The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) was set up as a fait accompli to push a deregulation agenda and divert taxpayer money to fossil fuel companies, and its advice is expected to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.
Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson told Voice of Action he was concerned the NCCC – labelled “opaque” even by its CEO – was deliberately “set up to be covered by cabinet in confidence”. He described the heavy focus on fossil fuels as “institutional corruption” or crony capitalism.
Industry Minister Karen Andrews told the National Press Club on Wednesday that the government would be rolling back already weak environmental protections and giving more generous tax breaks to cashed-up miners.
The government has been accepting most of the demands of the fossil fuel lobby since the crisis began, as 350.org’s Fossil Fuel Watch website shows.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor this week revealed he would open up climate funding to big emitters, following a secret review of the government’s climate policy by corporate lobbyist and former gas executive Grant King.
The King Review, which did not hold public consultations, calls for weaker regulations of major emitters and more public funding for failed “carbon capture and storage” technologies.
The government has accepted almost all of the King Review’s recommendations, leading to claims by the Climate Council and the Australia Institute that it is placing the interests of fossil fuel producers ahead of the interests of Australians.
Taylor, who admitted on Tuesday that it was not the Australian government’s policy to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, has been pushing a “gas-fired recovery”.
“It’s like the old Yes Minister political saying, you only appoint the committee or task force that’s going to give you the advice that you want.” said Whish-Wilson.
The NCCC, hand-picked by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and sitting within his department, is stacked with fossil fuel interests, including:
- Nev Power – non-executive director and deputy chair of gas exploration and production company Strike Energy; former CEO Fortescue Metals Group
- Catherine Tanna – managing director of Australia’s second largest carbon emitter Energy Australia; board member of the Business Council of Australia; former managing director of Queensland Gas Company
- Andrew Liveris – independent non-executive director of oil and gas giant Saudi Aramco; deputy chairman of global chemicals and engineering company Worley Parsons; chair of President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council; former executive of Dow Chemical Company.
- James Fazzino – non-independent director of energy infrastructure company APA, former CEO of Incitec Pivot, one of Australia’s largest gas users.
- Ben Eade – executive director of Manufacturing Australia which includes as members Tomago Aluminium Company (advocate for the extension of the life of the Liddell coal-fired power station) and Incitec Pivot.
- Innes Willox – CEO of Australian Industry Group, described by InfluenceMap as one of the world’s most effective opponent’s of action on climate change.
- Greg Combet – former consultant to gas firms AGL and Santos who has supported dramatically increasing domestic gas production.
Yaron Finkelstein, Morrison’s principal private secretary, is the former boss of Crosby Textor, which was an advisor to mining giant Glencore. Former Crosby Textor (now CT Group) executive Jim Reed last week scored a $541,750 contract to provide research to the NCCC.
NCCC chairman Neville Power, a non-executive director of gas firm Strike Energy, has said recently that “debates about climate change” can wait until the crisis is over, but he has been openly advocating in multiple interviews for increased domestic gas production.
In Wednesday’s Australian Financial Review, Power was spruiking a gas pipeline from Western Australia, increased gas production in the eastern states and more energy-intensive manufacturing like fertiliser and petrochemicals. He said more gas would lower electricity prices and make the transition to renewables happen faster.
It comes after a Sky News interview on Sunday where Power said gas was critical “because it allows us to transition to renewables without causing instability and unreliability and most importantly very high costs”.
But Richie Merzian, Climate & Energy Program director at the Australia Institute, said there’s no reason to invest in gas as part of the economic recovery because it “is not a transition fuel” and renewables were preferable in terms of cost, reliability and low emisssions.
“According to research we have coming out soon you could invest in almost any other sector of the economy for the same amount of money and create more jobs than you could the gas sector,” said Merzian.
Despite the economics not stacking up, Taylor was pushing to keep gas and coal assets on the generation grid for as long as possible including using taxpayer money to finance new builds of gas and coal power.
“It really shows that when it comes to the crunch the energy minister isn’t interested in a market-led approach to electricity, but is quite happy to intervene in the market to back in fossil fuels instead of letting renewables dominate, which they would have otherwise done,” said Merzian.
Cabinet in confidence is already being used by the government to conceal information, with officials on Tuesday refusing to release a full report on the first four weeks of the free childcare policy. It instead released a generalised summary of its review which Labor MP Amanda Rishworth said ensured “raw data can’t be verified or scrutinised”.
Whish-Wilson told Voice of Action he had “major concerns” fossil fuel interests would use the NCCC to access taxpayer money for subsidising fossil fuel development. There were no processes to safeguard against conflicts of interest.
“I chaired the select inquiry into the Great Barrier Reef foundation, $444 million allocated to a small private foundation with no tender … we found at the end of it we couldn’t actually trace who made the decisions to give that money to the foundation because it was covered under cabinet in condfidence,” said Whish Wilson.
On May 13 NCCC CEO Peter Harris and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Philip Gaetjens fronted up to the COVID-19 senate commitee with Power conspicuously absent.
Whish-Wilson asked Gaetjens whether the NCCC’s advice – such as on gas regulation, fast tracking of gas development approvals and subsidies for pipelines – would remain hidden as cabinet-in-confidence.
Gaetjens said the NCCC’s advice to government, “if it goes to cabinet or other things, it wouldn’t be made available” for public scrutiny in Senate estimates.
During the Senate committee Whish-Wilson repeatedly pressed Gaetjens on whether the advice would be considered cabinet in confidence – “this goes to the heart of transparency in this country” – but Gaetjens kept tip toeing around the question before other senators blocked the line of questioning.
“This is a joke, Chair. We’re not getting to scrutinise anything in this committee,” said Whish-Wilson in frustration.
Whish-Wilson told Voice of Action it was an “abuse of power” to hand pick a taskforce designed to push fossil fuels and anyone who opposes it would be “immediately painted as an economic terrorist”.
“They’re lining up their ducks and anyone who says no, this is not the way to go we need to invest in renewable energy and a more sustainable future, they’re just going to be put up as anti-job anti-recovery anti-economy,” said Whish-Wilson.
He said dozens more exploration leases for oil and gas had been approved which was “outragous because Australians would’ve expected the government to go in exactly the opposite direction after this summer of fires and mass drought and the third mass coral bleaching”.
“The fossil fuel industry is sniffing the wind and they are seeing their social license coming to an end, and they’re going hell for leather to get as much done now as they can before things change too much,” said Whish-Wilson.
The NCCC was established on March 25 with no terms of reference or register for conflicts of interest.
Independent MP Zali Steggall has been a strident critic of the NCCC: “Its membership was not subject to public consultation, or submission, there’s no transparency about its governances and processes … manufacturing and industrial advice is being received from individuals with apparent conflicts of interests.”
Gaetjens told the Senate committee that members of the NCCC were chosen “for the networks they have across business” but could not provide any detail about the selection process or criteria. Harris and Gaetjens could not provide any detail about advice given to government by NCCC so far.
Within the NCCC are working groups around industrial relations, manufacturing and charities but there are no details as to how these advisers are chosen. Harris admitted the NCCC was “opaque”.
Power will be paid $267,345 for six months work (purportedly to cover travel expenses) while the other commissioners are working for a day rate of $2000.
Meghan Quinn, deputy secretary of the Treasury’s macroeconomic group, said a “business liaison unit” was established within Treasury on March 16 which was tasked with liaising with businesses and their peak bodies and feeding up information to the NCCC.
Quinn said the resources for Treasury’s existing “deregulation task force” had been redirected to form a “Regulation Resolution Unit”, which “works with the business liaison unit and the NCCC and has been focusing on trying to urgently resolve regulatory and administrative blockages”.
Whish-Wilson told Voice of Action this move suggests that the NCCC was set up with a preconcieved deregulation agenda which was being implemented “under the cover of Covid”.
“It’s no conincidence around the same time [Environment Minister] Sussan Ley came out and made an annnouncement that they would be making recommendations to cut green tape,” said Whish-Wilson.
Quinn said the NCCC and Treasury were having “regular conversations” but she could not say whether the interactions or advice could be scrutinised.
“They’ve been set up as part of Prime Minister and Cabinet processes,” said Quinn.
Greens leader Adam Bandt said the NCCC is a “fossil fuel front”.
“The government clearly wants to use this crisis to push a fossil fuel agenda, to remove protections for workers and to shift power to corporations,” Bandt told Voice of Action.
A group of integrity organisations including the Human Rights Law Centre, Transparency International, the Grata Fund and the Centre for Public Integrity have sounded the alarm about the NCCC and its tight links with the gas industry. They call for greater transparency and integrity measures for the “opaque and unaccountable” NCCC, arguing trust in government has been undermined by the recent rorting of the sports grants program.
“All public agencies need to be accountable to the public interest. The NCCC requires independent appointments, strong oversight mechanisms, and to be established under legislation like any other government body,” said former Victorian Court of Appeal judge Anthony Whealy, who is chair of the Centre for Public Integrity.
The government has rejected concerns that the NCCC is stacked with fossil fuel interests feathering their own nests, with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann saying they were a group of “distinguished Australians who are providing great service to our country at a difficult time”.
Despite being touted as a safer transition fuel, gas can actually be worse than coal for the environment due to gas leaks during the production and extraction process.
The mining lobby has previously boasted about its influence in getting rid of the Rudd government’s mining tax and carbon price.
Danielle Wood of the Grattan Institute, who studies the links between politicians and industry, told ABC’s Hot Mess podcast that major donors to political parties had “a very good strike rate at getting meetings with senior ministers”.
It was not just donations and the revolving door of staffers but the threat of big advertising campaigns – such as the $10m campaign against the mining tax – which ensured the mining lobby had a huge influence on political decision making.
Merzian said a recent international survey found Australia’s climate policy ranked worst out of 60 major economies. Australia will only meet its Paris agreement targets, which are already inadequate, using a Kyoto carryover “loophole”.
On Four Corners this week former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, said Australia’s climate policy was a “mess”.
“It’s incoherent and it has been for a decade.” said Parkinson.
Even the recently announced $300 million Advancing Hydrogen Fund could become a vehicle for more fossil fuels due to the inclusion of hydrogen produced using coal and gas.
The government has already spent $1.3 billion on carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects without a single “clean coal” program to show for it. Climate change expert Ketan Joshi says CCS is the preferred vehicle for perpetual climate delay and “an eternal gravity well for public money with nothing to show for it”.
The government now intends to use money from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to pay for more CCS projects.
“It’s not enough that they’ve pork barreled $1.3 billion with nothing to show for it, they want to tap into the limited amount of climate funding, the $2bn we have over the next 15 years, and use that as well – talk about greedy,” said Merzian.