21 May-2014, Paul Farrell/Oliver Laughland: Tony Abbott’s daughter Frances received a “chairman’s scholarship” for a degree costing more than $60,000 from the Whitehouse Institute of Design where an Abbott donor sits as chairman on the board of governors, Guardian Australia can reveal.
The revelation raises questions for the prime minister over whether the scholarship should have been declared on his interests register.
The Coalition government is also under pressure over changes to higher education funding announced in the budget.
Frances Abbott undertook a bachelor of design at the Whitehouse Institute of Design in Sydney from 2011 to 2013. Guardian Australia has confirmed that she received a scholarship during her time at the institute.
“Frances definitely was a student with us and received a chairman’s scholarship,” Leanne Whitehouse, director of the Institute told Guardian Australia. She declined to detail how many times the “chairman’s scholarship” has been awarded previously, but the institute’s website makes no references to the scholarship and states the institute “does not currently offer scholarships to gain a place into the Bachelor of Design”.
Members of parliament are required to disclose gifts above specified threshold limits with additional requirements for ministers where a gift is retained.
A spokeswoman for the prime minister confirmed that Frances was a recipient of a scholarship at the institute and said it was awarded as a result of her “application and art portfolio”.
The spokeswoman said disclosure of the scholarship was “not required”.
“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 spokeswoman said Les Taylor, who is the chairman of the board of governors of the institute, had known the prime minister “for many years and when in opposition, he received clothing from him as a gift”.
The ministerial standards, which were written by Tony Abbott in 2013, encourage ministers to avoid the appearance of potential conflicts arising from family members’ interests.
“Ministers must have regard to the pecuniary and other private interests of members of their immediate families, to the extent known to them, as well as their own interests, in considering whether a conflict or apparent conflict between private interests and official duty arises,” the standards say.
The House of Representatives requirements for disclosing family members’ interests state that incomes, savings accounts, liabilities, directorships and shares must be declared, and adds that “any other interests where a conflict of interest with a Member’s public duties could foreseeably arise or be seen to arise”.
The prime minister’s pecuniary interest register does not list his daughter’s scholarship. While there may not be a strict breach of the disclosure obligations, it raises questions as to whether Abbott should have disclosed the scholarship in the spirit of the disclosure obligations. In a previous declaration Abbott said that he received gifts from Taylor.
On 16 February 2012, Abbott declared a gift of “clothing from Mr Les Taylor”. On 23 April 2013 a further gift of “suits from Mr Les Taylor” was also declared.
The Whitehouse Institute of Design is a private provider of higher education that seeks accreditation for courses from the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, an independent statutory body that approves higher education courses.
While the agency is independent from the federal government, and there is no suggestion that the scholarship affected the decision regarding its accreditation, involvement of a federal regulatory agency raises questions over whether the scholarship should have been declared by Abbott.
The Whitehouse Institute’s website says the school “does not currently offer scholarships to gain a place into the Bachelor of Design.”
But it adds that “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”.
In 2011 the annual fee for the bachelor of design was $21,736. The length of the degree is three years, studying full time.
Leanne Whitehouse did not respond to questions about whether Frances Abbott was offered the scholarship in accordance with the school’s policy, or how many scholarships were awarded each year.
Taylor said he had “no comment at this point”.
(Input source: The Guardian)