More Questions than Answers from NCCC at COVID19 Oversight Committee Hearing

National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) Chief Executive Officer Peter Harris appeared to push back or was unable to answer Senate Select Committee questions regarding the appointments, actions and conflicts of interest of NCCC Commissioners and ‘special advisers’.

Key points from the hearing:

  • NCCC CEO Peter Harris admitted the Commission process is “opaque” and stated “I’m not trying to say I don’t know what’s going on, I know a bit at least”
  • Mr Harris suggested it would take far too long for it to list all the tasks it had assisted with, eventually agreeing to report on tasks that took at least 5 days.
  • Mr Harris was unsure but ‘expected’ all Commissioners are company directors and was unsure as to how Commissioners were selected.
  • Dept. of Prime Minister & Cabinet confirmed NCCC Commissioners were required to sign declarations of interest, however, this requirement did not extend to special advisers such as Andrew N. Liveris, who has many corporate interests listed on the NCCC website
  • Mr Harris confirmed the Commission had been subject to lobbying as soon as it was set up, by project proponents seeking government support.
  • Mr Harris confirmed there had been one conflict of interest recusal so far, but declined to reveal the identity of the individual or the nature of the conflict, taking the question on notice at the insistence of the Committee Chair Senator Gallagher.
  • Mr Harris said he had ‘volunteered’ for the role when called on, but did not mention a $137,000 labour hire contract with the commission with a company which he is the listed company director.
  • Mr Harris was unable to answer if the Commission was subject to Foreign Influence Transparency requirements.
  • Mr Harris was unable to explain the selection process for NCCC Chair Nev Power, though was able to confirm his remuneration for the role is $500,000 for the six month duration of the Commission.
  • Mr Harris was unable to explain why Mr Power was not appearing before the Senate Select Committee, despite an invitation to appear before the Committee.

“The appearance of the National Covid-19 Commission CEO at the Senate Committee hearing only served to draw more questions than answers, confirming the Commission’s lack of transparency and apparent conflicted operations,” said Richie Merzian, Climate & Energy Program Director at the Australia Institute.

“The Commission is carrying out problem solving and policy advising role in the Government’s efforts to address Covid-19 and yet the Commission CEO was unable to list the tasks undertaken by the NCCC over the last 5 to 6 weeks.

“There is a real breakdown in democracy and accountability when the Prime Minister can handpick and pay half a million to a corporate executive to head the Covid-19 recovery committee, but the appointee can simply choose not to appear before the Parliament’s Oversight Committee.

“It is unsettling that the NCCC have been lobbied by project proponents from day one and, according to the Commission CEO, do not take direction from any Minister, while having access to every government department.  

“We still have bushfire ravaged communities from our catastrophic Summer and the Prime Minister has elevated a former corporate executive with a clear agenda to increase the mining and burning of fossil fuels to advise on the Covid-19 response.

“It is concerning that Special Adviser Andrew Liveris was not required to sign a Conflicts of Interest Declaration despite numerous company director positions including for a major foreign oil company.

“Despite a lengthy exchange with the Commission CEO the rationale for a recovery planning body operating outside of normal democratic and public policy processes remains incredibly unclear.

“Today’s hearing only serves to demonstrate the need for proper scrutiny, transparency and integrity measures to be put in place in relation to the NCCC,” Mr Merzian said.