The Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet processed baseline security clearances for members of the National COVID-19 Commission (NCC), allowing public servants to brief business leaders on cabinet documents in the lead up to the federal budget, Senate Estimates has heard.
In estimates hearings on Tuesday morning, NCC advisory board chair Nev Power revealed business members of the COVID-19 commission were briefed about the JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs in the lead up to the October budget.
“Our advice [on JobSeeker] was to distill the comments and views that were coming back from businesses and provide a business perspective,” Power said, later adding non-governmental-organizations (NGOs) were also consulted.
Power said commissioners had “selected briefings” on business support measures in the 2020-21 budget prior to its release, but the “vast majority” of information they were given related to “inputs” rather than final cabinet decisions.
Officials from PM&C explained business members of the NCC advisory board —established by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in July— were given briefings on confidential documents by public servants on the commission’s task force.
Deputy secretary Stephanie Foster said while access to these confidential deliberations had always been available to PM&C staff advising the commission, there had been a shift in focus from July that saw business leaders start providing more advice about longer term policy responses – including the budget.
“What he [Morrison] wanted was for the commission’s advice to be able to inform decision making,” Foster said.
“We made arrangements for the PM&C officers [the task force]… to be able to access relevant documentation in order to make sure the commissioners work was targeted towards government priorities.”
Malcolm Thompson, who has served as deputy CEO to the advisory board since July, explained only details of “relevant” documents are shared with commission members, but did not explain the process for assessing this relevance.
“We have weekly conversations with colleagues in other parts of PM&C about what might be coming forward for cabinet’s consideration, we do not get access to cabinet agendas,” Thompson told estimates.
“We’ll seek access to certain documents for task force staff, if that’s relevant we’ll brief, directly, commissioners on some of those issues, or seek briefings from the relevant departments who are sponsoring those submissions.”
Estimates heard business members provided input on a range of budget deliberations in the lead up to October, in what Labor Senator Katy Gallagher described as a “pretty privileged position to be in”.
“Potentially Mr Power and his colleagues have more information than government members of this committee,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher asked Power whether the NCC advised cabinet about plans to cut back JobSeeker in December, but Finance Minister Mathias Cormann interjected, saying the question was off limits.
Cormann said it was appropriate for the commission to have access to cabinet deliberations, and that ultimately the government made final decisions about policy.
“It’s a position that allows them to do the job we need them to do for Australia,” Cormann said.
“You can’t ask them to do this job with two arms tied behind their back.”
The Commission has run through $4.4 million of its $6.5 million budget so far and now employs 20 full-time equivalent staff, estimates heard.