Members of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission have made conflicts of interest declarations to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, but they won’t be made public, according to commission boss Nev Power.
Appearing before the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on Thursday, Power addressed “perceived and actual conflicts of interest” regarding his links to the gas industry — which has been largely promoted by the NCCC as a potential key driver for Australia’s post-pandemic economy.
“There has been a public focus on the commission’s interests in the energy sector, specifically gas. I am on the public record and stand by my view that we should be looking at competitive gas supply for its potential as a raw material for both existing and new manufacturing industry to preserve and create jobs,” he said.
“Australia has an abundance of energy sources and I agree with the chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, whose view is that there is a role for gas in firming up renewables as we transition to lower emissions. That said, I am also very aware of my governance responsibilities under the Corporations Act and in my role with the commission.”
Power noted he hadn’t attended any board meetings of gas exploration company Strike Energy since joining the commission. However, he admitted that he “probably” was still being paid a director’s fee.
Power confirmed that the NCCC commissioners had provided financial interest declarations to PM&C, but they would not be released publicly.
Members of the three commission taskforces had not been asked to provide disclosures up until only recently, according to NCCC deputy chief executive Malcolm Thompson.
“The commission took the position in the judgment that it was in the interest of the commission to have the chair of the task force provide a declaration of interest, but we did not seek that from other members,” he said.
Last month a leaked draft report from the commission’s manufacturing taskforce, led by Andrew Liveris, had called on the government to underwrite the expansion of the domestic gas industry, with the development of new gas fields and gas pipelines.
Liveris is a director of global gas and oil giant Saudi Aramco, and is the chair and former CEO of Dow Chemicals.
Power told the committee the document didn’t represent the view of the commission.
“The commission is not recommending any subsidised delivery of gas or any other energy system but we have talked about the provision of infrastructure to reduce the cost of transportation and delivery lower costs,” he said.
“The focus that we have been approaching is how do we accelerate the recovery of the economy.”
Power, a former Fortescue Metals boss, confirmed he remained a shareholder in the company. He argued Fortescue wouldn’t benefit from a pipeline “at all”.
After the hearing, Labor senator Murray Watt told ABC News Radio that it was still “a little bit unclear” about what the commission had actually been recommending to the government, in light of the leaked report.
“It is a draft report, but it was interesting that initially when this issue was first put to Mr Power today, he was telling us that, in fact, the commission hadn’t recommended things like an east-west gas pipeline, and then when it was sort of demonstrated to him that the report did say so, then he walked back on that,” he said.
“And that’s why the issue of ensuring that the commissioners manage their conflicts of interest properly is so important. Some of these recommendations could be leading to billions of dollars of investment by the federal government. And we need to make sure that the people who are involved in advising on those projects don’t stand to gain personally from the advice they’re providing.”
Watt voiced his concerns over Power’s uncertainty about whether he was still being paid by Strike Energy.
“I certainly don’t take any comfort from his evidence that he and other commissioners won’t be benefiting personally from some of the decisions that they’re involved in advising on,” he said.
The inquiry heard that the budget for the NCCC has nearly doubled from $3 million to $5.5 million. It learnt a $500,000 contract was recently awarded to a former Liberal Party pollster, Jim Reed, to undertake market research.
The contract was awarded without tender.
NCCC deputy Thompson couldn’t say who had chosen Reed’s company, Resolve.
“I don’t have any further information apart from the obvious that the judgement was this company could provide the kind of market research that was required,” he said.
Reed was previously group director of research and strategy at C|T Group, the political polling firm behind wins for Tony Abbott, David Cameron, and Scott Morrison, among others. He had left the role before Morrison won the 2019 election. According to his LinkedIn, Reed is a “veteran of 20 elections”.
Watt questioned why, as an advisory body, the NCCC would need to be doing market research and opinion polling.
“I think we’re just concerned about the potential for public money to be being used for political purposes. And I think it’s important that the prime minister can assure us that this market research, being conducted by a Liberal Party mate, isn’t also being used by the Liberal Party to advance their political causes,” he told ABC News Radio.