Nepotism is recognized as a form of favoritism whereby family members are given a leg up in life, but Australian PM Tony Abbott has possibly refined the concept by accepting a secretive scholarship, worth $60,000 for his daughter Frances. Although she graduated in 2013, this issue has just come to light. Frances attended the prestigious Whitehouse Institute in Sydney, known as an elite place to study fashion design. To do so, she was the recipient of an award which seemed to spontaneously emerge to suit her very capabilities. The so-called Chairman’s Scholarship, has only ever been given once before, in 25 years of the school’s history. It does not appear on the Whitehouse Institute’s website.
If indeed this massive and unprecedented hand-out was almost a one-off, as it seems, then it is not only grossly unfair to all other students, it is a damning indictment on the Abbott family to stoop so low as to take it. For Frances Abbott, it is now a terrible embarrassment that will haunt her for the rest of her days. A “First World” problem, certainly, that a rich and privileged kid was advantaged by people potentially trying to pander to her powerful father, but a problem nonetheless.
Of course, it is possible that Frances Abbott presented at interview as such a compellingly brilliant and gifted student that the Institute bent over backwards to make sure she attended. Even if this were so, it would be strange, as they were completely aware of who she was, and that her family were in no financial difficulty to allow her to complete her degree course.
Abbott thought he was safe from having to declare this scholarship, as it was not a “gift” and therefore was not eligible for accountability. Thus he had kept it from his public declarations although other “gifts” to his children have been noted, including trips, and tickets to sporting events. This comes as a crippling budget last week has asked all Australians to “share the pain” when the Abbott’s haven’t even paid their own child’s college tuition fees.
With many other students at the Whitehouse unaware that there were even any scholarships on offer, the explanation has emerged that Frances Abbott’s was “discretionary” and was at the direct behest of the founder, Leanne Whitehouse. It was “made and funded” by her and used to be called the “MD’s Scholarship.” Ian Tudor, chief executive of the Institute also says they award up to 20 other scholarships each year. Former and current students have expressed their amazement at this news. One said it was more like a “free ride” than a genuine scholarship.
Many students, from far less privileged backgrounds, claim to have asked about scholarships to help with their costs, and told there were none. This is corroborated on the website which categorically states the design degree “does not currently offer any scholarships.”
The deregulation of the universities in the budget means Abbott is unable to guarantee that fees will not double. He is unapologetic about this, explaining that the fact that no student need pay a cent upfront, thanks to their loans, will shield them from the changes. Popular degrees have been estimated to cost as much as $120,000, double what Frances Abbott was given for her three year course. Many middle-class families are already saying they have been priced out of tertiary education for their children. A planned visit to Deakin University by the PM and his education minster was called off this week amid “safety fears.” It is fair to say that many students are absolutely ropeable and large-scale protests are underway in all cities.
The case for the defence, by Abbott, is that, despite the Chairman of the Board of the Whitehouse Institute being a key Liberal party supporter, donor and friend, Frances got this unique scholarship based on her own merits. Saying that she was a “distinction student” he added that she had been asked onto the masters course. The matter he felt, was undeserving of media attention. He has called the interest in the story both “obsessive” and “dirt digging.”
It is not quite as uncomplicated as that, as there are accusations that Les Taylor, the Chairman of the Whitehouse Institute, and already an acknowledged giver of gifts to the PM personally, lobbied for reform that would benefit the Institute.
It was Les Taylor who recommended Frances Abbott for the Chairman’s Scholarship although he did not take part in the final selection. Taylor is said to have asked for reforms to non-university providers, like the Whitehouse, that would allow them to access to Commonwealth Grant scheme subsidies. These were in fact announced in last week’s budget. Abbott denies being lobbied by Taylor.
Meanwhile, another Abbott daughter, Louise,has been revealed to be in a plum job representing Ausralia at the United Nations in their Geneva Embassy since 2012. Once again, this role is said to have been awarded solely on merit. She is executive assistant to the head of the mission, Peter Woolcott, an ex staffer in the Coalition party. Due process was followed in the application and she was selected from a short list of five candidates from a field of 28. There were mutterings that she was given high-profile work to do, despite her inexperience, such as delivering a speech on disarmament. Fourteen policy specialists, already at the mission, may have been better briefed for such a big task.
Another Abbott female, Margaret, the PM’s wife, has slipped relatively unnoticed beneath the radar, although her recent story is also politically sensitive. The beneficiary of the previous Labor government’s policy on childcare reform, Margaret, the director of a not for profit childcare centre, has been taking her own degree in early childhood, studying as a distance learner. The previous government wanted to see many more staff with qualifications working with the very young, given the prime importance of this work. As she was enrolled before her husband’s new budget she will be spared the rise in fees. Ironically the body that brought about the reforms to childcare provision, the National Quality Framework, is now under “review” and the necessity for qualified staff is being undone again. Childcare workers, it seems, can go back to being glorified babysitters without any rigor in the qualification requirement. Mrs Abbott will have her degree, so she will become, sadly, the exception rather than the norm.
There is a third Abbott daughter, Bridget, but she is sensibly keeping out of the limelight at the moment. She was last seen in the news celebrating with a huge party for her 21 birthday this February. Now she is on a “gap year,” a luxury of the “entitlement generation” that is set to become a thing of the past. Whether she will, in time, also help to redefine the concept of nepotism, remains to be seen. The reader can decide if they think her sister’s scholarship award has already done so.
By Kate Henderson