The Briefing: how will the new National COVID-9 Commission Advisory affect policy?

By Chris Woods

Thursday July 30, 2020

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Welcome to ‘The Briefing,’ Mandarin Premium’s curation of the most pressing policy challenges facing Australia. 

Crux of the issue

‘How will the new National COVID-9 Commission Advisory Board manage criticisms over conflicts of interest, economic and environmental policies, transparency and cost while advising on the Morrison government’s economic recovery?’

The debate

On Monday 27 July, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) would cement its work advising on “non-health” related aspects of Australia’s recovery as the National COVID-9 Commission (NCC) Advisory Board. Complete with a number of new board members, the NCC is designed to form an in-government body within cabinet after originally operating within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet with a six-month mandate:

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“The COVID commission won’t be an external agency, it will work within government and will form part of the deliberative processes… through the expenditure review process, through the cabinet process,” Morrison said.

In short, the debate over its previous, current and future role can be broken into four categories: conflicts of interest, economic and environmental policies, transparency and cost.

Conflicts of interest

Since its launch on 25 March, the NCCC has faced allegations of conflicts of interest, specifically over the body’s advocacy for gas projects and a membership heavily composed of fossil fuel and other business figures, including but not limited to:

  • Chair Neville Power, a former head of Fortescue Metal and ongoing member of the Strike Energy board. Following criticism over his ongoing role at that gas company, Power announced he would stop participating in board meetings and will not participate in their decisions, although he is apparently still listed as a board member.
  • Board member Catherine Tanna, managing director of Energy Australia — which has a 20% stake in Santos’ controversial $3.6 billion proposed Narrabri gas project.
  • Special advisor and head of the group’s manufacturing taskforce Andrew Liveris, a former Dow Chemical boss currently on the board of Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) and oil and gas consultancy Worley.

As Crikey notes, an NCCC manufacturing taskforce report leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 July spruiks benefits to the Narrabri gas project, which has, strangely enough, received the backing of the NSW government despite reports that 98% of nearly 23,000 submissions it received on the proposal opposed the project, mainly on environmental grounds.

Santos is the country’s second-biggest fossil fuel industry political donor after Clive Palmer; it gave more than $1 million to the Coalition in the past decade.

Economic and environmental policies

In May, a leaked NCCC policy calling on taxpayers to underwrite the gas industry — along with consideration of a $6 billion trans-Australian gas pipeline, which the AFR notes has historic support from several board members — was criticised for failing to mention climate change or the financial risk of investing in fossil fuel if emissions were cut.

While Power attempted to distance the body from that early draft, the final report from the group’s manufacturing taskforce recommends “cutting red and green tape” for the gas industry, creating tax incentives for the construction of gas infrastructure, and letting pipeline owners charge higher prices.

Additionally, Power effectively has only given a renewables-led recovery lip-service when asked by Senate estimates, despite recovery initiatives such as Beyond Zero Emissions’s Million Jobs Plan or reports such as Ernst and Young’s suggesting renewables would create almost three times as many jobs as a fossil fuels-led pathway.

Finally, in June, a collection of Australia’s leading environmental organisations lodged a complaint to Morrison’s department over what they said were false claims by the NCCC to have included them amongst a list of more than 1,000 organisations it claims to have consulted with; according to The Saturday Paper, this discrepancy may be due to the fact that many of the groups were only included on the list “because they attended webinars addressed by Power or his fellow commissioners.”

Transparency

Transparency advocates such as Senator Rex Patrick have taken issue with the body’s opaque nature — members are not required to release conflicts of interest, and the NCC’s reclassification as a group within government could mean requests for minutes and other documents are kept hidden under cabinet confidentiality rules.

Additionally, the Australia Institute’s climate and energy program director Richie Merzian has argued that Power owes the Senate Oversight Committee an explanation on why the latest leaked manufacturing report recommends gas subsidies considering that, “after a leaked report showed the Commission was calling for massive subsidies for the gas industry, Neville Power told the Senate oversight Committee that was not the Commission’s view.”

Cost

Finally, the body’s cost, and indeed true purpose and opaque operating nature, has been a significant source of criticism; the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told Senate estimates in May that Power would be paid $267,345 (less than an original figure of $500,000) to cover costs of travel and accommodation over six months of work. Combet, Halton and Little were also reported to have been paid $108,000 for two days a week for six months.

Who’s on the NCC?

Original cohort: The NCC membership is filled to the brim with business leaders generally and fossil fuel interests specifically, as Crikey explored when the group was announced:

  • Nev Power (chair): former CEO and managing director of Fortescue Metals Group, former CEO of construction company Thiess, current Perth Airport chairman and ongoing member of the Strike Energy board.

— Focus sectors: Mining and resources, Tourism and hospitality.

  • David Thodey (deputy chair): ex-Telstra CEO

— Telecommunications, Science and Research, Tertiary education, Technology.

  • Peter Harris (CEO): former head of the Productivity Commission and career public servant; one of his major contributions thus far is claiming the commission has processes in place for dealing with conflicts of interest, but rejecting calls to publicly disclose them.
  • Greg Combet: former ACTU boss and minister in the Rudd-Gillard governments.

— On 1 July, Combet announced he had stepped down from his board work — advising on Employment, labour force and industrial relations, Manufacturing, Defence industry and Superannuation — on 22 June, and concentrate on work as Chair of IFM Investors and part of the industrial relations working groups being led by Attorney General and Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter. He has repeatedly declined to explain his decision.

  • Jane Halton: former secretary of the finance and health departments, and head of the Howard government’s people smuggling taskforce during the children overboard scandal. On the board of Clayton Utz, Crown Resorts and ANZ.

— Health (including health education), Social services, Finance and banking, Immunity assurance, Not-for-profits.

  • Paul Little: former head of transport and logistics company Toll Group

— Transport and logistics, Infrastructure, Agriculture, Wholesale, retail and supply chain.

  • Catherine Tanna: managing director of Energy Australia

— Tanna has advised that she intends to step down once pre-existing projects on utilities and energy are completed, including the final manufacturing taskforce report recommending gas subsidies and financial support.

  • Andrew Liveris (special adviser): former chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical, Liveris sits on the board of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) and oil and gas consultancy Worley. He also has extensive histories advising American presidents and worked on Donald Trump’s now-disbanded American Manufacturing Council to push domestic manufacturing, tax cuts and deregulation.

— As Crikey explores, the chemicals billionaire has also landed a role on the Northern Territory’s Economic Reconstruction Commission.

  • Secretaries of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Philip Gaetjens — a former chief of staff to Scott Morrison who ran the controversial inquiry into the sports rorts affair — and Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo.

New board members: As Mandarin reported during Morrison’s 17 July announcement, the new cohort includes:

  • Mike Hirst: a retired career banker who, during the Global Financial Crisis, was appointed to the federal government’s Financial Sector Advisory Council.

— Financial services.

  • Samantha Hogg: the former chief financial officer of Transurban.

— Resources and infrastructure.

  • Bao Hoang: founder of Vietnamese food chain Rolld.

— Business (franchising) and health care services.

  • Su McCluskey: a former member of the Review Panel for the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission Legislation, the Small Business Digital Taskforce and led the review of the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.

— Agriculture and regional Australia.

  • Paul Howes: a unionist-turned-accounting partner who left his high-profile role at the Australian Workers’ Union to become a partner at KPMG in 2014. Howes is also a director of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, the Prime Minister’s Manufacturing Taskforce, has served on the boards of a number of policy institutes, and told The Australian last month it was “liberating” to have left the union movement behind.

— Superannuation, workforce and workplace relations.

  • Laura Berry: was appointed CEO of Supply Nation in 2015. She is currently a member of Telstra’s Indigenous Advisory Committee, and both McKinsey & Company and NRMA’s RAP Steering Committees. She was named one of the Australian Financial Review’s Top 100 Women of Influence in 2018.

— Indigenous business and procurement.

Working groups

On 3 April, the NCCC announced plans to work with manufacturers to ensure the supply of essential products — such as personal protection equipment throughout COVID-19, as well as the manufacturing working group led by Liveris and comprised of:

  • Innes Willox: CEO, Australian Industry Group
  • Ben Eade: CEO, Manufacturing Australia
  • James Fazzino: chair, Manufacturing Australia
  • Dr Jens Goennemann: CEO, Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre
  • Paul Bastian: national secretary, Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union
  • Dan Walton: national and NSW secretary, Australian Workers’ Union
  • Scott Wyatt: CEO, Viva Energy

Come 21 April, the NCCC launched an industrial relations taskforce designed to keep workplace safe during the pandemic, which was originally headed by Combet and apparently resulted in a new planning tool for businesses in May.

  • Jenny Acton: former senior deputy president of the Fair Work Commission
  • Josh Bornstein: principal lawyer and national head of the Employment and Industrial Law, Maurice Blackburn
  • Saul Harben: partner and lead of the national Workplace Relations, Employment and Safety team, Clayton Utz
  • Michael Kidd: principal medical advisor & deputy chief medical officer, Department of Health
  • Graeme Watson: former vice president of the Fair Work Commission
  • Bianca Wellington: acting branch manager, Safe Work Australia

The latest working group, dedicated to the not-for-profit sector, was launched 15 May with an intent “to lessen the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable people in society and the sector that supports them.” Supported by Halton, members include:

  • Tony Stuart (Chairperson): CEO UNICEF Australia and Chair of Australian Charity and Not for Profit Commission Advisory Board
  • Judy Slatyer: CEO Australian Red Cross
  • Nicola Forrest: co-chair Minderoo Foundation
  • Stephanie Harvey: CEO Community First Development
  • Dr Martin Laverty: adjunct professor and deputy chair of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Advisory Board.
  • Dr Lisa O’Brien: CEO The Smith Family
  • Claire Robbs: CEO Life Without Barriers

Interestingly, this final taskforce includes the specific goals to:

  • gather information from the sector on the impact COVID-19 is having on vulnerable Australians, and advise on how responses by the sector, business, the community and governments could be better tailored to meet their needs;
  • identify barriers to organisations continuing to deliver vital services to the community and working with the NCCC and governments to address these;
  • identify how vulnerable Australians can effectively participate in Australia’s economic recovery efforts; and
  • identify opportunities for not-for-profits to contribute to the Australian community during the COVID-19 crisis and in the vital rebuilding phase to follow.

What else has the NCC/C done?

It’s worth noting that, while most of the controversies surrounding the NCC relate to a manufacturing report that has not been released yet, the NCC’s official work remains rather bare.

Since launching in March, the NCC’s news section includes announcements for the three working groups and Combet’s departure, the commission’s shift to an advisory board, and the planning tool for businesses. As The Saturday Paper’s Margaret Simons notes the group’s official accomplishments:

In June, Power told the senate select committee on Covid-19 that in the first days the commission had “used our networks and experience” to address personal protective equipment shortages, unblock supply chains and connect laid-off staff with jobs. “This work was constant for around the first five weeks.”

Since then, the only visible outputs have been a series of information sheets, directed at business, on how to be “Covid-safe”. They are useful, but generic, and nothing about the documents makes it clear why a special commission was needed to compose them.

As NCCC chair, perhaps Power’s most pragmatic insight has been to describe fertiliser manufacturing as one of the “biggest opportunities” for Australia. At the moment, almost all of the country’s agricultural chemicals are imported, the overwhelming majority from China, giving the lie to frequently made claims that we are self-sufficient in food.

Finally, as Crikey notes, the NCC has stumped up $541,750 for “social policy research” from Jim Reed, trading as Resolve Strategic, a former group director of research and strategy at C|T Group (formerly Crosby|Textor) — the strategy and polling group behind victories for (among many other conservative governments) Boris Johnson, Tony Abbott, David Cameron and Scott Morrison, although he’d left for Newgate Research by the time of Morrison’s victory.

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