Immigration charity subject to AFP probe as donors left in the dark over memorial that was never built
The planned Immigration Bridge, later scrapped, would have crossed Lake Burley Griffin. (Concept design: Immigration Bridge Australia)
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated and an artist prize awarded for the design of an immigration monument in Canberra, but more than a decade later it remains no more than an idea.
- Migrant families were offered to buy a plaque for $110 to commemorate their loved ones
- The group’s charity status was revoked by the federal regulator earlier this year
- Two board members for the project have died, two have stepped down due to old age
Federal investigators are now looking into the charity behind the plan to find out where those funds have gone.
At least $700,000 was raised from nearly 7,000 individual public donations, initially offering migrant families the opportunity to buy plaques to line a memorial bridge across Lake Burley Griffin.
The idea for a bridge was scrapped in 2010 amid pushback over its heritage impact and a memorial sculpture was then pursued instead.
But 14 years after the organisation was registered, the monument is yet to be built.
Hungarian-Australian Attila Urmenyhazi was an early supporter of the memorial. (ABC News: James Fettes)
Donors left in ‘total darkness’
The idea for the footbridge began in earnest in the early 2000s, with the organisation offering families plaques at $110 each to help raise the required $30 million.
Hungarian-Australian Attila Urmenyhazi was an early supporter of the project after being told about it by a friend in Canberra.
“He said ‘would you be interested?’ I said ‘of course I would, I want my name to be engraved, for my descendants to feel proud’,” he said.
Mr Urmenyhazi received a certificate for his donation.
“I thought we would see the monument within a year or two, but nothing happened,” he said.
Between 2006 and 2011, the organisation sold about 6,500 plaques, raising more than $700,000 for the project.
During the same period the organisation brought in a further $445,000 in sponsorship.
Bridge scrapped for immigration sculpture
The planned Immigration Bridge over Lake Burley Griffin was scrapped, partly because of impacts on other lake users. (Immigration Bridge Australia, concept design)
Amid community concern about the impact of the project, the federal parliament conducted a parliamentary inquiry into the bridge in 2009.
The committee found the project would need to be altered to address the issues of other lake users.
Committee member and then-senator Kate Lundy also criticised the not-for-profit for selling plaques before the project was approved.
“They were led to believe that this was a foregone conclusion, that’s not the case,” Ms Lundy said at the time.
The following year the group voluntarily nixed the bridge proposal in favour of a land monument, to be sited near the National Archives in the Parliamentary Triangle.
The newly-renamed organisation, Immigration Place Australia, offered refunds to plaque donors, but financial documents obtained by the ABC indicate fewer than 50 chose to get their money back.
The group initially indicated their plans to have the revamped project completed in time for Canberra’s centenary in 2013.
Artist ‘devastated’ sculpture never built
Immigration Place re-emerged in late 2014 to launch a design competition for the memorial, with comedian Vince Sorrenti acting as patron.
The competition called for expressions of interest from architects and teams to design — and hopefully construct — the monument.
Five groups were shortlisted, with a team led by Monash University artist Callum Morton selected as the winning entrant.
“The proposal is replete with subtle symbolism — accessible from all directions, open and embracing, sinuous and with seemingly unprescribed pathways leading to new experiences,” the jury wrote in their report.
Mr Morton entered the competition under the impression funding was “99 per cent” guaranteed, but the board failed to get much traction for the $5 million project.
At one point, Mr Morton said the board asked his team personally to assist in the fundraising effort.
“I think it’s kind of outrageous that you expect artists to design something for the public sphere and then raise the money,” he said.
“I’d invariably ring or email and try to get an update and slowly things started to disband.”
Mr Morton said he brought multiple staff in for the effort and the lack of progress was disappointing.
“We were pretty devastated and still to this day remain devastated about it,” he said.
“The way that it was the kind of slow realisation of its disintegration was, I think, quite difficult.”
Donated money spent on consultants, advertising
Documents obtained by the ABC show the organisation raised at least $1.24 million, with the majority of that gained through handrail sales.
But the group spent virtually all that money, including at least $500,000, on accounting, auditing and consultancy and a further $250,000 on advertising.
By 2015 the organisation was in debt and ran a deficit of nearly $100,000.
The group’s charity status was revoked by the federal regulator earlier this year for failing to submit annual statements in 2016 or 2017.
Its website continues to solicit donations, but the linked payment provider rejects attempts to donate with the message that “this recipient is currently unable to receive money”.
The Australian Federal Police confirmed they received a referral over allegations made against the not-for-profit and the matter was currently being assessed.
It is understood the cross-agency Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre has been involved in the effort and at least one person has been spoken to by investigators.
Project still in ‘a state of flux’: Immigration Place Treasurer
The ABC contacted the Treasurer and Secretary of Immigration Place, Emmanuel Notaras, who described the project as in “a state of flux”.
Emmanuel Notaras, on behalf of Canberra CBD Ltd, unveils a Centenary monument in 2014. (ABC News: Ewan Gilbert)
Mr Notaras said two board members had died, two had since stepped down due to old age, and that he was the only local left holding the fort.
He told the ABC much of the money raised was spent on the design competition and he was forced to contribute some of his own funds to keep the project going.
Mr Notaras said he had not been contacted by federal authorities.
He is still hopeful the project could get off the ground, perhaps with government support.
Mr Notaras’ hope is echoed by others connected to the project, including Callum Morton.
“We’d love to see it built, we still think it’s a great project,” he said.
Mr Urmenyhazi agreed.
“I hope it will be positive and we will see the national monument in Canberra, in the Parliamentary Triangle, sometime in the future,” he said.