intelligence oversight Rex Patrick
Senator Rex Patrick (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s powerful COVID-19 commission, tasked with charting a way out of the coronavirus economic crisis, has been granted a new mandate that will see much of its work remain a secret.

In changes announced yesterday, the prime minister said the commission, dominated by company directors, would now work “within government” as an advisory board to cabinet, meaning much of its advice would fall under cabinet confidentiality rules. 

Senator Rex Patrick described the changes as “deeply concerning” and said he would challenge the new rules by calling on the national cabinet to release the minutes of a May meeting under the Freedom of Information Act

“Scott Morrison will undoubtedly claim they are cabinet documents, which I will challange (sic) on the basis the ‘National Cabinet’ is not a cabinet for the purposes of the #FOI Act. Watch this space!” he tweeted

Patrick told Crikey he supported the idea of a COVID-19 advisory board, but believed its reclassification as a body within government was an abuse of process. 

“I’m deeply concerned about secrecy and the lack of transparency associated with this group,” he said. 

“Australians should have the ability to see its work, which is paid for — not by Scott Morrison, not by Josh Frydenberg, not by Mathias Cormann — but by every taxpayer.”

A commission of conflicts

Concerns about conflicts of interest and transparency have plagued the commission ever since it was set up in March.

The commission is stacked almost entirely with business leaders who remain on some of the country’s most high-powered company boards. They are not required to release disclosures they’ve made about potential conflicts of interest to the public. 

Commission chair, former Fortescue Metals chief Nev Power, was forced to step away from his role as deputy chairman of gas company Strike Energy in May after a leaked report revealed the commission’s plans for a gas-led recovery, involving a taxpayer-funded expansion of gas projects.

The commission later distanced itself from the report.

On Monday, Morrison unveiled some new appointments to the board, including unionist-turned-accounting partner Paul Howes, who famously left his high-profile role at the Australian Workers’ Union to become a partner at KPMG.

He told The Australian last month it was “liberating” to have left the union movement behind. “I’ve learned the state isn’t right (and) that the business community can effect far more social change than the state can,” he said. 

Other appointments include former Bendigo Bank CEO Mike Hirst, Australian Unity director Su McCluskey, Roll’d food chain founder Bao Hoang, Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Corporation director Samantha Hogg and Indigenous business directory leader Laura Berry. 

Former Dow Chemical boss Andrew Liveris will remain a special adviser to the group. Liveris has sparked his own questions about conflicts of interest, as a board member of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) and mining consultant giant Worley.

Morrison also confirmed the departure of the token lefty on the board, former Labor minister and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Greg Combet, who resigned earlier this month. Combet was unavailable for comment on Monday. EnergyAustralia managing director Catherine Tanna is also planning on stepping down.

A dark room gets darker

Very little has emerged about what the commission has actually done so far, despite being entirely paid for by taxpayers.

A Senate committee examining the commission heard last month it had awarded $500,000 to a group called Resolve Strategic to conduct market research. Resolve is run by Jim Reed, a long-term researcher for the Liberal Party’s pollster Crosby Textor, and was awarded the contract under limited tender. 

Morrison said the commission had been successful at fulfilling its mandate to “fix problems” early on in the crisis, including “sourcing personal protective equipment and helping address supply chain challenges”. 

He said the group, which was set up originally as a temporary body with a six-month mandate, would now work inside the government and advise on a long-term jobs recovery.

“It won’t be an external agency,” he told reporters. “It will work within government and can form part of the cabinet deliberative processes – which is an important innovation.”

Patrick said the new additions to the board did little to improve accountability.

“If you’ve got people working in a dark room, putting more people in a dark room doesn’t change that,” he said. “These people are making recommendations to government, and doing so in secret. It’s absolutely critical that the public have confidence in relation to any conflict of interest.”  

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