Reef Foundation's links raise funding questions
A PRIVATE foundation controlling millions of taxpayer dollars for research on the Great Barrier Reef has rejected concerns about its close links to the mining industry and banks funding resources projects.
The Great Barrier Reef Foundation's links have brought into question the process it used to allocate $4,410,000 in taxpayer-funded research in the past two years on climate change effects on the reef.
Those funds are part of a $12.5 million four-year research program the Labor government funded in the 2012-13 Federal Budget.
The Abbott government has maintained that funding to 2015-16, most of which has not yet been transferred to the foundation.
GBRF managing director Claire Hanratty maintains the foundation has a rigorous governance process when it selects projects for funding, including board members declaring potential conflicts of interests.
She did not answer detailed questions about the process or how conflicts were managed.
While the links raise questions about how taxpayer funds are used for reef research, it is unclear what conflicts of interest the board has declared because meeting minutes and other documents are not publicly available.
In a statement, Ms Hanratty said all research proposals were independently peer-reviewed but the foundation also is not required to disclose these publicly.
Until a redesign this year, such reviews were not even mentioned on its website.
An international scientific advisory committee and a portfolio committee advise the board on which reef research projects should be funded. While a federal Environment Department representative sits on the portfolio committee, it is unclear whether that member can vote or is simply an observer, and questions put to the department about transparency and oversight remain unanswered nearly one week on.
But the foundation's board has the final say.
Until last month, eight of the 14 board members were linked to fossil fuel companies, banks financing mining projects or investment funds with interests in the resources industry.
Among them were executives from BHP, Rio Tinto, Commonwealth Bank and Barclays International.
Both banks have significant loans to resources projects, according to divestment groups Move Your Money and MarketForces.
The chairman of Irish-based Pinebridge Investments, which manages stocks worth $94 billion, and has significant interests in mining shares globally, also sits on the board.
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission has confirmed two board resignations in April and May. This means there is not a majority with resource industry links. Despite this board shake-up, University of Technology, Sydney corporate law expert Professor Jason Harris said he still had concerns about the foundation's governance.
He said there remained potential conflicts among board members, but it "comes down to how they manage it internally".
"In the absence of knowing what projects may have missed out, or what got funding that otherwise may not have, there's uncertainty about how the process is being run," Prof Harris said.
Similarly, James Cook University water quality expert Professor Jon Brodie said he was concerned the foundation had been "very, very selective in who and what they are funding".
"I can only speculate, because I haven't been involved, but there doesn't seem to be an open process for how they choose who or what they are funding, but I also haven't heard of anyone in particular being knocked back," he said.
One of the board members who resigned was Ian Buchanan, also a senior advisor to Rio Tinto on Asian commerce.
The other, Peter Young, is chairman of Barclays International's Australia and New Zealand arm.
After they left, former AMP chairman and current senior advisor to UBS, Peter Mason, who has no links to the resources industry, joined the board.