Scott Morrison press conference
(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Hot on the heels of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that his powerful COVID-19 commission — stacked with high-profile CEOs — would operate with more secrecy, someone appears to be leaking sensitive information.

The Sydney Morning Herald has got hold of a leaked copy of a presentation of the final report by the commission’s manufacturing taskforce. It urges the government to underwrite a dramatic expansion of the gas industry through tax subsidies and financial support for new projects.

We should be surprised — but of course we’re not.

Another leak in May revealed the taskforce was going to call for the country’s economic recovery to be “gas-led”. It was met with criticism for failing to mention climate change and the financial risk of investing in fossil fuel if emissions were cut. 

The commission’s obsession with gas as the main driver of an economic recovery is concerning from a climate perspective, as Tony Wood of the Grattan Institute said in the SMH. But it also (again) raises serious questions about a conflict of interest at the hand-picked and highly secretive commission, which the SMH failed to address.

The manufacturing taskforce is headed by former Dow Chemical boss Andrew Liveris, who is on the board of Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) and oil and gas consultancy Worley.

Liveris has long spruiked the idea of using gas to stimulate the manufacturing sector. As Rick Wilkinson, head of consulting at energy advisory firm EnergyQuest, has told Crikey, Worley potentially stands to gain from new gas projects across the country.

Then there is the commission itself, predominantly made up of company directors who remain on high-powered corporate boards. None are required to publicly reveal any declared conflicts of interest.

Its head, former Fortescue Metal boss Nev Power, remains on the board of gas company Strike Energy, despite declaring he would step back from meetings due to a (glaring) potential conflict of interest.

Among the projects being spruiked in the leaked report is Santos’ controversial $3.6bn Narrabri gas project proposed in New South Wales.

As Crikey has pointed out, Santos is the country’s second-biggest fossil fuel industry political donor after Clive Palmer; it gave more than $1 million to the Coalition in the past decade. This was also left off the SMH‘s report.

The Narrabri project received the backing of the NSW government last month, despite reports that 98% of nearly 23,000 submissions it received on the proposal opposed the project, mainly on environmental grounds. The project has been welcomed by federal Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor.

Gavan McFadzean, a climate and energy manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said it wasn’t surprising there was so much political support for the gas industry when the gas and oil sector contributes so much to Australian political parties. 

“The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission manufacturing taskforce looks more and more like a government-sanctioned gas industry lobby group,” he says. 

“Our democracy is undermined when big corporations have too much influence in politics.”

Fox in the henhouse

It appears Morrison is not the only one facing questions about a hand-picked COVID-19 advisory board. Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp has also copped a grilling over her appointments to the city’s unofficial economic advisory group.

One appointment in particular has sparked some interesting questions: trucking magnate Lindsay Fox, who along with being a captain of industry, was also a donor to Capp’s lord mayoral campaign. 

As the Herald Sun reports, Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood raised this at the council meeting last night.

“I’m not in any way talking down the high calibre of people that the lord mayor is canvassing with — they are absolutely amazing,” he said.

“But governance is critical … Lindsay Fox is amazing, but he’s also a donor to the lord mayor’s campaign. These things actually matter … and it’s worrying in an election year.”

Crikey asked the lord mayor whether Fox’s appointment created a potential conflict of interest.

In a statement she said Fox was “one of a number people who are voluntary, unpaid members of the Bringing Melbourne Back Better Advisory Board”.

“Any initiatives that are put forward for implementation and require Council resources will go through the proper process with the usual scrutiny,” she said.

Council chief executive Justin Hanney told the meeting the advisory group was not being resourced by the council.

“It’s not a board, it’s an advisory group,” he said. 

Sound familiar? 

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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