The government’s secretive COVID business taskforce has been described as something suiting “someone who’s a dictator”, with concerns over an “opaque” policy-making process for jobs and industry.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Monday that the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, a hand-picked organisation of business leaders, would be renamed to the National COVID-19 Commission (NCC) Advisory Board.
In addition, it has undergone a “reformation as a Prime Minister’s advisory body”.
The technical change means that the commission will now “work within government” and give it a “new gear” as it works across the JobMaker scheme with the goal of boosting business growth.
“It won’t be an external agency. It will work within government and can form part of the cabinet deliberative processes,” Mr Morrison said.
The commission has been criticised for a lack of transparency in its deliberations, amid concerns the details of its work may be difficult to obtain under freedom of information laws.
Politicians and civil society groups also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest, such as chair Nev Power’s ties to the mining industry as the former boss of Fortescue Metals, and his recent promotion of natural gas as a key component of Australia’s post-COVID business recovery.
Mr Morrison’s decision to rebadge the COVID commission has only deepened the concerns of independent MP Zali Steggall.
“It is concerning that the government has decided to move to an advisory body structure within the department rather than an independent commission. This further entrenches the lack of accountability and transparency around the work and advice of the NCCC,” she told The New Daily.
“Without a clear accountability and transparency process, this is looking a lot like a hand-picked kitchen cabinet reporting to the Prime Minister alone on issues of national importance.”
Ms Steggall, the Member for Warringah, has previously been critical of the group’s processes.
She said she was pleased to see new commission members – such as former Bendigo Bank director Mike Hirst and former CEO of the Regional Australia Institute Su McCluskey – would bring experience in regional affairs, but was disappointed there were not more members with a clean energy background.
“Unfortunately, there still does not appear to be any gender equity or transparency in the appointment process,” Ms Steggall said.
“We know that this recession has hit women hardest. There needs to be a specific focus on issues impacting women’s employment, in particular, child care and parental leave. There is no individual specifically tasked with this role.”
Labor senator Katy Gallagher said the change would further shield the commission’s work from scrutiny.
“It seems to me that this announcement has been all about making this COVID commission more secretive than it already is,” she said on Monday.
“It’s about bringing it in under the cabinet process so that any request for information, reports or advice – actually what they are even doing, what is their job – is going to be clouded under these claims of cabinet in confidence.”
Senator Gallagher, chair of the Senate’s select committee on COVID-19, has been critical of the commission including its $5.2 million price tag, and the nearly $300,000 allowance paid to Mr Power to cover his expenses and private jet flights from Perth to Canberra.
Avoids that pesky transparency thingy – wait for the blanket use of cabinet-in-confidence. Remember this show is costing taxpayers $5.2m! https://t.co/deQplS6MIN
— Katy Gallagher (@SenKatyG) July 27, 2020
“This has been a very opaque organisation from the get go. It has received more than $5 million in taxpayers funds and it is really unclear what it has been doing,” Senator Gallagher said.
“The announcement today makes the chances of us getting any more information out even less likely”.
South Australian Senator Rex Patrick said he supported the commission’s work, but slammed the secrecy surrounding its operations.
“If these people are all working in a dark room, adding more people means there’s just more in the dark room,” the Centre Alliance Senator told The New Daily.
“If the government is to recognise this as important, they have to appreciate that the Australian public needs visibility on what they’re doing and a mechanism to contribute.”
Senator Patrick said he understood why certain parts of the process would remain confidential, to promote frank discussions, but doesn’t support the wider opacity of its work.
“It’s unnecessary for those sorts of documents to be wrapped in the cabinet confidentiality blanket,” he said.
“This might suit someone who’s a dictator and doesn’t want anybody to scrutinise them, but that’s not how democracy works.”
Senator Patrick is also hoping to challenge the confidentiality of discussions at the national cabinet of state and territory leaders.
I have requested minutes of the 29 May ‘National Cabinet’ meeting under FOI. @ScottMorrisonMP will undoubtedly claim they are cabinet documents, which I will challange on the basis the ‘National Cabinet’ is not a cabinet for the purposes of the #FOI Act. Watch this space! #auspol https://t.co/yvUQePienc
— Rex Patrick (@Senator_Patrick) July 27, 2020
Greens leader Adam Bandt was another who took aim at what he claimed was a “secret” commission.
“The government’s new coronavirus commission is just a regular packaging of its old plans, based on trickle-down economics,” Mr Bandt said.
“It will operate secretly. There will not be the transparency that we need.
“But worst of all, it seems to be intent on propping up a dying fossil-fuel industry and giving support to big business at the expense of the public good.”