The ACT's Catholic education office has engaged a well-known Liberal party-aligned lobbyist for strategic advice on responding to crises - including the hot-button issue of school funding.
It is unclear how much ECG Advisory's David Gazard has been paid after being hired to advise Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn executive director Ross Fox at various times since about March last year.
Mr Fox said Mr Gazard had helped with strategic advice and communications issues "relating to the management of schools".
The system already has staff on the books charged with media, strategy and public policy.
"Parents and school communities would expect us to apply the best professional knowledge and expertise to the issues we face which, in the Canberra and Goulburn archdiocese, have been challenging for an organisation that’s relatively lean in the last 18 months to two years," Mr Fox said.
Mr Fox last year warned some of the ACT's Catholic schools might have to close after the federal government froze funding to the system.
The federal government eventually threw the archdiocese a $38 million funding lifeline after repeatedly swearing there would be no special deals.
Mr Gazard, a former adviser to Coalition treasurer Peter Costello and former prime minister Tony Abbott, is understood to have attended at least two meetings between the federal government and archdiocese staff relating to school funding.
According to its website, ECG Advisory offers "unique access to the highest levels of government as you seek to maximise your organization’s objectives by exploiting opportunities or managing risk".
However, Mr Fox said Mr Gazard had not helped broker meetings or deals, nor was he engaged as a lobbyist. He had not helped secure the additional funds, Mr Fox said.
The archdiocese is not listed as a client of ECG's on the federal government lobbyist register.
"David Gazard has been engaged to assist with strategic advice in the context of organisational change and response to that context, not as a lobbyist," Mr Fox said.
“Catholic education in the ACT has worked hand-in-hand with the Catholic Education Commission and that’s been the forum by which there’s been meetings with the minister, meetings with the department - as you’d expect. They’re pre-existing and strong relationships."
Mr Fox would not be drawn on his personal relationship with Mr Gazard. Mr Fox unsuccessfully ran for the Liberal party in Victoria in the 2007 federal election and later attracted headlines for liking a Facebook page that appeared to back Mr Costello as leader of the Liberal party while a member of the Victorian Liberal party's administrative committee.
Mr Gazard has worked as an adviser for former prime minister John Howard, Mr Costello and Mr Abbott, and unsuccessfully stood for the Liberals for the NSW seat of Eden-Monaro in 2010.
“I know him because the community knows him … it’s widely known that he’s been an adviser to prime ministers," Mr Fox said.
Asked if he was friends with him, Mr Fox said “I’ve never met his wife or kids or anything like that", and later said he didn't see why his relationship with Mr Gazard was relevant.
Mr Gazard was on leave, according to his voicemail, when contacted by the Sunday Canberra Times.
Mr Fox said the archdiocese's education office hired consultants in various areas when necessary.
"We have different financial issues of master planning and so on where we frequently engage consultants to assist on a short-term contractual basis, so it’s a very common and accepted government and corporate practice to engage consultants to assist so you can avoid making a commitment for a long-term full-time employee where there might not be an ongoing need."
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