Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s office fast-tracked a one-off $880,000 grant proposal to a retail association eight days after it made a $1500 political donation to the Queensland Liberal National Party – at an event Mr Dutton attended – for the purpose of personally supporting him.
7.30 can reveal that Mr Dutton awarded a one-off “national security and criminal justice” grant to the Queensland-based National Retail Association, which represents employers in the retail and fast food industry.
The revelation is part of a cache of ministerial briefings obtained by 7.30 under freedom of information laws that set out Mr Dutton’s awarding of grants from within a multimillion-dollar fund earmarked to support crime prevention efforts.
The grant was not awarded through any open or competitive grant scheme, but was awarded on a one-off basis by Mr Dutton. It appears Mr Dutton has awarded only a handful of one-off grants since he became Home Affairs Minister.
Legal experts have told 7.30 that Mr Dutton’s consideration of the grant funding after the association donated to the Queensland LNP may give rise to a perceived conflict of interest, which could be considered a breach of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ministerial standards.
Those standards require ministers to “observe relevant standards of procedural fairness” and to “ensure that official decisions made by them as ministers are unaffected by bias or irrelevant consideration, such as consideration of private advantage or disadvantage”.
“When the minister is exercising discretion to award a very large sum of money to a party, which only one week before had made a donation for his ultimate benefit, really there’s obvious room to infer a conflict,” Geoffrey Watson SC, a director of the Centre for Public Integrity, told 7.30.
“Without knowing what Mr Dutton was thinking … it just looks on the face of it as though there was a breach of the code.
“But of course, he may have a good explanation for that. He should give it.”
Mr Dutton controls the approval of these one-off grants, the amount of funding awarded and any conditions attached to the grants.
Dutton requested application ‘be considered sooner’
The documents obtained by 7.30 reveal that on September 28, 2018, Mr Dutton noted that he told the Department of Home Affairs that he wished to consider a proposal from the association, “which seeks to leverage Australia’s retail network to assist authorities in maximising public safety, particularly through the protection of public places”.
At that point in time it had not been assessed by the department.
The CEO of the association, Dominique Lamb, told 7.30 in an interview that the grant funding was able to deliver the Protecting Crowded Places program, an educational initiative to assist retailers in responding to armed offender incidents, reaching a total of more than 48,000 retail workers.
The NRA’s 2019 financial report reveals that it gave a $1500 donation to the Queensland LNP for the purpose of supporting Mr Dutton personally at an event on November 21, 2018.
The donation is described as “support for Peter Dutton Dinner at Norman Hotel 21/11/18”.
Ms Lamb told 7.30 that Mr Dutton had attended the event.
“That particular event was an event hosted so that our members could speak to the Minister about issues that were impacting their business,” she said.
“The event itself was hosted by the NRA.
“We were in attendance at that event, Mr Dutton was [in] attendance at that event, our membership was in attendance at that event. It was all about engagement.”
A further undated $5000 donation during the 2019 reporting period is also listed as “support for Peter Dutton”. Ms Lamb said she was unaware when that donation was made.
In total, the association gave $6500 to the Queensland LNP to support Mr Dutton during the 2018 and 2019 financial year.
A ministerial briefing obtained by 7.30 shows that on November 29, 2018, Mr Dutton’s office “requested that the proposal from the National Retailer’s Association [sic] be considered sooner”.
Mr Dutton agreed to the department seeking a costing for the association’s proposal from the Finance Department on December 11, 2018.
It was assessed by the Department of Industry in February 2019.
The Home Affairs Department’s briefing to Mr Dutton says that the Business Grants Hub assessed the application “with satisfactory scores against each of the three merit criteria” and recommended that the funding be approved. They noted that the application “represents value for money and a proper use of Commonwealth resources”.
On March 14, 2019, Mr Dutton approved the funding grant, following the advice from his department.
7.30 asked Mr Dutton whether his consideration of the grant did give rise to a perceived conflict of interest, and whether he took any steps to manage the potential conflict.
Mr Dutton told 7.30 in a written statement: “The baseless suggestion that I have or would be influenced by a lawful donation to the LNP is false and highly defamatory.
“The suggestion that the government has done anything other than support projects worthy of support is nonsense.”
Ms Lamb told 7.30 the grant proposal was not discussed at the event at the Norman Hotel.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I was not ever aware that the Minister was considering the grant at that point in time,” she said.
“At that particular event, there was actually no discussion in relation to the proposal, the grant, anything of that kind. None of that ever occurred. It was all about engagement with our members.
“In fact, you know, we worked incredibly hard to go through a significant tender process in order to be awarded this particular grant, because it was at such need of our membership.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison can seek advice from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for guidance on whether there has been a breach of ministerial standards.
The last time Mr Morrison sought advice was surrounding the awarding of sports grants by former sports minister Bridget McKenzie following a damning Australian National Audit Office audit.
In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, DPMC secretary Phil Gaetjens found Senator McKenzie had breached ministerial standards “by failing to declare her memberships of two organisations and that she had an actual conflict of interest when awarding funding to one of those organisations, the Wangaratta Clay Target Club, which was neither declared to the Prime Minister nor managed”.
The Confiscated Assets Account
The grant to the National Retail Association was awarded by Mr Dutton from the Confiscated Assets Account, which is a pool of money seized from criminal enterprises.
The CAA has also been used to fund successive rounds of the Safer Communities program, but one-off grants awarded by the minister sit apart from this grant program.
There are legal restrictions on the grant programs that may be funded from the CAA. They must support crime prevention measures, law enforcement measures, measures relating to drug addiction or diversionary measures for illegal drug use.
The fund has been used to set up grant programs like the Safer Communities program, but the minister is also able to award one-off grants.
Mr Dutton told 7.30: “I am proud of the support the Safer Communities Fund has provided to organisations such as The Scout Association, Salvation Army Trust and St Vincent de Paul who have made Australia a safer place.
“Australians expect the government to act to make the communities we live in safer. That is exactly what the government has done through the Safer Communities Fund.”
State Queensland electoral disclosures reveal the National Retail Association has donated just over $57,650 to the Queensland LNP since 2017. It donated $15,596 to the state Labor Party during the same period.
The Association’s CEO Dominique Lamb told 7.30 that the association “engages with both sides of government”.