Environment

‘Whole thing is a mystery’: Reef Foundation windfall hits private fund

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The Turnbull government's claim its $444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation would spur private donations has been disputed by a leading coral scientist who says funding for his own venture has dried up in the wake of the cash splash.

Charlie Veron, a marine biologist dubbed "the godfather of coral" for discovering more than one-fifth the world's coral species, said US donors to his Corals of the World website dropped plans to donate $60,000 once they saw "the Australian government was going to pour a fortune" into reef projects.

Charlie Veron, a global expert in corals, said the granting of a huge wad of funds to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation saw funding for his Corals of the World website dry up.

Photo: Angela Wylie

"My source of funding has completely stopped," Dr Veron said.

Dr Veron said his website, a decade in the making, would be crucial for any future recovery work on the reef, such as the $100 million reef restoration and adaptation program that will now be under the foundation's stewardship.

Dr Veron said he met last week the foundation head, Anna Marsden, who said she "didn't have any money that could go" to his project despite it needing $200,000, or one-quarter of 1 per cent of the government's largesse, to survive.

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"The whole thing is just a mystery to me," he said. "It's a drop in the bucket if ever there was one."

Controversy has engulfed what had been intended by the Turnbull government to be a good news story involving the largest single investment in the health of the reef.

Attention has focused on the fact that funds were not sought by the foundation, which had just six full-time staff at the time of the grant announcement in late April.

A foundation spokeswoman said Dr Veron had been one of "a number of organisations [that] have expressed an interest" in seeking funds.

"At a recent meeting, we advised Dr Veron that a process was being established to consider proposals under the Reef Trust Partnership," she said. "We will consider proposals for funding once the governance and advisory framework is established and a process for applications has been approved."

Fairfax Media approached Josh Frydenberg, the environment and energy minister, for comment.

"Perverse outcomes are going to be part of a process that wasn't thought through," Tony Burke, Labor's environment spokesman, said. "The due diligence [into the Foundation before the grant was made] was a joke."

Mr Burke said it was possible that less private funding would available for reef projects than before as a result of "decision making with almost no formal process".

The foundation spokeswoman said that the non-profit will continue to make the raising of private funds "a focus and responsibility, so we can amplify the impact of the governments investment".

"We will work hard to bring existing donors and new donors together with government to get the best results for the reef," she said.

Dr Veron said donors to his site had poured in $2.5 million to build the most complete record of corals that would be critical for efforts to restore reefs in the future. For instance, it has identified and made available information of eight coral species that appear to be able to resist bleaching.

His group has also approached the Australian Institute of Marine Science for support.

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