Covid-19 commission grants communications contract to firm headed by ex-Liberal staffers

Labor has called for an inquiry, saying government must be transparent about how taxpayers’ funds are used

man in dark suit and tie with the australian flag hanging behind him




Labor is calling for an inquiry after a firm headed by two former Liberal staffers was awarded a communications contract by the Covid-19 commission headed by former Fortescue Metals chief Nev Power.
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

The Covid-19 commission has handed a communications contract to a firm headed by two former Liberal staffers, prompting criticism from Labor, who say they will pursue the matter through an inquiry.

In May, the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission awarded a $42,000 contract to Commtract Communication Services Pty Ltd, which connects freelance communication, marketing, creative and digital experts with contract jobs.

The contract required Commtract to provide “creative, design and editorial services” and “general support services in communicating the Australian government’s priorities and policy responses to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Commtract’s chief executive is Luke Achterstraat, a former adviser to then tourism minister Richard Colbeck, now the aged care minister, and to the former trade minister Andrew Robb.

The firm was founded by Peter McConnell, who was previously chief of staff to the former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell.

The firm’s Liberal connection was mentioned briefly during a past hearing of the Covid-19 select committee.

The contract was awarded to Commtract through a panel arrangement, which allows departments to quickly select contractors from a panel of suppliers with known expertise in a particular area.

Commtract was picked from the “digital marketplace” panel, which is managed by the Digital Transformation Agency, and has included the firm since March 2017.

It went through an open tender process to get onto the panel.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said the procurement process to be appointed to such panels was “rigorous” and carefully assessed contractors’ suitability for the work.

But the department did not answer questions on how any potential conflict was managed, or what consideration was given to other panel members before the work was awarded to Commtract.

Commtract was approached for comment but did not respond.

Labor’s Katy Gallagher, the chair of the Covid-19 select committee, said “important questions” about such contracts must be answered, particularly where they involved contracts awarded to firms with Liberal connections.

“These are taxpayers funds and the government needs to be transparent about what these funds are being used for,” she said.

“The Covid committee will continue to ask for information about the NCCC and its $5.2m budget, including this contract. Simple questions like what the commission is doing, why does it cost so much and why was this contract awarded to people with close political connections to the government should all be answered.”

The commission, recently renamed the National Covid-19 Commission (Advisory Board), was set up to provide guidance on Australia’s post-pandemic economic recovery, but has drawn criticism for its lack of transparency and proper governance.

The commission is headed by leading company directors and a former Fortescue Metals chief, Nev Power.

Key documents, including how the commission has managed conflicts, have so far been kept from the public, either through refusals or redactions to freedom of information requests.