The chairman of a Sydney design college has insisted he had no part in awarding a prestigious scholarship to Frances Abbott, the daughter of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, but conceded he "probably" mentioned she would be a good candidate for it.
Les Taylor, a noted Liberal Party donor and long-time friend of Mr Abbott, is the chairman of the board of governors of the Whitehouse Institute of Design.
On Wednesday, he said he had no part in awarding a scholarship to Ms Abbott, worth a reported $60,000.
Tony Abbott with his daughter Frances. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
‘‘I probably did say to someone at Whitehouse ‘Frances is a nice girl or something, good family, works hard, I reckon she’d do well’,’’ Mr Taylor told Fairfax Media on Wednesday.
Mr Abbott confirmed through a spokeswoman on Wednesday that his daughter had received the scholarship, but said he was not required to disclose it as it did not constitute a gift.
She said Frances Abbott was awarded a scholarship from the institute in 2011 ‘‘based on her application and art portfolio’’.
Cosy: Frances Abbott, Tony Abbott and Leanne Whitehouse. Photo: Supplied
‘‘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 in a statement.
‘‘If alternative advice is provided, Mr Abbott will meet the amended requirements.’’
Members of the House of Representatives are required to declare gifts to themselves, their spouses and dependent children when they are worth more than $300 and come from non-official sources.
But the guidelines say gifts from family members or personal friends "need not be registered unless the member judges that an appearance of conflict of interest may be seen to exist".
The spokeswoman said Ms Abbott had graduated with distinction-level results from Whitehouse in December 2013.
"She has since moved to Melbourne where she works for Whitehouse as a teacher's aide and hopes to study for her Masters later this year," the spokeswoman said.
On Thursday, Mr Abbott said that his daughter was awarded the scholarship on merit and maintained it on merit.
"I'm very proud of her; she's doing a fantastic job," he said.
"I've always said families should be kept out of the front line. That's the way I've always tried to run my political operation – that we play hard but fair. Families should be [left] out of it."
Institute chief executive Ian Tudor said the chairman’s scholarship was awarded ‘‘occasionally’’ and that Ms Abbott was its second recipient.
‘‘I understand that the selection of Frances was done at arm's length from the chairman by the owner, founder and Managing Director of the Institute, Leanne Whitehouse,’’ Mr Tudor said by email from Indonesia.
The Prime Minister's spokeswoman said Mr Abbott had known Mr Taylor for many years and received clothing from him as a gift when in opposition.
"While gifts from personal friends do not require disclosure, for the avoidance of doubt, Mr Abbott elected to declare the clothing."
"While the exact cost of the gifts were not known, it was clear they were higher than the $300 threshold and were appropriately disclosed with Mr Abbott providing all the information required by an opposition member," the spokeswoman said.
On its website, the institute says it "does not currently offer scholarships to gain a place into the bachelor of design,’’ but ‘‘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’’.
Famous for its fashion design course, the private Surry Hills design college, helmed by Leanne and Billie Whitehouse, also specialises in interior design and styling and has a small student body.
For her final presentation, Frances Abbott, whose work went on show to the public at a VIP reception on December 2, presented a ‘magazine’ she had created and produced, its pages filled with photo shoots, editorial content and product shots.
The college is currently celebrating its 25th year and alumni include celebrity stylist Pip Edwards.
NSW Election Funding Authority records show Mr Taylor donated more than $12,000 to the NSW Liberal Party between 2007 and 2010, and spent an additional $9000 at tribute dinners for former Liberal leaders John Howard and Brendan Nelson.
Greens senator Lee Rhiannon said the award of the scholarship raised ‘‘serious questions about ethics and conflicts of interest’’.
“Les Taylor, chairman of the Whitehouse Institute of Design, which provided the Prime Minister’s daughter with a fee-free education, has donated more than $12,000 to the NSW Division of the Liberal Party,” Senator Rhiannon said.
“These donations were flowing into the Liberal Party at the same time it was developing policy to publicly fund private higher education providers such as the Whitehouse Institute of Design.
“Mr Abbott should now reveal if he was lobbied by the chairman of the Whitehouse Institute of Design, Mr Les Taylor, to open up federal government funding to private higher education providers.’’
Senator Rhiannon said the Greens would use Senate estimates hearings next month to ask questions about the accreditation of a number of courses offered by the Whitehouse Institute of Design by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.
Mr Taylor said he could not recall ever discussing ‘‘anything of substance on higher education policy’’ with Mr Abbott.
In the federal budget, the government announced that from 2016 it would for the first time extend direct government funding to private colleges.
The changes, which also extend support for TAFEs, and diploma and associate degree courses, will cost $820 million over three years. They follow a recommendation from a review of university funding by David Kemp, who was education minister in the Howard government, and Dr Kemp’s former advisor Andrew Norton.