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Questions are being raised about the government’s National Covid-19 Coordination Commission – its appointees, purpose and ties to the fossil fuel industry – but the group’s chairman is offering no answers. By Mike Seccombe.

National Covid-19 Coordination Commission scrutinised

The head of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission, Neville Power.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Neville Power, the mining company executive hand-picked by the prime minister to lead the body planning Australia’s recovery in the post-Covid-19 world, was a no-show on Wednesday.

And that was a great pity, for the senate select committee established to inquire into the Australian government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic had a lot of questions that no one else seemed able to answer.

Such as what exactly the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) is actually doing to further its objective of “mobilising a whole-of-society and whole-of-economy effort” to ameliorate the economic impact of the virus. And how Power came to be appointed to the commission, and when and why.

And how the rest of the NCCC, many of whom have connections to the fossil fuel industry, came to be appointed. And what records were being kept of the commission’s meetings and dealings. And by whom the NCCC was directed and to whom it would report, and when, and whether its recommendations would be made public. And how various other advisers to the commission, described as “appendages”, came to be appointed to their influential roles.

One of those “appendages” is Andrew Liveris, former chair and chief executive of the Dow Chemical Company, one of the world’s biggest chemical manufacturers and a major producer of fertiliser, who is currently on the board of the Saudi petroleum giant Aramco.

While the senate committee was unable to find out how Liveris came to be appointed as a special adviser to the commission, it did learn that he was not bound by any requirement to disclose his interests or potential conflicts.

In 2016, Liveris was chosen by President Donald Trump to lead his American Manufacturing Council. Appearing with Trump for the announcement, he said: “I tingle with pride listening to you.”

Phil Gaetjens, the secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, offered little clarity. Either badly briefed or not forthcoming, he suggested the commission’s advice to the government might be deemed cabinet in confidence, and therefore secret.

The chief executive of the NCCC, Peter Harris, who appeared instead of Power, had few answers either. He conceded repeatedly that major aspects of the function of the commission were “opaque”, even to him. The picture that emerged was one of chaotic activity in which – at least in the short term – commissioners were assigned tasks on a somewhat random basis.

Unsurprisingly, as the list of questions unanswered or taken on notice grew, some members of the senate committee became a little testy. Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick, frustrated by Harris’s reluctance to say who was directing the NCCC’s activities or to provide a list of the tasks commissioners had undertaken, snapped: “You’re not paid to just sit around making your own stuff up…”

And they are paid a lot. Power, the committee was told, is getting $500,000. A figure the Prime Minister’s Department subsequently corrected, saying Power would get $267,345 – not in salary, but to cover his travel, accommodation and other expenses, for six months’ work.

Four other commissioners are receiving $2000 a day, and one unnamed civic-minded commissioner is working gratis. The commission may well continue beyond six months, although that also was not clear.

After the hearing, Senator Patrick told The Saturday Paper he found the testimony of both Gaetjens and Harris to be “unimpressive”.

During more than three hours of questioning, the committee elicited little information that would go towards placating those concerned about a lack of transparency and accountability in relation to the NCCC.

In a statement released ahead of the senate hearing on Wednesday, a coalition of legal and civil society groups called for measures including enabling legislation for the NCCC, “public input and regular public reporting of the Commission’s recommendations and operations, establishment of a conflict-of-interest disclosure register and broader representation of groups most impacted and at risk during the economic recovery”.

Detailing their demands, the groups noted the lack of any formal process for appointing the commissioners “hand-picked and personally appointed by Prime Minister Morrison”, and the potential for conflicts of interest – particularly given that “many of the commissioners have links to the gas industry”. They noted the government’s poor record on accountability and transparency, citing the misuse of public money in the sports rorts affair.

“All public agencies need to be accountable to the public interest. The NCCC requires independent appointments, strong oversight mechanisms, and to be established under legislation like any other government body,” said one of the signatories, Anthony Whealy, QC, former New South Wales Court of Appeal judge and chair of the Centre for Public Integrity.

 

It’s a pity that Power failed to turn up, to possibly offer a little clarity and demonstrate some accountability, given he’s found time to spruik the NCCC’s work to other audiences.

He gave a webinar presentation at an event organised last week by the Trans-Tasman Business Circle, entitled “Resilient Leadership in Challenging Times”.

“Things like climate change,” Power told his audience of business leaders, “were there before Covid and they’ll be there after Covid. Nothing’s really changed, and nothing should change in our agenda.”

The priority now was getting the economy running again, Power said, and “debates about climate change” could wait until the crisis was over.

He went on to pitch for expanded gas mining in Australia, as a means of encouraging greater manufacturing in this country of “agrichemicals and fertilisers, and things like that”.

In his assertion that climate change action should be placed on the backburner indefinitely, Power went further than he has before. But his advocacy of a vastly expanded gas mining industry in Australia was not new.

In various interviews and other forums since his appointment, Power has invariably come back to the examples of gas, fertiliser and chemicals manufacturing. And while he does pay occasional lip-service to renewable energy sources, the subject that most animates him is the prospect of expediting and vastly expanding gas drilling.

As Power told last week’s webinar, he sees “some opportunities coming out of this, where there’s been some interminable debates and difficulty about getting policy in place about energy costs, for example, in Australia”.

That is to say, watering regulatory regimes and overcoming the concerns of farmers and environmentalists.

Power’s vision is endorsed by Energy Minister Angus Taylor, who wants to see a “gas-fired recovery” for Australia’s economy as it comes out of lockdown. Taylor suggests the industry could be a focus of post-Covid government stimulus and given financial support.

Australia is already the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. And a frequently touted solution to the problem of domestic energy prices is to simply keep more for our own use.

But arguments proffered by the gas lobby – that it is cleaner than other fossil fuels and that it’s the best way to shore up Australian power supplies – are both questionable. Methane, so-called “natural” gas, does produce only about half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal when it is burned. But unburned, it is a vastly more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2.

“Over a 20-year time frame [it is] 84 to 86 times as potent,” says Tim Baxter, a senior researcher at the Climate Council.

It is vital, therefore, to get the gas from the ground to the point of ignition without leakage. If 3 per cent leaks during the extraction, transport or reticulation of the methane, the fuel is actually dirtier than coal.

Baxter says there is no accurate accounting for the amount that escapes, particularly in the form of “migratory emissions”, which occur when the extraction process causes fissures in the rocks, so the gas does not come up the well but escapes to the surface elsewhere.

And there is mounting international evidence that the contribution of methane to global heating has been vastly underestimated. Research published in the prestigious journal Nature in February found “anthropogenic” – human-caused –methane emissions were 25 to 40 per cent higher than previous estimates.

So, gas is not the benign, “transitional” fuel alternative to coal that its advocates claim.

Nor is a “gas-fired recovery” the best option for Australia, according to many climate experts. A report from the Grattan Institute this week advocated hydrogen – the burning of which produces zero greenhouse gas – as the best way to power Australian industry, particularly the production of “green steel”, and create tens of thousands of jobs in the renewables sector.

Economic analysis by The Australia Institute think tank finds that even with the added costs of associated storage, renewables now are the cheapest form of power generation. But that, it appears, is not where the NCCC and the government are focused.

The fear is the Morrison government is honouring the old Yes Minister principle of never initiating an inquiry unless you know the outcome in advance.

“The rationale for a recovery planning body operating outside of normal democratic and public policy processes remains unclear,” says Richie Merzian, climate and energy program director at The Australia Institute.

“These concerns are only heightened when that body is being run by outspoken corporate executives with a clear agenda to increase the mining and burning of fossil fuels.”

Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson, a member of the frustrated senate committee, also fears the fix is in. He notes the connections between a number of commission members and the gas industry, including chairman Power himself, the former chief executive of Fortescue Metals and current board member of Strike Energy. And the deep gas connections of Liveris, and other advisers to the NCCC.

“Clearly it’s designed to deliver an agenda that the government wants,” he says. At least in regard to mining and manufacturing.

And, to do so by opaque means, as NCCC chief executive Peter Harris put it.

The senate has renewed its invitation to Neville Power to appear at a future hearing. Maybe next time he’ll turn up.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "Out of action".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.