By Katharine Murphy, originally published in the Guardian 13 May 2020.
The independent MP Zali Steggall says she is increasingly concerned about the Morrison government’s influential National Covid Coordination Commission, because there is “no transparency about its governance or processes”.
With representatives of the commission to appear before a Senate inquiry to answer questions about the Covid-19 response on Wednesday, Steggall told Guardian Australia the body needed “transparency, proper governance, and independent reporting so the Australian people know what it is considering, and why it’s considering it, and what it is recommending to government”.
“It also needs a clear disclosure process for conflicts of interest,” she said.
Steggall’s concerns will be echoed on Wednesday by a coalition of integrity groups, including the Human Rights Law Centre, Transparency International, the Grata Fund and the Centre for Public Integrity. Environment groups are also concerned the commission is promoting gas as central to the Covid economic recovery rather than a mix of fuel sources.
In recent media interviews, the commission’s chairman, Nev Power, a former chief executive of mining company Fortescue Metals, has argued the cheap supply of energy to business will be critical to Australia’s recovery from the economic shock of the pandemic.
“We need competitive energy prices, particularly gas, to attract large-scale manufacturing like fertiliser and petrochemicals,” Power told Nine Newspapers last month. “There is absolutely no reason why Australia can’t be very competitive with those.”
The chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, Anthony Whealy, a former Victorian court of appeal judge, says the coordination commission appears to have significant influence with the government, but it lacked proper underpinning.
“All public agencies need to be accountable to the public interest,” he said. “The NCCC requires independent appointments, strong oversight mechanisms, and to be established under legislation like any other government body.”
Scott Morrison established the coordination commission in late March, when the health crisis was at its height. The commission has a very broad remit, advising the government on all non-health aspects of the pandemic response.
Terms of reference for its activities were published last week – more than a month after the commission was constituted. People familiar with the deliberations of the group say it has been championing a significant boost to sovereign capability as Australia absorbs the lessons of the Covid crisis.
A spokeswoman for the commission has previously told Guardian Australia the NCCC is following “best-practice arrangements for managing the integrity of its advice”.
“Recognising that their expertise and affiliations may expose them to perceptions of potential conflicts of interests, the NCCC is following strict government practice, as applies to ministers and senior public servants, in managing potential conflict of interest in relation to each of the members of the NCCC.
“That includes recusal from discussions where there may be a conflict of interest and written declarations to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet recording their interests and those of their family members.”
But Steggall argues the public has no insight into the commission’s deliberations. “We know nothing about this coordination commission. It was presented as a fait accompli in terms of who was on it.
“There’s no transparency about its governance and processes, and it raises serious questions when you see the chairman openly spruiking in a number of interviews that it should be a gas-led recovery in light of his background.”
Steggall says a number of Liberal MPs criticised her earlier this year when she produced a private member’s bill seeking a new governance framework for climate policy in Australia, including the creation of a climate commission.
She says Liberals at that time blasted her proposal as undemocratic, potentially usurping the role of elected governments. “Yet we have that very same thing announced by a Coalition government – this coordination commission,” she said. “This is ironic.
“I’m not opposed to a commission per se, because I think there should be independent bodies that can investigate, look at the evidence, and advise governments, but they need transparency, proper governance and independent reporting so the Australian people know what it is considering and why … and a clear disclosure process for any conflicts of interest.”
The coalition of integrity groups will on Wednesday release a statement calling on the Morrison government to set up the commission through enabling legislation “that provides integrity and transparency safeguards like other commissions”.
It says the government should apply accountability measures including an oversight committee to review the operations of the commission, ensure there is transparency about day-to-day operations through a public register of meetings, and establish a conflict of interest disclosure register.
The statement will also call on the government to advertise appointments to the commission, and broaden the representation to include “representatives of groups most impacted and at risk during the economic recovery”.