by our expenditure review process to not proceed with the $18 million that was allocated for the Australian Future Leaders program,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told parliament on Thursday. “I must say [it was] a program that … in terms of scrutiny of the details there, in our view, was not worthy of proceeding with.”

Albanese noted that the foundation was to have received “recurrent funding in perpetuity”. He said, “The fact is that we have inherited a trillion dollars of Liberal Party debt. And so, therefore, we have had to make some difficult decisions. And the governor-general was an advocate of this program. I make no criticism of the governor-general whatsoever.”

Albanese revealed he had contacted Hurley and conveyed the cancellation decision personally “as a matter of courtesy to him and as a matter of respect for him”.

But although the prime minister is studiously avoiding criticism of the viceroy over both this and his involvement in signing documents that secretly gave Scott Morrison ministerial powers in five extra portfolios throughout 2020 and 2021, others are asking questions.

New Jacqui Lambie Network senator Tammy Tyrrell linked the two events in a question to government senate leader Penny Wong on Tuesday.

“The governor-general was involved in both decisions,” Tyrrell said. “I’m not suggesting he has done anything wrong but aren’t you worried about the public perception it creates?”

Wong said she was unaware and had not been advised of whether there was any correlation between the two events.

Paul Singer’s spokesperson offered a comment in response. “There is no connection between the governor-general’s support for the Australian Future Leaders program and the appointment of the previous prime minister to administer departments other than the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet,” he told The Saturday Paper.

Hurley played a significant role in trying to get the Australian Future Leaders Foundation’s proposed program off the ground – both through his direct appeals to Morrison and to Albanese, when in opposition – and also through his direct contact with chief proponent Chris Hartley and the gatherings on May 17.

Hurley hosted two separate gatherings at Admiralty House, over morning and afternoon tea, with about 40 people at each. Some were invited to make presentations, from the perspectives of their fields of specialisation, on what such a program might do to raise leaders of the future.

The invitations to attend came from Hurley, and those to speak came from Hartley.

One of the people invited to address the afternoon group was then Liberal MP Craig Laundy, whom Hartley had asked to talk about the possible benefits of such a leadership program for young people contemplating a political career.

Laundy, who had entered politics from business, liked the sound of the program. “It was starting in personal growth and it was ending in leadership,” he said of the proposed pathways for young, would-be participants. “The likelihood that something could happen, given the quality of the people that were there – I thought it was a noble pursuit.”

In April this year, Singer told a senate estimates hearing that both he and Hurley were “so pleased and excited to be part of such a bold initiative to build the future leadership capability in Australia”.

“This is a new program,” Singer said at the time. “It’s a new and exciting initiative, which will essentially build a cohort of Australian leaders from sectors who are better connected, more collaborative and better equipped to make an impact in the national interest.”

Asked how well both he and the governor-general had known Hartley before his proposal was first made two years ago, Singer only spoke about Hurley’s connection, calling it a “tangential, peripheral relationship” forged through the regatta.

In response to a question taken on notice during the estimates hearing, Singer later added his own link to Hartley, through the Commonwealth Study Conference program in 2015.

This week, Paul Singer’s spokesperson insisted David Hurley had not asked any private organisations to make donations.

“At the gatherings at Admiralty House, the governor-general spoke about the vision and national benefit of the program,” the spokesperson said. “He didn’t seek funding support – securing funding, public or private, is the business of the foundation.”

The Saturday Paper understands from others that Hurley addressed those present on the benefits of the program as he saw them, while it was Hartley who asked for money or other assistance.

The new government’s decision to cancel the $18 million grant and future funding came as crossbench parliamentarians sought to get the senate to do the job first.

Five crossbenchers had expressed concerns about the process that led to the grant and suggested the senate should disallow the legislative instrument – a regulation – that gave it legal underpinning.

ACT independent senator David Pocock had foreshadowed a possible disallowance move last week. This week, there was a scramble as others jostled to be first. Tammy Tyrrell and Greens senator David Shoebridge gave notice that they would seek to have the regulation disallowed. In the house of representatives, independents Monique Ryan and Andrew Wilkie did the same.

In the wake of the government’s decision to withdraw public funding, it is not clear what becomes of the Australian Future Leaders Foundation or the program it proposed. Late last year, the Morrison government also granted the fledgling foundation deductible gift recipient status, making all eligible private donations to it tax deductible and backdating that status to July.

It is also not clear whether the foundation can raise enough private money to proceed, although the governor-general appears to remain enthusiastic about the program. Singer’s spokesperson told The Saturday Paper last week that he was supportive of its “vision and intent”. He said Hurley would be happy for it to be known as the “Governor-General’s Australian Future Leaders Program” – the title by which it was described in his official diary, which recorded 12 meetings with Hartley over the past two years – whether it received public funding or not.

At the April 4 senate estimates hearing, Singer had said Hurley’s aim was to keep politics out of it: “As you’ll appreciate, the governor-general, through his patronage-like relationship with this entity – essentially, with the program – has been very seized of wanting to make sure that in no way was the program politicised and that it in fact had attracted bipartisan support.”

Singer said it had been “a considered view that it would be better to launch the program outside of the margins of the election so as to ensure that it has some clear air and avoids being politicised”.

Like the grant itself, it appears that wish was not fulfilled.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Grant standing".

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