Government refuses to release conflict-of-interest disclosures from Covid commission members

Officials from Scott Morrison’s department have denied requests because declarations are provided “in confidence”

Nev Power with Scott Morrison

The leadership position of Nev Power has raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest because the Covid commission has promoted gas development as a key way to boost economic growth after the coronavirus crisis.
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Officials from Scott Morrison’s department are refusing to release conflict of interest disclosures from members of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission so they can be scrutinised by the public because the declarations are provided “in confidence”.

The departmental pushback has come in responses to questions on-notice from the Senate committee examining the government’s response to the pandemic.

Controversy has been escalating about the potential for conflicts of interest among the commissioners handpicked by the prime minister to provide advice at the height of the coronavirus crisis.

The high-powered coordination commission, headed by the former Fortescue Metals chief Nev Power, has a broad remit, advising the government on all non-health aspects of its pandemic response. But concerns have been raised about the lack of transparency of the group’s deliberations, and the absence of a conventional governance framework for a taxpayer-funded enterprise.

The NCCC has a budget of more than $5m, and all but one of the commissioners are being paid for their advice. In addition to Power, the commissioners are Greg Combet, Jane Halton, Paul Little, Catherine Tanna and David Thodey.

The leadership position of Power has raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest because the commission has promoted gas development as a key way to boost economic growth after the coronavirus crisis.

Guardian Australia last month revealed a leaked draft report by a taskforce advising the NCCC that recommended Australian taxpayers underwrite a massive expansion of the domestic gas industry, although Power has subsequently characterised that report as an early draft.

Power has stepped aside from his position as deputy chairman of a gas company, Strike Energy, but the chairman made it clear during an appearance before the Senate committee on Thursday that he had not recused himself from NCCC discussions about developing gas during the Covid recovery.

Officials supporting the work of the commissioners have told the Senate committee all commissioners are required to make disclosures about potential conflicts of interest given many are company directors. Commissioners are required to declare conflicts at the start of every meeting, and in addition to the standard declaration, commissioners had to disclose more specific conflicts as they worked through proposals.

In response to follow-up questions from the Senate committee, officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet say each member has provided a written declaration to the department in confidence, recording their private interests, and those of their immediate family members. The declarations have been shared among the commissioners “to ensure maximum transparency”.

The department says it has identified any significant interests which may give rise to potential conflicts of interest, “and has reminded members to remain alert to discussions to ensure that where a potential conflict might arise, appropriate arrangements can be put in place, such as recusal of specific deliberations”.

It says each commission member has provided an undertaking to not use any information that they gain in the course of their official duties as a member of the commission for personal gain. Commissioners have also agreed to refrain from buying, selling or other trading of Australian investments while a member of the commission.

But the department is refusing to release the declarations publicly.

Morrison’s department told the Senate committee: “Commission members’ declarations are provided in confidence and contain sensitive personal information related to themselves and members of their immediate families – the disclosure of which may unreasonably infringe the privacy of the individuals concerned”.