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Despite the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission having produced few tangible results thus far, Scott Morrison has appointed six new directors with a view to jobs creation. By Margaret Simons.

‘New mode’ for Covid-19 board

The head of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission, Neville Power (left), and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at Monday’s press conference.
Credit: AAP Image / Joel Carrett

If Scott Morrison had announced the wind-up of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) this week, it wouldn’t have come as a complete shock. With the initial emergency phase of the pandemic over, the processes of government are adjusting to a new normal.

Instead, in a Monday press conference, the prime minister chose to highlight the unconventional body he created in March, stacked with high-powered business executives, reaffirming its place at the heart of the government’s economic response to the pandemic crisis.

The NCCC, Morrison said, had done “a fantastic job” but would now enter a “new mode” with six new directors and a sharpened focus on the government’s “JobMaker” plans.

The government has faced a persistent line from Labor that it has failed to provide a plan for jobs creation, and the announcement this week could be read as a retort – but if the role of the NCCC is to inform job-making policy, it has yet to prove itself fit for purpose.

The commission has been criticised for conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency. But more seriously, there is a dearth of demonstrable outcomes.

Labor’s Senator Katy Gallagher, who chairs the senate Covid-19 committee, which has had NCCC commissioners before it for questioning, says it has been “impossible to work out or understand what they are up to”.

The chair of the NCCC, former Fortescue Metals boss Neville Power, and other commissioners have described a kind of national troubleshooting role in the early days of the pandemic, using their business contacts. But even this, says Gallagher, is what the NCCC says about itself, rather than what others are saying.

Questions on notice resulting from the committee hearings have not been answered by the NCCC and are now well overdue.

The Saturday Paper has also contacted a number of the industries at the pointy end of government action to assist business, including manufacturers of personal protective equipment and key agricultural export industries.

While they have had significant federal government help, including with freight subsidies, grants and logistics, so far as they could see this was organised through the conventional public service processes, particularly the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. There was sometimes contact with the NCCC, but no obvious follow-up. Perhaps Power and his colleagues were labouring mightily in the background, but it was not evident to those on the end of government help.

Journalists and other organisations have sought details about the NCCC’s work, without success. The government has refused to make public 1100 documents related to the NCCC’s discussion of gas projects, after they were requested under freedom of information laws, as well as nearly 700 documents related to potential conflicts of interest, according to reporting in Guardian Australia.

This week, the six new appointees were being tightly media-managed by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Requests for interviews made to their organisations were referred promptly back to the department and then declined. It did emerge they had not yet met as a group, nor been briefed. Power himself has declined interview requests.

Several of the new commissioners already sit on various government advisory panels and boards. They are the “usual suspects” of government consultation. So, why have a new body? Is it transformation or window dressing?

Professor John Howe, director of the Melbourne University School of Government, says advisory bodies drawing on wide expertise can be a powerful approach to government at a time of change, but there would normally be a clearly defined outcome, task or end point. The NCCC seems to lack a clear brief, he said.

Howe sees no visionary thinkers on national economic reconstruction among its commissioners. “It seems to be a group of expert senior business and public sector leaders the government might wish to consult as part of regular operations, rather than a grasping of opportunities for fundamental changes to the economy.”

To that extent, the NCCC might represent a lost opportunity.

When Scott Morrison announced the commission in the early days of the pandemic, he said it was “about mobilising a whole-of-society and whole-of-economy effort … The commission will assist the government to ensure all resources are marshalled to this vital task in a co-ordinated and effective manner.”

On Monday, Morrison said the “new mode” would include a change of name to the National Covid-19 Commission (NCC) Advisory Board, “to more accurately reflect its strategic advisory role”.

Most news reports reflected this as moving the NCCC “inside government” with an explicit role in advising cabinet – and even less transparency as a result. But the NCCC was already part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and has always been an advisory body to the prime minister. So, what is the substance of the change?

The most visible aspect of the NCCC’s work – known only because of a leak – was the interim report of its manufacturing working group, which included recommendations for government to underwrite a massive expansion of the domestic gas industry.

One of the members of the working group, national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union Paul Bastian, told a public event held by The Australia Institute this week that he was “deeply disappointed” with what it had achieved.

The working group, he said, had been “a lost opportunity” because of its narrow focus on gas. He had been promised there would be a “deep dive” on new technology and advanced manufacturing.

That never happened.

“We’re going to be faced with new technologies, new skills, new knowledge, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, increased robotics,” Bastian said. “But, you know, despite raising it as an issue … it never really went anywhere.”

That view might be dismissed as coming from the left of politics, but it is hard to find defenders of the NCCC’s work so far, even among those close to the government.

Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, was also a member of the working group. He declined to comment on Bastian’s remarks or the report.

Meanwhile, the director of climate and environment at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Dan Gocher, criticised the working group for being “stacked with oil and gas executives” and having made recommendations “that personally benefit them and their shareholders … It’s brazen self-interest, cronyism and a disgrace.”

Catherine Tanna, managing director of EnergyAustralia, was one commissioner called out by Gocher for her company’s links to gas interests.

Her departure from the NCCC was announced this week along with the new appointments. Morrison seemed to suggest she was leaving because of the conflict of interest issue. “Cath obviously has a very specific role within EnergyAustralia. And we need to manage conflicts going forward,” the prime minister said.

But, asked what prompted her exit, a spokesperson for EnergyAustralia said Tanna had been “asked to provide advice for how the utilities and energy sector can underpin Australia’s economic recovery. That work is close to completion, and with the transition to the NCC it was the right time for her to depart.”

The NCCC already lost former Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Greg Combet, who departed in early July, citing the end of the “crisis management phase” of the pandemic. He has since repeatedly refused requests for interviews about his experience with the NCCC. Tanna also declined to be interviewed.

On Monday, The Saturday Paper sent the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet a series of questions about what the “new mode” amounted to, how the new members had been selected and what they will be paid, and requested a progress report on the NCCC’s work so far.

The response added little to material already on the public record, other than that commissioners’ conflicts of interest would be declared to the department and reviewed at the start of each board meeting. Their contract terms were being finalised “consistent with arrangements for current commissioners”, the department said.

Meanwhile, Monday’s press conference added to confusion about its role. Despite the high-powered industrial relations working group, for example, in response to questions Power said industrial relations was being looked at by the attorney-general and therefore was “not our primary focus”. Instead, the NCCC would look at “workplace trends” and skills, he said.

Some of the new appointees have credentials in renewable energy, encouraging a view that the government agrees with the many commentators urging investment in renewables as an important part of the Covid-19 economic recovery. The department’s response to questions confirmed that “affordable and reliable energy” was a government focus – but did not use the word “renewable”.

So, who are the new appointees? Su McCluskey is chair of Energy Renaissance, which is planning to build a lithium ion battery factory in Darwin. She is already on the Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration, and the Deregulation Taskforce, and was a member of the Harper review of competition policy.

The apparent replacement for Greg Combet’s industrial expertise is Paul Howes, formerly national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, and now a national managing partner of multinational business services company KPMG. He is best remembered among the political class for his role in unseating Kevin Rudd as prime minister. Howes now sits with Julia Gillard on the board of Beyond Blue.

Samantha Hogg is a former director of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) – the body established by the Gillard government to fund and drive renewable energy technologies. She is also a director of Infrastructure Australia and is best known as chief financial officer for Transurban. She is also a director of Hydro Tasmania.

Laura Berry is the chief executive of Supply Nation – the body that accredits Indigenous-owned businesses for the purposes of government procurement policies. She is already on the Ministerial Advisory Council on Free Trade Agreement Negotiations.

Mike Hirst is a retired career banker and former managing director of the Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

Finally, the youngest new appointee is Bao Hoang, co-founder and CEO of the Roll’d chain of Vietnamese fast food franchises. His biography claims strengths in strategic planning and innovation with experience in health and hospitality.

These newcomers join existing commissioners Neville Power, former Telstra chief David Thodey, senior public servant Jane Halton and former Toll magnate Paul Little.

The Australia Institute’s director of the Centre for Future Work, Jim Stanford, said in the same public event Bastian addressed this week that the initial appointment of the NCCC had been “refreshing” because of its emphasis on “meaningful conversations with other stakeholders in society”. The government, he said, was now returning to “a more traditional approach”, including an emphasis on cutting business taxes and weakening labour regulations.

Stanford said the NCCC had not lived up to its potential as an inclusive vehicle for an imaginative reconstruction plan for Australia.

Which raises a fundamental question: what is it about the NCCC, and what is it about the Morrison government, that sees this body in the spotlight of Australia’s Covid-19 response?

Surely even its commissioners must be hoping for a clearer understanding of their brief and more to say about their achievements.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2020 as "‘New mode’ for NCC".

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