A mystery foundation established less than a year ago by a businessman with connections to the royal family has managed to secure more than $18 million in federal funding, but the man behind it is refusing to outline how the program will run or when it will launch.
- Despite having no publicly available information about how it will run, the foundation will receive $3.6 million this financial year
- One of the directors of the foundation declared early last year, before it was registered, that the Prime Minister was on board with the project
- The foundation was granted charity status because of “exceptional circumstances” but the Finance Minister could not say what those were
The Australian Future Leaders Foundation Limited — which appears to have no office, website or staff, apart from three directors — received the five-year cash injection in last week’s budget.
Several sources have told the ABC that its executive officer and director, Chris Hartley, boasted that he secured federal support more than a year before it was publicly announced.
Promotional brochures published early last year, and seen by the ABC, claimed vice-regal and government endorsement of the program.
Mr Hartley titled the program “The Governor-General’s Australian Future Leaders Programme” and asserted to potential supporters that it would complement “the government’s economic recovery plan to catalyse societal cohesion and fairness”.
Another promotional document seen by the ABC, also issued early last year, states the program is “championed by federal government with supporting funding”.
In an email seen by the ABC that was sent by Mr Hartley more than a year ago, he declared the Prime Minister was supportive of the project and that the Prime Minister’s Office would “own” the project.
The ABC has asked the Prime Minister’s Office for comment.
Mr Hartley had lobbied businesses, universities, unions and social media companies for their support, and Governor-General David Hurley agreed to be the inaugural patron of the foundation.
The Governor-General and his office have confirmed their involvement in the design of the leadership program but his office insists it had no involvement in government funding decisions.
Few public details
Months after Mr Hartley declared the program had government support, he registered the Australian Future Leaders Foundation Limited as a charity in April 2021, with an official launch held at Admiralty House in May.
To date the foundation has not started any projects that are publicly accessible. Despite this, it will receive $3.6 million in federal funding this financial year alone.
The ABC put a series of questions to Mr Hartley who is listed as director and secretary of the foundation.
Mr Hartley did not explain how he secured the funding and he did not provide information about how the program will work.
Instead, he said in a statement that:
“We are delighted that on the back of two years of detailed consultation and design work, drawing on the experience, expertise and support of many existing senior leaders including national and international advisory firms, industry, not-for-profits and the tertiary sector, the government has set aside money to invest in the program, alongside others.
“We look forward to the successful completion of these discussions and the subsequent launch of the program and the transformative impact it will have on Australia.”
Under repeated questioning during Senate estimates on Tuesday, officials from Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) could only provide vague details about how the program would work and confirmed there was no tender process.
In a statement to the ABC, a spokesperson for PMC said the finer details were still being worked through.
“The terms and conditions of the funding agreement between the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Australian Future Leaders Foundation have not yet been settled,” the spokesperson said.
Mr Hartley is expected to receive an award from Her Royal Highness Princess Anne this weekend, called the Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order (LVO) for his work with the Commonwealth Study Conferences.
Princess Anne is in Australia for a short visit, but it will not be the first time Mr Hartley has met the royal.
Through his work with the Commonwealth Study Conferences, he has met her on several occasions both in Australia and overseas.
Sources have told the ABC that Mr Hartley has been heavily involved in organising a private dinner for Princess Anne this weekend in Sydney.
The Governor-General met Mr Hartley in 2019 around the 100th anniversary of the Peace Rowing Regatta, and he has caught up with Mr Hartley on a handful of occasions since 2020 to discuss the leadership program.
Government refuses to provide answers about charity listing
The Australian Future Leaders Foundation was registered in April last year and has been granted Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status under what is called the ‘specific listing process’.
According to the Treasury website, such listings are only granted in exceptional circumstances.
“It involves assessment by the Treasurer … applicants must meet a high bar to merit listing by name in the tax law,” the Treasury website states.
Under questioning during Senate estimates on Thursday, neither Treasury officials nor Finance Minister Simon Birmingham could outline what exceptional circumstances the foundation had put forward.
“Bringing forward an entity for specific listing is a decision of government,” Senator Birmingham said.
Treasury Deputy Secretary Maryanne Mrakovcic confirmed that the foundation made the application for DGR specific listing on April 27, just weeks after it was formally established.
“We did seek further information from the applicant in May, including things like a copy of the foundation’s constitution … and then essentially we undertook a costing, and then the process basically went through the cabinet process associated with MYEFO,” she said.
Queensland Labor Senator Anthony Chisholm questioned how the specific listing could have been approved when the Treasury website states that an entity’s application should include a copy of their latest annual report.
“It’s just not possible they could have provided an annual report, they had only just been set up, it just seems far from routine,” he said.
The Treasury website states that it “generally” takes about two years to process an application and amend the tax law.
Both the Treasury Department and Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, who reviews applications, have refused to answer questions from the ABC about the application.