Today, a former Victorian Court of Appeal judge Anthony Whealy, and law and integrity groups, are calling on the Prime Minister to establish greater transparency and integrity measures for the opaque and unaccountable National Covid Coordination Commission (NCCC) and its Manufacturing Working Group, ahead of the Commission’s appearance at Covid Select Senate Committee hearings.
Peter Harris, one of the NCCC commissioners, will appear before the COVID-19 Select Senate Committee today where he is expected to be questioned about the lack of transparency and integrity measures in place for the NCCC.
The allegations of public money being misspent during the sports grants programme has undermined public trust in government. The NCCC will have significant influence over much larger amounts of taxpayer money and the human rights implications for groups disproportionately impacted by the covid crisis as it works to ‘mobilise the whole-of-economy effort to ensure the economic and social impacts from the global COVID-19 pandemic are anticipated and mitigated’.
To date the NCCC Commissioners have been handpicked and personally appointed by Prime Minister Morrison. Many of the Commissioners have links to the gas industry, raising questions of potential conflicts of interest in relation to gas projects and gas associated industries considered by the Commission.
Integrity groups are calling for measures, outlined in more detail below, that include enabling legislation, public input and regular public reporting of the Commission’s recommendations and operations, establishment of a conflict of interest disclosure register and broader representation of groups most impacted and at risk during the economic recovery.
“The level of influence of the NCCC cannot be understated. To date the level of transparency and accountability of this influential body has been opaque and could weaken our democracy without checks and balances in place” said Serena Lillywhite, CEO Transparency International Australia.
Public trust in Government is contingent on open process, transparency and scrutiny. Public participation in the immediate Covid-19 health response measures has been essential to our achievement of low transmission and fatalities. This same trust will be absolutely essential in the post pandemic economic recovery.
“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 the Hon Anthony Whealy QC, Chair of the Centre for Public Integrity.
“When enormous power is concentrated in the hands of a few people, like NCCC Commissioners, our democratic system can be compromised without a high level of transparency and scrutiny. These measures work twofold to safeguard democracy and secure the public trust necessary to govern” said Isabelle Reinecke, Executive Director and Founder of Grata Fund.
“We welcome the Government’s decision to publish the terms of reference of the Commission, but this is just the first step. We need to be assured that decisions are made in the public interest and there is a transparent and accountable process for managing real or perceived conflict of interests of Commissioners, working groups and task forces” said Lillywhite.
“Non-disclosed real or perceived conflict of interest can significantly damage public trust in the integrity of Government and undermine future policy measures. Principles of good government require upfront and ongoing transparency in the operation of Government” said Reinecke.
“There is widespread concern that NCCC is being used as a stalking horse to promote the gas industry in Australia. Such a move would be disastrous both economically and for greenhouse gas pollution. It is time for the Commission to come clean and detail exactly what discussions it has had with the gas industry and what it is considering.” said Ben Oquist, Executive Director, the Australia Institute.
The Commission released its terms of reference, last week, more than a month after the Commission began its work, and while this is a good step other measures are urgently required.
A call to the Prime Minister for transparency and integrity measures
In order for the non-health aspects of the Covid-19 response to be effective, and to ensure public confidence in its response at this critical time, the Government must ensure the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission is conducted in a manner that is consistent with Australia’s democratic principles and that ensures integrity and accountability in its advice to Government.
If the NCCC continues to function, we call on Prime Minister Morrison to take the following actions.
- Bring enabling legislation for the NCCC to Parliament that provides integrity and transparency safeguards like other commissions. Legislation should include a process of inquiry where the public are invited to contribute submissions, the commission reports on findings and recommendations which are then considered by the Government. The use of interim reports should be considered in order for the NCCC to provide timely and transparent advice.
- Accountability measures including a Parliamentary oversight committee, review of the role and operations of the Commission after the first year of operation, regular reporting including requiring publication of the Government response to recommendations.
- Ensure there is immediate transparency over the day-to-day operations to the NCCC and require it to publish an active register of meetings, processes for soliciting proposals, any advice provided to the Government, membership of any working groups, regular reporting about the activities of the commissioners, its budget and spending and Freedom of Information procedures.
- Set up a proper conflict of interest disclosure register, as a matter of urgency, which is maintained by all members of the Commission, working groups and advisory bodies associated with it, such as the Manufacturing Taskforce and IR Working Group. The register should be published on the PM&C website, along with processes for managing conflicts of interest in the work and advice of the Commission and an active register of recusals from meetings.
- Set up a fair and open system for the appointment of Commissioners via legislation, including public advertising of positions, selection based on qualifications and bipartisan appointment. The NCCC must have broader representation of groups, given its remit of the non-health related aspects of the pandemic, including representatives of groups most impacted and at risk during the economic recovery.