National COVID-19 Commission
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Contracts have been flying out the door at the government’s powerful and secretive National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCC), and they’re landing in some interesting places. 

First we heard about the $541,750 contract to market research firm Resolve Strategic. Resolve is run by Jim Reed, a former polster for Liberal Party polling company Crosby Textor (C|T).

Then details emerged about another $42,000 contract that was awarded to Commtract. Commtract describes itself as an “on demand” communications marketplace. Its founder and CEO is Luke Achterstraat — a former Liberal Party staffer and adviser to former trade minister Andrew Robb and the then tourism minister Richard Colbeck, now the aged care minister. The company was founded by Peter McConnell, who was chief of staff to former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell.

Now Labor is stepping up its rhetoric, with Katy Gallagher, chair of the COVID-19 select committee, saying “important questions” about such contracts with Liberal connections must be answered.

It is the latest development in the commission’s short but controversial lifespan, which, in just four months, has triggered more transparency and accountability questions than most government departments. 

At a Senate inquiry hearing in May, Labor senator Murray Watt asked the head of the commission — former Fortescue Metals boss Nev Power, and deputy CEO Malcolm Thompson — why the government advisory board, tasked with getting Australians back into work after COVID-19, was spending money on market research. 

“Can you tell me how that helps businesses or Australians get back on their feet after COVID-19?” he asked.

Thompson said the contracts were “absolutely critical” to the operation of the commission. However he and Power are yet to respond to questions on notice, including about how the commission manages conflicts of interest. 

The commission is under pressure to set up proper conflict of interest processes after the government announced plans last week to repurpose the group as an internal advisory board to cabinet, meaning it would potentially fall under cabinet confidentiality rules. 

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie told Crikey the contracts failed to pass the pub test. 

“In times like this when so much money is being thrown around, government agencies need to be more careful than ever to follow proper process and to be seen to be doing just that,” he said.

“The idea of a [COVID-19] commission is sound, but who populates it and how it is operating is unacceptable.” 

Wilkie said it added more questions to a commission that had been problematic from the start due to its focus on gas as a main drivery of economic recovery.

“The fact that [gas subsidies] are being pushed by people with significant vested interests in the gas industry is very concerning to lots of people, not just people who care about the environment, but people who care about proper process,” he said. 

“It does look to me like blatant opportunism by people in the gas industry at a time of national crisis.” 

Chair(woman) of the board

Samantha Hogg seems to be something of a favourite when it comes to getting on Liberal government boards. 

The Tasmanian business woman has just been appointed to Scott Morrison’s NCC, along with five other new members. But it’s not her only COVID-19 commitment. She’s also been appointed to Tasmanian Liberal premier Peter Gutwein’s Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council, set up to help guide the state’s economy through the pandemic.

But Hogg’s government appointments don’t stop there. She’s also on the board of Hydro Tasmania, the state-owned renewable energy company, and Tasmanian Irrigation, the state-owned water company. 

It’s not just Gutwein and Morrison that are fans of her work. In 2018 she was appointed to the board of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) by the then-environment minister Josh Frydenberg. She remains on that board. And in 2019, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure Michael McCormack appointed her to the Infrastructure Australia board alongside former Productivity Commission boss Peter Harris. Harris also happens to be on the NCC. 

Then there are the private boards Hogg sits on: freight operator MaxiTRANS and waste management company Cleanaway. 

Crikey wondered with all these commitments, can Hogg really be expected to make a meaningful contribution to the COVID-19 commission? We reached out to ask her but she was unavailable.