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The Esther Foundation scandal: a stain that makes the Liberals unelectable

The Esther Foundation scandal: a stain that makes the Liberals unelectable

The religious rehab centre was the beneficiary of millions of dollars in public funds in the run-up to the 2019 election

A $4 million grant might be a mere blip in the scheme of things, but that tiny sum, pledged by Scott Morrison to a religious rehab centre, tells us all we need to know about the degradation of government under his leadership. It also tells us why the Liberal Party is — or should be — unelectable until it changes its culture from the top.

The grant to Perth’s Esther Foundation was picked apart by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) in an examination of the $2 billion Community Health and Hospitals Program (CHHP) grants program released this week. Alert readers may have noted that the office’s work confirmed much of what Crikey had reported in February last year in our investigative series which revealed the religious abuse inflicted on vulnerable young women who had nowhere to turn. As a result of those revelations, the Esther Foundation was closed down amid a WA parliamentary inquiry into its operations.

Then prime minister Morrison was a central figure in allocating money to the centre which had been established by a Pentecostal Christian believer and which had used exorcisms and all-night “pray the gay away” prayer sessions as a form of therapy for women with psychological and emotional problems.  (Esther was also supported by local Pentecostal churches.)

Good taste prevents us from pointing out the link to the former prime minister’s own Pentecostal religious beliefs, but there you have it.

But this wasn’t the only grant which the Esther Foundation received in the run-up to the 2019 election. The foundation also received $630,000 to improve its security, signed off by then-home affairs minister Peter Dutton under the Safer Communities Fund. A separate ANAO audit found that funding decisions were “not appropriately informed by departmental briefings” and that for the majority of decisions, the basis for the decision was not clearly recorded.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Is it a surprise that the new Liberal leader carries exactly the same baggage as the old one when it comes to respecting transparency and process? What an inheritance.

The stain of Morrison, which is evident in the $4 million Esther grant, has spread far and wide. In truth it is yet to be fully calculated but it has infected the Liberal Party all the way up to its current leadership.

The dodgy grant process was run through the office of then-health minister Greg Hunt. The fast-tracked grant application was supported by then-local member Ken Wyatt, who was defending a marginal seat at the time.

And of course there is the damage to the Australian Public Service.

When Crikey last year contacted the federal Health Department for comment on the evidence we had found, we were unable to get a straight answer on how the grant had come to be — in particular what due process had been done. Courtesy of the ANAO audit, we now know that the grant was made before and despite the Australian government solicitor’s office warning that making the grant would likely be without lawful authority.

We know much else besides. The Health Department had not done necessary financial checks; Esther was funded for expenses that were not covered by grant guidelines.

Yet at the time the Health Department did not provide Crikey with that information, even though it was responsible for administering the grant and dispensing the millions of taxpayer dollars. The department, in other words, stymied legitimate media inquiries and in effect protected its political masters, as well as itself.

The Health Department’s behaviour also showed the evident pressure it was under to find a way to account for the spending of public money on Morrison’s Esther fancy. It disputed that the Esther grant was made under the health and hospitals program (the one audited by the ANAO) and said it had come from other parts of the 2019-2020 budget. Ultimately it altered the public record to say it had come from both sources.

As a final echo of the Esther saga, it is worth adding a further, unexplained Morrison government grant of close to $2 million to a drug and alcohol rehab centre backed by Hillsong Church.

As Crikey reported last year, the Morrison government approved the funding in the weeks before the 2019 election to an organisation called one80TC, described by one former resident as a “Hillsong indoctrination centre with a mild interest in rehab”.

According to information provided to Crikey at the time the Morrison government stepped in to ensure the facility was funded despite a federal Health Department decision not to fund.

Crikey asked the department for an explanation but it declined at the time to give us a response.

Meanwhile, Scott Morrison sits in Parliament where he has remained silent on his support for Esther’s brand of rehab despite widespread media coverage over the last 12 months, spurred by Crikey‘s revelations, of the horrors that took place behind its walls.

This article was originally published by Crikey with David Hardaker — Investigations Editor has an extensive career as a journalist and broadcaster, primarily at the ABC where he worked on flagship programs such as Four Corners, 7.30, Foreign Correspondent, AM and PM. He spent eight years reporting in the Middle East and can speak Arabic.

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