Nev Power COVID-19 coordination commission
Nev Power (Image: AAP)

That stalwart of Australia’s pandemic response, the National COVID-19 Commission, is no more.

Morrison put the commission out of its misery yesterday, declaring the “crisis management” phase of the pandemic over (even as thousands of Australians remained stranded in virus-ravaged India).

I want to thank the chair of the board, Mr Nev Power, and each of the current and former commissioners for their work. They answered the call for their country when they were needed and have worked hard to support the government’s plans for managing the virus and economic recovery.

The board provided a real-time business perspective on critical aspects of our COVID-19 response. [They] helped businesses safely reopen with COVIDSafe plans, and provided a business perspective to help inform our policies for economic recovery.

From the outset, the commission was stacked almost entirely with business leaders, with a few bureaucrats tossed in for good measure (though they quickly disappeared).

It was supposed to be a “problem-solving” group that would allow “CEOs to talk to CEOs” and involve the private sector in the pandemic response.

So, what exactly did we get out of the commission, chaired by former Fortescue Metals boss Nev Power and stacked with executives from the fossil fuel industry?

Gas-led achievements

The board’s largest achievement — a secret manufacturing taskforce report — was used to justify the Coalition’s “gas-led recovery”. This triggered a wave of criticism given the board’s connections to the gas and fossil fuel industry, particularly special adviser Andrew Liveris, the former Dow Chemical boss who sits on the board of mining services company Worley and oil giant Saudi Aramco.

The plan has been used to justify taxpayer subsidies for new gas projects, including a gas-fired plant in Kurri Kurri NSW, at a time when the rest of the world is making drastic moves to lower emissions.

The commission has put out little in the way of official announcements, with its news section consisting entirely of:

  • Power’s speeches and statements to the Senate Select Committee COVID-19, which he told in June that, for the first weeks of the pandemic, the commission “used our networks and experience” to address personal protective equipment shortages, unblock supply chains, and connect laid-off workers to jobs
  • Four resignations (Greg Combet in July, Catherine Tanna in August, Peter Harris in October, and David Thodey in December)
  • Three working group announcements, covering manufacturing, industrial relations, and the not-for-profit sector
  • Two business tools: a business advice resource that compiles government and non-government resources; and a planning tool “to help businesses reopen and be COVIDSafe”, which, the media release emphasises, “complements the Safe Work Australia online hub, which remains the definitive source of information”.

Secret advice

In July the commission was granted a new mandate that allowed much of its work to be deemed “cabinet in confidence”, meaning it could operate largely behind closed doors. This was challenged by independent Senator Rex Patrick.

The commission spent more than $1 million on market research, none of which has been released publicly. About $541,000 of that went to former Liberal Party pollster Jim Reed, prompting Labor to accuse the government of handing contracts to mates.

Another $500,000 went to Boston Consulting Group (BCG) for “management advisory services”. BCG was also hired by the government to advise it on gas modelling. PricewaterhouseCoopers was also given $79,200 for management advisory services.

Costs

Less publicised has been the cost of the commission, whose other work, according to AusTender, includes more than a dozen public contracts, including:

Salaries of board members

Tenders released in May 2020 covering March to September state Tanna got $54,000, Paul Little $108,000, Combet $38,800 and Jane Halton $118,800.

$294,079 went to the “Trustee for Myube Trust” aka Power (who PM&C said in May would get $267,345 following criticism of an original figure of $500,000).

Peter Harris’s consulting company got $137,550 for April-October 2020 and then $58,360 from October 2020 to April 2021. Jenny Acton, former senior deputy president of the Fair Work Commission, received $83,000 for her work on the industrial relations taskforce.

Unspecified labour hire service

The Trustee for Myube Trust received $133,384.86 for temporary personnel services — dubbed “EA to NCCC Chair Labour Hire Services” — from March 2020 to June 2021 (jumping gradually from an original spend of $73,000.00).

Relatbl Recruiting, a Canberra-based Indigenous labour hire firm, also received $77,422.50 for “EA to NCCC Chair Labour Hire Services”.

Creative design and editorial services

$42,000 for Commtract Communication.

Parking fees

$12,240 went to the Trustee for Secure Kings Unit Trust for July 2020 to June 2021, and $21,561 to Trustee for Hedley Family Unit Trust for about the same length of time.

*This article was amended to reflect the fact that Greg Combet was remunerated $38,000 as a member of the COVID-19 Commission, not $118,000 as originally reported, and as stated on the government’s AusTender website.

Peter Fray

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