Chair of the commission tasked with coordinating Australia’s economic response to Covid-19 has revealed that the commission has not required conflict of interest disclosures from taskforce members tasked with advising it, including a manufacturing taskforce stacked with gas sector interests.
Chair of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) Nev Power appeared before a senate committee hearing on Thursday, also confirming that the NCCC commissioners themselves had provided financial interest declarations to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, but they would not be released publicly.
However, members of the three NCCC taskforces, established to provide advice on manufacturing, charities and industrial relations, had not been asked to provide disclosures.
“The commission took the position in the judgment that it was in the interest of the commission to have the chair of the task force provide a declaration of interest, but we did not seek that from other members,” deputy CEO of the NCCC Malcolm Thompson told the senate committee hearing.
The concessions raise further concerns about the financial interests of those being engaged by the Morrison government to lead its economic response to Covid-19, after the body that heavily features members with connections to oil and gas companies, advocated for an expansion of the gas industry.
Nev Power himself was forced to step back from duties in his position as deputy chairman of gas company Strike Energy while he serves as chair of the NCCC, with a spokesperson for the NCCC saying that Power would no longer participate in Strike Energy board meetings due to “perceptions of conflict of interest”. Power still holds $2.4 million worth of shares in the company.
Power told the committee that he initially did not think it would be necessary to distance himself from his business interests, as the NCCC was simply serving an advisory role, but ultimately stood back from his board roles when the perceptions of a conflict of interest became clear.
But Greenpeace Australia Pacific Campaigner Jonathan Moylan suggested that it was clear that the influence of the gas sector was clearly impacting the recommendations of the NCCC.
“Strike Energy director Nev Power told the Committee that he was appointed as NCCC Chair because of his business connections and remains listed as a director of a company with gas interests in Western Australia. Australians deserve an independent commission that can develop plans in the public interest,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific Campaigner Jonathan Moylan said.
“Mr Power also testified that the Commission specifically ruled out examining the role of renewable hydrogen as a manufacturing feedstock before any modelling was conducted on policy options to accelerate the decarbonisation of the manufacturing sector.”
“The Commission was also unable to describe how conflicts of interests are managed, including EnergyAustralia’s 20 percent stake in the Narrabri gas project under the leadership of Catherine Tanna. For all these reasons any many more Greenpeace is calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to abolish this conflicted and compromised commission,” Moylan added.
When asked about the NCCC’s considerations of the renewable energy sector, Power told the senate committee that the NCCC’s members also had strong interests in the renewable energy sector, it the body’s manufacturing taskforce had formed a view that new gas supplies were key to supporting new manufacturing industries in Australia.
“A number of the commissioners have deep interests in renewable energy and transition arrangements for energy in Australia. So there is a wide variety of expertise and interest in that area. And we’ve consulted very widely,” NCCC chair Nev Power told the senate committee.
“The discussion around gas in the [manufacturing] taskforce was around predominantly the provision of a feedstock for manufacturing of fertilizers and chemicals in Australia. Currently, we import most of those products and we don’t have the luxury of having those jobs here in Australia.”
“It was about looking at the fastest way to establish or to retain those manufacturing businesses that are here through the provision of competitive gas to those businesses.”
However, a leaked interim report of the NCCC’s manufacturing taskforce provides the details of much more substantial proposals for an expansion of the Australian gas industry.
The interim report of the manufacturing taskforce included recommendations for the Morrison government to directly support towards the gas industry, including calls for the government to financially underwrite the expansion of new gas supplies, to lift gas moratoriums in New South Wales and Victoria, and to support new investments in a gas pipeline infrastructure.
The interim report cites four potential new gas projects that could be the target of financial support from the Morrison government, including the Beetaloo, Narrabri, Bowen Basin and Perth Basin projects. It is understood that the taskforce proposed a revival of a plan for gas pipeline linking Western Australia and South Australia, a plan long dismissed as unviable.
An analysis of the industry connections of the membership of the NCCC, and its manufacturing taskforce, undertaken by 350.org Australia detailed their substantial direct and indirect linkages with the resources sector, and in particular, the gas industry.
The NCCC’s manufacturing taskforce is chaired by oil industry executive Andrew Liveris, who has served as an independent non-executive director of international oil company Saudi Aramco, as the taskforce’s members include Viva Energy CEO Scott Wyatt, and includes two representatives of Manufacturing Australia, chair James Fazzino and executive director Ben Eade, a body that has campaigned against carbon pricing and most recently lobbied for the Liddell Power Station to be kept operating.
“Morrison has established an opaque and unaccountable body with deep links to the fossil fuel industry, and Nev Power and the Covid-19 Commission has serious questions to answer regarding perceived conflicts of interest,” 350.org Australia CEO Lucy Manne said.
“We could be following the lead of countries around the world calling for recovery measures that address climate change and the economic crisis together – but instead, Nev Power appears to be set on using this moment to push the development of massive new gas projects that fuel dangerous climate change and lock in an unsafe future for Australia.”
“If the perceived conflict of interest is too great for a gas company, surely it should be too much for the federal government,” Manne added.
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