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Who is Neville Power, the man leading Australia's coronavirus recovery?

Jul 29, 2020 • 13m 51s

The Prime Minister has revamped the National Covid Coordination Commission, the body he tasked with leading Australia’s pandemic recovery. But what do we really know about Neville Power, the man in charge? Today, Margaret Simons on Power’s background, and what the Commission is actually doing.

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Who is Neville Power, the man leading Australia's coronavirus recovery?

275 • Jul 29, 2020

Who is Neville Power, the man leading Australia's coronavirus recovery?

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

On Monday Scott Morrison announced a revamp of the National Covid Coordination Commission, the body he tasked with leading Australia’s pandemic recovery.

But not much is known about Neville Power, the man handpicked by the prime minister to run the NCCC.

Today, Margaret Simons on who Power is, and what the Commission is actually doing.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Margaret, is it strange that we know so little about someone who has been as prominent in business as Neville Power?

MARGARET:

It is a little strange, particularly given that the prime minister obviously thought that he was the man for his current job. But he has been rather in the shadow of other people.

RUBY:

Margaret Simons writes on business for The Saturday Paper.

MARGARET:

He's also universally described as a calm and quiet man. And he was once said to be Australia's least narcissistic CEO. So he hasn't sought the limelight. And, of course, he declined to be interviewed for this profile.

RUBY:

Tell me a little bit more about his reputation in business. He was the CEO of Twiggy Forrest's Fortescue Mining and before that was at Thiess construction. So, what did people say about his record?

MARGARET:

Well, two very sharply divergent views. Those who talk about his record at Fortescue credit him with putting the bedrock under Twiggy Forrest’s big dreams, riding the roller coaster of iron ore prices and relationships with various stakeholders and growing the company during that time - in fact, saving the company at one point in 2012 when iron ore prices dropped, and the company was loaded down with the very burdensome debt.

And so he emerges from that story as Mr Competent - calm, cool, tough, collected and a really good foil to Twiggy Forrest’s dreams.

But it's almost as though the man who ran Thiess was a different person, because people talk about him quite differently.

Those who remember him at Thiess are highly critical. Now Thiess Constructions at the time, its biggest projects were the Wonthaggi desalination plant for the Victorian Government - very complicated project - and the airport link in Brisbane.

And both of those projects ran into huge problems, big cost overruns. And when Neville Power left Thiess, it became clear within weeks that there was what insiders describe as a basket case left behind with huge losses on both projects, particularly the desalination plant. People blame Neville Power firmly for the problems there.

He was headhunted by Twiggy Forrest for the Fortescue Mining position, really just weeks before some of the depth of the problems became evident to the financial markets.
So you've got Mr Competent at Fortescue, and something quite different in the way people remember him at Thiess. It's like he changed personality when he flew west.

RUBY:

And can you take me back and tell me a little bit about his formative years?

MARGARET:

Sure. Well, he was born in 1958. And it's really, you know, almost an Australian archetypal story. He was raised on Bushy Park, which is about 70 kilometres from Mount Isa, a cattle property. Homeschooled until he was twelve. And I interviewed his nanny and she remembers him, particularly in contrast to his siblings, who were a bit more boisterous as, quote, a serious little fellow, unquote.
Of course, Power is anything but little these days; one of the first things people mentioned about him is how imposing he is physically - very tall and solid.

He left school in his teens and started work as an apprentice fitter and turner at Mt Isa Mines. And he spent nearly 20 years with that company, rising through the ranks and eventually running some of its divisions. And in the meantime, he got a Bachelor of Engineering from what's now the University of Southern Queensland.

And later on in life, he got an MBA from the University of Queensland. He then went south and ran Smorgon Steel for a while, which is a steel manufacturing company - doesn't exist anymore. It was one of the last elements of the Smorgon business empire. And from there, he moved to running Thiess.

RUBY:

What about his life outside of business?

MARGARET:

Yes. So he's a pilot, a very keen pilot. He owns a private jet. He also flies helicopters. He still owns the family property in North Queensland, near Mount Isa, and he returns there regularly and musters the cattle. He's still very much got that connection to rural Australia.

RUBY:

So, as well as his work in mining, Neville Power is the head of the National Covid Coordination Commission. Can you tell me about that commission?

MARGARET:

Sure. Well, I can tell you what is known, but one of the persistent criticisms as the commission is that there isn't much transparency. We're not really clear what it's doing. Having written this profile, I suspect maybe it's not doing as much as was anticipated, but it's possible there's a great deal going on behind the scenes, in which case there are certainly concerns about lack of transparency.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Margaret, we’re talking about Neville Power and the National Coronavirus Coordination Commission. What do we know about what the commission is actually doing?

MARGARET:

Well, not much.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“Thank you chair. And Neville Power, chair of the Covid-19 Coordination Commission.”

Archival Tape -- Neville Power:

“Well thank you everyone…”

MARGARET:

Power appeared before a Senate committee in early June, and he talked about in the first five weeks, which was that period of crisis in March, going through into April, how they used their connections to unstick supply chains and solve immediate problems.

Archival Tape -- Neville Power:

“We also helped to patch disrupted supply chains with border closures and international border closures, and particularly with things like keeping marine pilots available for shipping movements through major ports and transport of materials.”

MARGARET:

Since then, the public facing part of their work is really pretty modest. If you go to the website for the commission, you will find information sheets aimed at business on Covid safe operations and Covid safe opening of hospitality and so on. And they are undoubtedly useful, but there's nothing about them that makes you think the public service couldn't have generated them, perhaps with a bit of consultation.

And then they claim to have engaged with a huge number, I think it's over a thousand, businesses and community groups. And I did a bit of a sample of those bringing some of the ones that are on the list. Most of them are on the list because they attended webinars or other events that were addressed by Power or the commission members. I only found one who had had extensive conversations.

And there's some odd omissions on the list as well. For example, the ABC isn't on the list - SBS is, it should be said - which is a little strange given the ABC obviously has a recognised role as national broadcaster and emergency broadcaster.

So there may be a great deal going on behind the scenes. There was a interim report by a manufacturing taskforce that was actually leaked to the media back in May and that was recommending government investment in developing a gas industry as part of the Covid recovery. But Power distanced himself from that report when he appeared before the Senate.

Archival Tape -- Neville Power:

“The leaked report, senator, doesn't reflect the views of the commission. It was an interim report, and I can't recall whether we'd seen it at all or whether it was in very early draft and presentation when we saw it.”

MARGARET:

He said it was just a preliminary document that didn't necessarily represent the views of the commission, which is, in any case, only an advisory body. It doesn't have decision making power.

RUBY:

Can you tell me more about Monday's announcements? How has the commission's function changed?

MARGARET:

Not a huge amount seems to have changed.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Good morning everyone. I’m joined by Nev Power, and I will be making an announcement today about the National COVID Commission and its re-formation as a Prime Minister's advisory body…”

MARGARET:

The prime minister said he's asked them to focus on jobs, JobMaker schemes, and on the recovery.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“We believe that that Commission needs to now move into a new gear, as we have sort of moved through a lot of those early problem-solving tasks and as a result I have decided to re-establish it as an advisory board to myself as Prime Minister to work across the full spectrum of our JobMaker plan…”

MARGARET:

But that has always been part of its role. It's always been about giving advice on the financial aspects of the impact of the pandemic. So it's not clear to me that's changed. He's also slightly tweaked the name of it; it's now the National Covid Commission Advisory Board. But again, it was always an advisory body, not a decision-making body. So it's yet to become clear whether there's, you know, whether this is just a repackaging of the same old thing or whether it's actually doing something different. And it's still, I would say, unclear as to exactly what it is doing.

RUBY:

Is there anything else that has struck you initially about what the prime minister said today?

MARGARET:

Well, again, the lack of transparency. We have no idea as to how these people were selected or chosen, what criteria the government was trying to satisfy. I mean, there's a fair sprinkling across the states and across different sectors. Two members have significant credentials in renewable energy. So potentially that suggests that renewable energy will be a focus for job creation.

But I must say, I suspect that maybe there isn't as much going on as we might think. Maybe the commission is the Covid safe app of business organisation for the recovery. But I could be wrong. It could be that an enormous amount is going on, which in one way is of greater concern because it's not at all transparent.

RUBY:

Meg, thank you so much for your time today.

MARGARET:

Pleasure.

RUBY:

Margaret Simons writes on business for The Saturday Paper, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news…

Archival Tape -- [Audio from Black Lives Matter rally] Unidentified Man #1:

“We now work to... I would call on people to leave now. Leave now. Leave now. Don’t come near me.”

RUBY:

Police have arrested six people at a Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney, including the protest organiser.

Archival Tape -- [Audio from Black Lives Matter rally] Unidentified Man #1:

“Justice for David Dungay-- we will not stop until the guards are charged.”

RUBY:

The rally was ruled unlawful by the NSW Supreme Court on the weekend, but supporters said they would march anyway while social distancing and wearing masks.

Five of those arrested were handed penalty infringement notices for breaching public health orders.

And Victoria has recorded 384 new coronavirus cases and six more deaths.

The state has paused non-urgent elective surgeries to free up more staff to treat COVID-19 patients.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

On Monday the Prime Minister announced a revamp of the National Covid Coordination Commission, the body he tasked with leading Australia’s pandemic recovery. But what do we really know about Neville Power, the man in charge of the Commission? Today, Margaret Simons on Power’s background, and what the Commission is actually doing.

Guest: Business writer for The Saturday Paper Margaret Simons.

Background reading:

Mysterious Mr Power, architect of our recovery in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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auspol covid19 coronavirus economy morrison nevillepower




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275: Who is Neville Power, the man leading Australia's coronavirus recovery?