The Whitehouse Institute of Design has labeled claims published in New Matilda overnight that owner Leanne Whitehouse lobbied Prime Minister Tony Abbott in front of 400 people as “ridiculous”, describing her comments to Mr Abbott about red tape as “teasing”.
Public relations firm Res Publica issued a statement this morning on behalf of the Whitehouse Institute and said any suggestion Whitehouse had sought political interference in the regulatory processes around accreditation of higher education courses was “groundless”.
“At a function to mark the Whitehouse Institute’s 25th anniversary Leanne Whitehouse remarked that it had been a particularly busy year and teased the Prime Minister that the Institute, like any other private school going through similar processes, had to submit 168,000 pages of documentation as part of its re-accreditation and submission for the Master of Design course,” the spokesperson said.
“To suggest that these remarks were an attempt to lobby the Prime Minister in relation to education policy or to seek special favour in relation to its own accreditation courses is ridiculous.
“It was a plea to reduce red tape across the board.
“Any suggestion that the Whitehouse Institute was seeking political interference in the regulatory process is groundless.”
New Matilda reported last night that at a 25-year anniversary function attended by the Prime Minister, Leanne Whitehouse took the stage and made an impromptu plea, complaining about the time and cost of gaining federal government accreditation for courses at her school.
At one point, Ms Whitehouse turned to Tony Abbott and said, “And yes, I’m looking at you Prime Minister.”
Staff at Whitehouse have told New Matilda they were shocked by the comments.
The speech was delivered in front of 400 people, before the Prime Minister was taken into a private VIP function on another level of the college.
Six weeks after the event, the Whitehouse Institute received federal government approval for a new Masters of Design Course.
While the timing is politically awkward, there remains no evidence that Mr Abbott in any way attempted to influence the decisions and processes of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the federal government body responsible for accrediting higher education courses.
TEQSA has also publicly denied any interference in the Whitehouse accreditation, although it has acknowledged that legislation introduced to parliament by the Abbott Government will radically alter the organisation, remove its powers to review courses for quality assurance, and axe Commissioners from the head of the organisation.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said that Mr Abbott could not recall the specific incident at the Whitehouse function, nor does he have any recollection of ever being lobbied about Whitehouse by its chairman Les Taylor, a close friend and prominent donor to the NSW Liberal Party.
Mr Taylor helped organise a $60,000 secret scholarship for Mr Abbott’s daughter Frances to attend Whitehouse.
The Prime Minister and Whitehouse maintain that Frances Abbott was awarded the scholarship on the basis of merit. They also maintain that Ms Abbott was subsequently employed at the Melbourne campus of the college on the basis of merit, but have not responded to questions about a leaked internal staff register, which reveals Frances Abbott was the only member of staff out of 74 with no defined role at Whitehouse.
However, the Whitehouse Institute has declined to comment on internal documents revealing that it pursued Frances Abbott in the lead-up to the scholarship, and that it was awarded after her first and only meeting with owner Leanne Whitehouse.
It has also refused to release details of other students who were awarded the ‘Managing Director’s Scholarship’, a student assistance package that has never been publicly disclosed by Whitehouse until now.
The spokesperson told New Matilda last night: “The Whitehouse Institute of Design has offered a variety of scholarships for 25 years, including the Chairman’s Scholarship (formerly the Managing Director’s Scholarship).
“All scholarships are discretionary and awarded on merit. As with any private educational establishment, we have a duty to protect the privacy of our current and former students and therefore are not providing details on discussions that led to individual scholarship decisions.”
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