Documents have revealed that the University waived $5020.40 in booking fees for a private Gala Dinner attended by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The application for free hire of the Great Hall for the Republican Movement’s 25th Anniversary celebration in 2016 was supported by Peter FitzSimons in his capacity as Pro-Chancellor and Fellow of the Senate at the time. FitzSimons was also chairman of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), a position he still holds.
Under ordinary circumstances, third-parties are charged a hiring fee for use of USyd venues, paying extra for security and other amenities. In this instance, ARM booked the Great Hall ($3894), Quadrangle Lawns ($440), and Nicholson Museum ($686.40) for $5020.40 in total. This amount was waived, and ARM instead only had to pay for security and fire isolation, slashing their costs by approximately half.
The invite-only Gala Dinner, charged attendees $150 a head or $3000 for a table, and was attended by Prime Minister and former ARM chair Malcolm Turnbull. The 250 guests were also treated to a performance by Kate Ceberano. While the amount netted by the night’s auctions is unknown, on ticket sales alone the ARM would have made at least $35,000 in revenue.
FitzSimons, an author and Fairfax journalist, served on the University’s Senate as one of five Fellows representing alumni from his election in November 2009 through to December 2017, when the five alumni positions were removed as part of a restructure. The Senate is the University’s highest decision-making body.
The documents, disclosed to Honi following a Freedom of Information request by the Australian Taxpayers Alliance, suggest FitzSimons, who “created the event”, was involved in the decision to host it at USyd, and instrumental in obtaining the fee waiver. Emails reveal that FitzSimons made the request following a conversation with Ken Gilbert, a divisional manager with Campus Infrastructure Services (CIS), on November 4. This was later followed up by ‘FrontRow Group’, the agency managing the event, who feature a picture from the Gala on their homepage.
Separate emails also show that as the event drew closer, some staff considered the potential for backlash. On December 14, University Venues Manager Caroline Marin-Edwards expressed concern that “because it was not an event directly related to the University” the decision to grant a fee waiver was “not clear cut”. Given “Peter’s support”, however, she requested guidance from Rosalind Oglive, the current University Chief of Staff, to avoid “ruffl[ing] any feathers”. Oglive, who only began in that role a few months prior, suggested it would be allowed given ARM’s status as a charity, but recommended that Marin-Edwards seek out precedent. But when Marin-Edwards later replied that “all fee waivers approved in the last 2 years” had “direct connections with the University”, and that there was therefore “no direct example” from which to draw precedent, Oglive assured her to “not worry too much” as the event would “happen regardless”. Director of CIS Greg Robinson approved the fee waiver request shortly thereafter.
Alex Cullen, a research assistant at the Australian Taxpayers Alliance, questioned the decision, telling Honi that “it is absurd that a partisan political cause gets special treatment at a public institution and the university needs to be accountable for that.”
The rationale behind the University’s decision remains unclear—there is no evidence to suggest the decision was a political one that reflects the University’s position on Australian Republicanism. Emails do however show discussions between secretaries in the Chancellor’s and Vice-Chancellor’s Offices, one with the subject line: “Sincere thanks from one republican to another”. FitzSimons, a former international Rugby Union player and husband of Lisa Wilkinson, would also later follow up with the University, thanking events coordinator Dene Anemogiannis for recognising the “VERY KIND [emphasis in original] understanding he had with Ken [Gilbert]”.
Imogen Grant, President of the USyd Students’ Representative Council, told Honi that the “majority of young people passively support the Republican movement, but would be horrified to learn that its wealthy leadership are granted extraordinary handouts from the University.”
Alex, also a member of the Macquarie University Students Representative Committee, added that “the university has chosen to forego thousands of dollars that could contribute towards teaching, research or student services whilst asking students and staff to bear the brunt of budget changes.”