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Neville Power is the former mining executive leading the government’s Covid-19 co-ordination commission. Questions have been raised about conflicts of interest, but very little is known about the boy from Bushy Park. By Margaret Simons.

Mysterious Mr Power, architect of our recovery

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

It is hard to conceive the scale of iron ore mining in the Pilbara, if you haven’t seen it. Trains, kilometres long, pushing their way through red country to Port Hedland. Processing plants the size of a central business district. And then there is the mine itself – terraforming on a vast scale: creation and destruction.

This is the world that Neville Power, the man picked to head the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), made his name presiding over. From 2011 to 2018, Power was chief executive of Fortescue Metals, the company founded and dominated by its biggest shareholder and chairman, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest.

Power is a big man. At nearly 62, it is still one of the first things people mention about him – how tall, solid and fit he is. And he is remembered at Fortescue as having been tough but likeable, “highly competent”, credited with rescuing the company during a “near death” experience in 2012 when plunging iron ore prices together with high debt threatened to sink it.

It is this reputation – as a powerful but personable player, used to driving results in the rough mining industry – that stands as his chief qualification for his current position as NCCC chair. But for a figure of such prominence and influence, tasked to “anticipate and mitigate the economic and social impacts of the global Covid-19 pandemic”, the public knows precious little about him.

Power, and most of his fellow commissioners, have extensive business interests, which has created concern about potential conflicts of interest. More fundamentally though, there are questions about the purpose and value of the commission itself.

During a recent appearance before the senate select committee on Covid-19, Power distanced the NCCC from an interim report of its own manufacturing taskforce, which was leaked to the media in May and included suggestions that Australian taxpayers should underwrite a massive expansion of the domestic gas industry – including helping to open new fields and building hundreds of kilometres of pipelines. It was only a draft, he said, and “should not be taken as a view from the commission”.

He was previously on the record, from his time at Fortescue, as supporting the building of such a pipeline to connect the gas fields of the west to the east, and as being in favour of gas as a transition fuel from coal. He is now on the board of gas company Strike Energy, although he says he has stopped attending board meetings to avoid conflicts.

Power is also the chairman of Perth Airport, which has been involved in a high-stakes clash with Qantas over aviation and lease costs, including a dispute before the West Australian Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Qantas is also one of the companies the NCCC needs to deal with in its recovery task. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chief executive of Qantas, Alan Joyce, declined to contribute any views on Power or the NCCC for this article. Power told the senate select committee he has also stopped attending Perth Airport board meetings to avoid conflicts.

The NCCC operates as part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C). Alongside Power, its directors include David Thodey, chairman of the CSIRO, the EFTPOS banking institution Tyro and the accounting software company Xero, and a board member of Ramsay Health. Senior public servant Jane Halton is another director, with particular focus on health and “immunity assurance”. Halton is also overseeing the federal review of hotel quarantine arrangements, despite sitting on the board of Crown Resorts, which owns hotels used in the scheme.

The other NCCC directors are former Toll magnate Paul Little, now chairman of both the Little Group – which invests in property, aviation and passenger ferries – and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation; and Catherine Tanna, managing director of EnergyAustralia. The NCCC’s chief executive is Peter Harris, former chair of the Productivity Commission, while Andrew Liveris, former chair and chief executive of the Dow Chemical Company and current board member of IBM, WorleyParsons and Saudi Aramco, is a “special adviser” to the commission.

Greg Combet, who as former Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary and Labor minister represented the sole NCCC member clearly from the left of politics, exited the commission in July, citing the end of the “crisis management phase” of the pandemic. He was the only member of the commission to publicly release his conflict-of-interest statement – although all members have provided them to PM&C. Combet declined a request to be interviewed for this article – as did Power – but speculation abounds about the backstory to his departure. Perhaps, though, there simply wasn’t enough for him to do.

The commission’s public-facing outputs so far are modest.

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.

Meanwhile, Power told the senators, the commission has talked to more than 1000 individuals and organisations, which are listed on the NCCC’s website.

A sample check of this list by The Saturday Paper revealed many were only included because they attended webinars addressed by Power or his fellow commissioners.

There are curious omissions, too. SBS is listed, for example, but the ABC is not, despite its recognised role as an emergency broadcaster. A spokesperson for the ABC confirmed it has no record of being consulted by the NCCC.

Nikki Govan, owner of the Star of Greece restaurant in South Australia and a director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), has been more fortunate. She talked to Power when he addressed ACCI’s taskforce to restart the tourism industry in May, lobbying him on moving the one-person-per-four-square-metre rule for Covid-safe opening to a one-per-two-square-metre rule. Govan believes Power can be credited with the change to the national guidelines.

Since Power appeared before the senate committee in early June, there has been no update on the NCCC’s work. Invited to provide one for this article, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet responded by referring to a speech that Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave on June 15. In the speech Morrison talked about smoothing supply chains, deregulation and investment in infrastructure but while he emphasised the importance of national cabinet, the deregulation taskforce and the Productivity Commission in the Covid recovery, he didn’t explicitly mention the NCCC until the question and answer session. There, he said the NCCC would “translate into a new mode soon”, and would include “a few more voices”. He said the NCCC had been a “valuable contributor” to the government’s thinking, including on industrial relations.

 

In his appearance before the senate select committee, Power avoided the mistake many others from the private sector have made when faced with a senate grilling. He showed no arrogance or impatience, even when questioned about the details of his NCCC payment – $267,345 for six months’ work – and the use of his private jet, in which he had given lifts to government ministers since he had become NCCC chair.

It was easy to see why he was named in research by the Macquarie Graduate School of Management as one of the least narcissistic chief executives in 2013, when he was head of Fortescue.

But the senators neither tried very hard nor succeeded in answering the more fundamental question: what is it about Neville Power that has landed him in this position, what is he doing and what exactly will his influence be?

For most of his time at Fortescue, Power lived in the shadow of his flamboyant chair, Andrew Forrest, who founded and built the company from nothing. Power’s own backstory has been trotted out in just a few personal interviews he has given in his corporate career.

Born in 1958, he was raised on his family’s cattle property, Bushy Park, about 70 kilometres from Mount Isa, and was home-schooled until he was 12. His nanny was Betty Brown, who remembers Power as “a serious little fellow … subdued and very calm and good at his schoolwork. He was very keen to learn and better himself.”

Power left school at 15 and started as an apprentice fitter and turner at Mount Isa Mines, working his way up over 20 years to run the company’s gold division. He graduated with a bachelor of engineering from what is now the University of Southern Queensland in 1985 and in 1995 completed an MBA from the University of Queensland.

The personal stories about him in the financial press are studded with action-man anecdotes. He rides horses and makes his own corned beef from cattle he has killed himself. He still owns Bushy Park and musters the cattle there. He pilots helicopters and planes.

Leaving Mount Isa, he headed to Melbourne to run the steel manufacturing company Smorgon Steel. He spent a decade there before moving on to the construction and mining company Thiess, where he was chief executive of its Australian operations, before Forrest poached him first to serve as chief operational officer at Fortescue, then to replace the company’s founder as chief executive in 2011.

Speak to those who worked with Neville Power in Melbourne and it is as though something fundamentally changed when he flew west to take up his position with Fortescue.

He is remembered very well at the mining giant. He was, insiders say, calm and reliable – the bedrock under Forrest’s ambitious dreams, able to successfully ride the roller-coaster of iron ore prices while growing the company.

But the man who ran Thiess is remembered so differently it is hard to believe they are the same person.

Forrest said when he announced Power’s appointment that he had created “enormous value” for Thiess. But there were problems.

Thiess’s two main construction projects were the Wonthaggi desalination plant, built for the Victorian government, and the Airport Link toll road in Brisbane. Both ran into trouble with cost overruns, delays and devastating losses. By mid-2011 – just after Power had left – Wonthaggi was described by the financial press as a “full-blown financial disaster” for Thiess.

The Saturday Paper has spoken to three people who worked with Power at Thiess. All blamed him for what they described as “the basket case”. Contacted for comment, Power did not respond.

The Wonthaggi project, said one, was “badly managed. The bid was badly managed. The risk assessments were badly managed. Execution was badly managed … the industrial relations strategy was disastrous, and the design was hopelessly deficient.”

Construction is a complex business. Power’s former Thiess colleagues say he did not have the project management skills and failed to bring in the necessary help.

Said one former executive: “Any normal human being in that situation would be sufficiently smart or sufficiently humble to hire the right people around him, but it was his way or the highway. That’s the style of the bloke, and that’s just diabolically dangerous when you’re talking about projects where the risks and complexities are of such a magnitude.”

So, what happened when he went west? Some former colleagues suggest that managing an iron ore company is a simpler proposition than construction. It is, for all its scale, a “dig it out and ship it out” business model.

But, in reality, running Fortescue meant managing relations with many stakeholders – state and federal governments, investors, traditional owners and, of course, China.

And when Power left, the company had grown to be the world’s fourth-largest iron ore producer. He was, according to The Australian Financial Review, “universally admired right across the mining sector for his diligence, work rate, ability to set and hit the right financial and operational targets and his determination”.

Given this record, it is surprising that when approached to speak for this profile, Andrew Forrest declined an interview, or to give any statement.

If there has been a falling out, no hint of it has been made public.

If there were any gaps between Forrest and Power during the time at Fortescue, they were invisible. Forrest had his enthusiasms and his bêtes noires and, so far as anyone can tell, Power was in lockstep.

But if you worked at Fortescue, there was no room for dissent. A former employee who left the company over the way it dealt with Indigenous owners describes the company culture – which Power and Forrest liked to characterise as a tough but caring corporate family – as a “FIFO culture: standing not for fly-in fly-out but fit in or fuck off”.

And while Forrest is known as a philanthropist when it comes to Indigenous affairs – encouraging jobs and training and fostering Indigenous-owned companies – both he and Power railed against “mining welfare”, referring to the payment of mining royalties to traditional owners.

Fortescue was locked in an ugly dispute with the Yinjibarndi traditional owners over the Solomon mine, 300 kilometres south of Port Hedland, which began before Power joined the company and continued after he left but frequently made headlines during his time as CEO. Forrest insisted he would not provide “mining welfare” by reaching a conventional royalty arrangement.

In 2019, after Power had left Fortescue, the company lost an appeal to the Federal Court over native title and went on to unsuccessfully appeal to the High Court. It now faces paying potentially millions in compensation for going ahead with the mine without the traditional owners’ permission.

The head of the Yinjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, Michael Woodley, told The Saturday Paper that Power should be judged by his actions and his legacy – a community still divided and a company weighed down by reputational damage and yet-to-be-determined compensation.

“He was following an already established agenda in how to deal with First Nations people. He wasn’t disrespectful in his conversation,” says Woodley. “Where I found him being disrespectful was his actions. And those actions say that he was weak and inefficient.”

So, has Power had another incarnation now that he is out of Forrest’s shadow?

In the end, the Covid-19 commission may well amount to less than meets the eye – rather like that other much-touted solution, the COVIDSafe app.

Or perhaps there is a great deal going on – all of it behind the scenes. In its submission to the senate select committee on Covid-19, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) said it was concerned about NCCC’s “lack of transparency”. “There is limited public information available about how the Commission operates, the advice it issues, the process for developing that advice … and the management of any conflicts of interest,” ACOSS said.

That concern is echoed by select committee member and Labor senator Murray Watt, who said, “Scott Morrison has made the Covid commission central to his economic recovery plan. It simply must therefore be accountable to the Australian people. It’s not good enough for such a powerful body to operate in secret, away from public scrutiny.”

As for the commission’s chair, Power remains something of a blank vessel: the humble man who grew up and worked his way to the top of corporate Australia while eschewing the flamboyance of our best-known business figures. His position means he appears uniquely positioned to influence how the country will attempt to recover from the economic devastation of Covid-19. The reality behind the appearance is yet to become clear. 

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "Mysterious Mr Power, architect of our recovery".

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Margaret Simons is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author. She reports on business for The Saturday Paper.