Assurances by the Prime Minister that a $60,000 scholarship awarded to his daughter Frances on the basis of merit have been contradicted by testimony and documents obtained by New Matilda.
And in breaking developments, the Australian Parliament’s Registrar of Members' Interests has tonight also contradicted the Prime Minister over an explanation he provided earlier today about why he did not publicly disclose his daughter receiving the scholarship.
In February of this year, Frances Abbott – the Prime Minister’s middle of three daughters – completed a three-year Bachelor of Design course at the Whitehouse Institute of Design.
New Matilda can reveal that the Prime Minister’s daughter paid just $7,546 for the $68,182 degree.
The news comes on a day where thousands of students in six capital cities around the country marched to express their outrage at an Abbott Government budget which see some university fees rise by more than 100 per cent.
Documents obtained by New Matilda also challenge claims by the Prime Minister that his daughter’s scholarship was won on merit.
Rather than an exhaustive application process, Ms Abbott, aged 22, was offered the ‘Managing Director’s Scholarship’ at her first and only meeting with the owner of the Institute, Leanne Whitehouse.
The Institute declined to nominate any other occasion when the scholarship has been awarded, and did not address a lengthy list of questions submitted by New Matilda early this morning.
Whitehouse insiders have claimed the scholarship was kept secret, even from many senior staff.
Documents show that in December 2010, over a period of one month, at least four attempts were made to contact Ms Abbott by phone and arrange an interview with Leanne Whitehouse.
A meeting finally took place on February 18, 2011.
Internal documents record: “Had interview with [Leanne Whitehouse]… – offered at time of interview.”
The next entry, on February 24, reads: “Student been offered ‘Managng (sic) Director Scholarship for 2011.”
Despite this, the Institute’s website states that Whitehouse "does not currently offer scholarships to gain a place into the Bachelor of Design”.
It adds: “At the discretion of Whitehouse, a scholarship for further study may be offered during the academic year to students who have formally commenced their studies and show exceptional ability and dedication.”
Ms Abbott was awarded her scholarship before the school year began.
The Whitehouse website does not list the Managing Director’s Scholarship on its awards page, despite the fact it is by far the largest scholarship awarded by the school.
There also appears to be some confusion about the name of the scholarship – Leanne Whitehouse told Guardian Australia today it was called the ‘Chairman’s Scholarship’. But internal documents repeatedly refer to it as the ‘Managing Director’s Scholarship’.
An account of how Frances Abbott came to be a student at Whitehouse, provided to New Matilda by a staff member, casts further doubt on the claims by the Prime Minister that her appointment was based entirely on merit.
The source told New Matilda that Frances Abbott was approached by Whitehouse Chairman of the Board - and friend of the Abbott family - Les Taylor, after Taylor became aware that Frances was looking to complete a degree with a competing design school.
“Les Taylor knew the Abbott family. [Frances] wanted to do something related to creativity and styling. She was going to go to one of our competitors. I think it was Billy Blue (a design school in North Sydney),” the source told NM.
“Leanne got the Chairman of the Board [Taylor] to tell [Frances] she had the offer of a scholarship.”
A few years later, in the run-up to the 2013 federal election, Ms Whitehouse became increasingly excited at the prospect of a Liberal win, the staffer said.
“She said to me something like, ‘Do you know what this could mean to Whitehouse if [Abbott] gets in?’
Les Taylor is a prominent and respected barrister, and also has a long history of donating to the NSW Liberal Party. A document supplied to New Matilda by Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon this evening reveals donations of at least $12,500 to the NSW Liberal Party by Mr Taylor, from 2007 to 2010.
Mr Taylor is also listed in the Prime Minister’s Members Interest’s Register as having gifted clothing to Mr Abbott in 2012 and 2013.
On that front – the Members’ Interest Register – the Prime Minister also appears to be in some difficulty this evening.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister told New Matilda that scholarships were not required to be lodged with the Members’ Interests Register because they were won on merit, and “not a gift”.
“Under the Statement of Registrable Interests, a scholarship is not a gift, it is an award based on merit and disclosure is not required,” the spokesperson said.
That statement, however, does not align with advice provided to New Matilda this evening by the Australian Parliament’s Registrar of Members’ Interests, Claressa Surtees.
Ms Surtees said that the ‘Resolution of the House’ – the rules governing disclosure of members’ interests – does not make a distinction between gifts, scholarships and awards based on merit.
“It’s not an exhaustive list of what is and isn’t required to be declared. Not all items are explicitly referred to in the [rules],” Ms Surtees said.
“In relation to dependent children, there are only general statements about what might need to be declared.
“There’s nothing that talks about scholarships. The word ‘scholarship’ does not appear in the [rules].”
More problematic for Mr Abbott is section 2(n) of the rules, which states that Members must declare “any other interests where a conflict of interest with the Member’s public duties could foreseeably arise, or be seen to arise.”
Whitehouse Institute is a privately owned facility - the Abbott Government has the power to alter laws to benefit the institution.
Ms Surtees said that rule 2(n) was broad, and relied on individual members to make reasonable decisions around disclosures.
“That [section] gets into the realm of the member’s view… it’s a matter for the member individually to decide what he or she believes falls within the requirements, and what falls outside the requirements.”
Ms Surtees was also asked whether or not Mr Abbott was correct to assert that “…a scholarship is not a gift, it is an award based on merit and disclosure is not required”.
“There is nothing in the resolution that says disclosure is not required of such matters. It sounds like an interpretation,” she said.
“Certainly those words do not appear in the resolution.”
Prime Minister Abbott’s failure to record the scholarship in his register of interests sits at odds with what appears to be an enthusiasm for recording benefits received by himself and his family.
Many of the Prime Minister's entries are seemingly benign, including the declaration of a “modest one-off sum” earned by his daughter Bridget, “for her part-time work as an Ambassador for the Sydney Autumn Racing Carnival”.
In other declarations Mr Abbott discloses attending charity occasions and major sporting events with his family.
“My wife and daughters, Frances and Bridget, attended the Australian premier of ‘The Great Gatsby’ in Sydney on Wednesday 22 May 2013 as guests of Village Roadshow,” a declaration from June 5, 2013 records.
In another declaration, from March 2013, Mr Abbott even discloses that his daughters Frances and Bridget accompanied him to a Myer fashion launch in Melbourne, even though they paid their own travel and accommodation costs.
Yet nowhere in Mr Abbott’s disclosures does he mention the scholarship awarded to daughter Frances.
Abbott’s spokesperson told New Matilda this morning that “if alternative advice is provided, Mr Abbott will meet the amended requirements.”
Frances Abbott did not respond to requests from New Matilda for comment.
- Additional reporting to this story was provided by Wendy Bacon.