Nev Power and Mathias Cormann at Senate estimates (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Where does the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) end and the National COVID-19 Commission begin? 

That’s the question being asked after another eye-opening appearance by commission chair, former Fortescue boss Nev Power, at Senate estimates yesterday.

Power, appearing alongside Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, faced questions about the commission’s high-level access to cabinet documents and ministers, including aboard Power’s private plane.

In a startling revelation, Power said the commission had given “input” to the government on various topics ahead of the federal budget, including about JobSeeker and JobKeeper, triggering a heated exchange between Cormann and Labor’s Katy Gallagher. 

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Power: “We submitted points on JobSeeker and JobKeeper, yes.”

Gallagher: “JobSeeker didn’t get extended beyond December. Was that the advice… ”

Cormann: “Well hang on, hang on, hang on … This is where I’ve got to step in. Mr Power can’t answer that question.”

Gallagher asked Power about taking ministers for a ride on his private plane — her point was that it gave Power “special access to decision-makers”. 

“It’s a pretty cosy arrangement, don’t you think?” she asked. “The prime minister picks a handful of people, puts them on a contract and then gives them access to sensitive and confidential government documents?”

Cormann maintained there was “nothing remarkable” about the arrangement. 

“We get advice from a variety of sources,” he said. “The Covid commission is one important input.”

The increasingly prominent and powerful role of the unelected commission worries governance experts who say the arrangement is far from “normal”, and even risks “subverting” democracy.

“Far too much that is being done by Scott Morrison and his government is being done in secret,” says Stephen Charles, a former judge and director of the Centre for Public Integrity. 

“When you have people being given lifts in private planes, it does indicate a degree of cosiness which is rather concerning.”

There are still a lot of things we don’t know about the hand-picked COVID-19 commission, which sits “within government” after being given a new mandate in July.

Here are some of the things we do know:

  • The business leaders brief, and gets briefs from, the national cabinet as well as the national security committee, which deals with foreign policy and border protection
  • PM&C staff have access to materials including “green” briefs that go to the expenditure review committee of cabinet. These materials can form part of briefings to business leaders
  • Leaders on the commission receive “baseline” security clearance so they can have access to confidential cabinet material
  • Business leaders have access to secure government iPads with PM&C emails
  • There have been very few — “[fewer] than 10” — occasions where business leaders have declared a conflict of interest despite maintaining positions on company boards.