In the firing line: Frances Abbott with her father. Photo: Supplied
The design school that handed Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s daughter a scholarship faces a legal claim by a former employee who was investigated by the school after the story broke.
A former employee of Whitehouse Institute of Design has filed an “adverse action” complaint in the Fair Work Commission.
The former employee faced an internal investigation after the media reported the school awarded a rare $60,636 “chairman’s scholarship” to Frances Abbott. The chairman of Whitehouse’s board of governors is a Liberal Party donor and friend of Mr Abbott, Les Taylor.
In response to questions from Fairfax Media, Whitehouse Institute of Design chief executive Ian Tudor said in a statement that: “the Whitehouse Institute is confident that the adverse action case is without merit and has no prospect of success. The former employee concerned was subject to an internal disciplinary review and resigned before that review was complete.”
A spokesman said the school, which operates in Sydney and Melbourne, investigated an employee over concerns that “student confidentiality was breached”. He declined to name the student. A source confirmed it was Ms Abbott.
The matter is expected to come before Fair Work Commission vice-president Joe Catanzariti in Sydney in coming weeks.
Several sources said the employee behind the lawsuit is being represented by law firm Harmers Workplace Lawyers, which has run a string of explosive workplace cases, including representing former media advisor James Ashby in his sexual harassment claim against the former federal parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper.
Asked about the Whitehouse matter, Harmers Workplace Lawyers chair Michael Harmer declined to comment or confirm if he was acting in the case.
A spokeswoman for Mr Abbott said “the Prime Minister is aware of the claim but won’t comment on any legal proceeding currently underway”.
She said Mr Abbott “has not had any involvement in matters involving Whitehouse and its employees”.
Mr Abbott did not declare the scholarship in 2011 and continues to deny that he has any obligation to do so, saying his daughter won the scholarship on merit. He has previously said his daughter was awarded the scholarship for her academic potential and she maintained a distinction average while studying at the college.
Monique Rappell, a former head of interior design at the institute, said that “the entire scholarship system was extremely vague”.
She said she had put forward a student for a scholarship who had topped her year, whose work had been used in the school’s marketing materials and who had experienced financial hardship. That student failed to secure a scholarship, she said.
Despite the award being known as the Chairman’s Scholarship, the Whitehouse chairman, Mr Taylor, told Fairfax Media in May he did not know how scholars were selected.
The institute said in a statement it had “offered a variety of scholarships for 25 years . . . all scholarships are discretionary and awarded on merit”.
The scholarship story has prompted clashes between student protesters and police at the design school.
Rachel Nickless is the workplace editor for the Australian Financial Review