Hillsong Church‘s benevolent arm has been stripped of a $414,479 federal grant following allegations it obtained the funds by exploiting and deceiving the Aboriginal community that was supposed to benefit from it.
Federal Justice Minister Chris Ellison, who approved the grant under a community crime prevention program late last year, withdrew the offer this month following exposure of the controversy by The Australian.
The backflip follows a growing row over the millions of dollars the Federal Government provides to Hillsong Emerge for a range of programs, with claims the money goes mostly into the pentecostal church’s administrative coffers.
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Hillsong’s auditorium in Sydney’s Hills District was opened by John Howard, and a leading member, Louise Markus, won the outer Sydney seat of Greenway for the Liberals from Labor at the last federal election.
In the NSW parliament last November, Labor MP Ian West detailed allegations that Hillsong Emerge first applied for a $498,620 grant with the support of the Riverstone Aboriginal Community Association in Sydney’s northwest.
That application did not go ahead, but Hillsong Emerge submitted a second, successful application for $414,479 on its own, allegedly without the knowledge of RACA but using its ideas and letters of support.
Mr West told parliament at the time: “Hillsong Emerge has misused the Riverstone Aboriginal community to get taxpayers’ money for its own purposes.”
When, at a meeting with Hillsong officers, RACA threatened to take the matter to the media, Hillsong Emerge chief executive Leigh Coleman wrote a letter on the spot offering RACA $280,000. Mr West told parliament Mr Coleman made the offer to RACA to buy its silence – but Hillsong denied this, saying it was an act of goodwill.
A budget attached to the successful application showed most of the money would go to funding a Hillsong Emerge project officer and administration.
Senator Ellison had previously told The Australian he had been informed that the $414,479 grant complied with requirements.
But answering questions on notice from Opposition indigenous affairs spokesman Chris Evans, Senator Ellison said the offer of the grant – announced in August with some fanfare by Mr Howard – had been axed.
Senator Ellison said his department had recently asked Hillsong Emerge for “details of how the partnership proposed for the project would operate”.
“On 1 February, 2006, the department wrote to Hillsong Emerge Ltd advising them theoffer has been withdrawn,” hesaid. A spokeswoman for Senator Ellison said the department had withdrawn the offer because Hillsong was “unable to deliver the project as originally proposed”.
Riverstone community leader Vilma Ryan said a departmental officer had tried to persuade the community to accept Hillsong’s administration of the grant, or face losing the money altogether.
“The fact is, we weren’t going to buckle. We weren’t going to work with Hillsong,” she said.
Mr West claimed vindication last night but said Senator Ellison’s statement that the matter was now closed was not enough.
Hillsong Emerge spokeswoman Maria Ieroianni did not return calls or emails.