The Whitehouse Institute of Design has tonight denied ever lobbying Prime Minister Tony Abbott over education policy or the length of time his government takes to accredit its tertiary courses.
The Prime Minister’s office appears more circumspect - a spokesperson stating that the Prime Minister “does not recall” ever being lobbied by the owner of the design school, Leanne Whitehouse.
Mr Abbott also has “no recollection” of any discussion regarding government policy in relation to the college with Les Taylor, the chairman of Whitehouse, a generous Liberal Party donor and a personal friend of the Abbott family.
There’s only one problem: Leanne Whitehouse did lobby the Prime Minister over education policy and the accreditation of Whitehouse courses. And she did it in front of 400 witnesses, with a few drinks under her belt, before whisking the Prime Minister away to a private VIP function where the lobbying intensified, and the Dom Perignon – two cases of it - flowed freely.
Documents and testimony provided to New Matilda reveal that on December 3 last year, the Prime Minister attended Whitehouse’s 25th anniversary celebrations, an event which also showcased the work of its graduating students, including Frances Abbott.
It was by all accounts a gala event, with more than 400 people in attendance, including the Prime Minister’s wife Margaret.
Staff insiders say the event was travelling smoothly, until a break between catwalk parades when owner Leanne Whitehouse decided to ad lib on the microphone.
A Whitehouse insider told New Matilda Ms Whitehouse began complaining about the cost and length of time it takes the Institute to get its courses accredited by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) – the federal government authority which regulates tertiary courses in Australia.
“[Leanne] was saying Whitehouse had been around for 25 years, and that it's a lot of work, and a lot of paperwork to keep it running,” the insider said.
“She said there’s a lot of legislation and that it costs millions of dollars to get accredited.
“And then she turned and said ‘… and yes, I am looking at you, Prime Minister’.
Four different people who attended the event have verified this version of events.
The insider says that as the event wore on, the lobbying intensified, and Mr Abbott was taken upstairs to a separate VIP function, with about two dozen others, including senior staff, guests and board Chairman and friend Les Taylor.
“[Abbott] was clearly uncomfortable. He clearly felt like he was being lobbied,” the insider said.
This account is backed up by a call from the Prime Minister’s office to Whitehouse two months later, in the lead-up to the formal graduation ceremony for Frances Abbott’s year.
Officials from the Prime Minister’s office warned that they did not want “a fuss to be made this time”.
“He was very specific that he wanted to be there as a father. He didn’t want special treatment. He didn’t want to be in the VIP room.”
Whitehouse complied – the graduation was low-key, and staff say Mr Abbott mingled with guests, like any other parent.
There is no evidence that the Prime Minister reacted in anyway to the lobbying. But what could prove politically awkward for the Prime Minister is the timing, because six weeks after his first visit to Whitehouse – but four weeks before his second - Whitehouse finally received approval from the federal government to launch a new course, and at an academic level it had never before achieved.
On January 15, TEQSA awarded accreditation to Whitehouse to launch a new Masters in Design course. Whitehouse had been trying for at least a year for the accreditation.
TEQSA rejects any suggestion that the timing is anything more than a coincidence. Indeed, the agency is known for its fierce independence, the reason why the Abbott Government has already introduced legislation to parliament aimed at tearing the organisation apart, and dismissing the Commissioners at its helm.
TEQSA acknowledges it's in the sights of the Abbott Government, but denies that government pressure has in any way influenced its operations.
“TEQSA is an independent Agency. TEQSA rejects the suggestion that its processes and final decisions are influenced by government pressure,” a spokesperson told New Matilda.
“The final decision on the accreditation of the courses for Whitehouse Institute of Design was the culmination of work that began in February 2013 when the Institute submitted their application. The TEQSA Act provides legislated deadlines for accreditation of new courses.”
But there’s no denying that the timing is politically awkward, particularly in light of the growing number of coincidences that the ‘Whitehousegate’ saga is throwing up.
Coincidences like these: One of the first beneficiaries of the new Whitehouse Masters of Design Course will be Frances Abbott.
Ms Abbott announced earlier this year she was relocating from Sydney to Melbourne to undertake the Masters. The course begins later this year.
This was backed up by the Prime Minister, who updated the Register of Members’ Interests in April this year, reporting that Frances was no longer his dependent, given her move to Melbourne to further her studies.
Ironically, that’s the same Register of Members’ Interest which Mr Abbott chose not to update after Frances was awarded the secret $60,000 scholarship at a design college chaired by his close friend and Liberal Party donor, Les Taylor.
The Masters Course hasn’t yet begun, but fortuitously while Ms Abbott waits for her course to start, she’s managed to secure employment… at the Whitehouse Institute of Design.
While the Prime Minister’s office and Whitehouse are maintaining that Ms Abbott was employed on the basis of merit as a “teacher’s aide”, a Whitehouse staff register obtained by New Matilda reveals that out of 74 staff, only one employee has no defined role listed next to their name.
That staff member is Frances Abbott.
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