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Who is really planning Australia’s economic comeback?

May 21, 2020 • 16m 59s

The Prime Minister has appointed a panel of business leaders to develop a blueprint for the country’s economic recovery, but there are serious questions over how they were picked. Today, Mike Seccombe on the vested interests leading this panel and what they’re pushing for.

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Who is really planning Australia’s economic comeback?

228 • May 21, 2020

Who is really planning Australia’s economic comeback?

RUBY:

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

The Prime Minister has appointed a panel of business leaders to develop a blueprint for the country’s economic recovery.

But there are serious questions over how this influential group was picked, and how it operates.

Today, Mike Seccombe on the vested interests leading this panel and what they’re pushing for.

**

RUBY:

Mike, tell me about the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission. What is it exactly?

MIKE:

Well, it's a body that is supposed to be planning Australia's recovery in the post Covid-19 world. The prime minister set it up on March 25.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And that’s why today I‘m announcing the establishment of a National Covid-19 Coordination Commission.

MIKE:

And he said its purpose was, and I'm quoting, to coordinate advice to the Australian government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social impacts of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent

MIKE:

So it's big. It's meant to be sort of a whole of economy, whole of society, examination of where we're at and how we get out of it.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Whether it’s repurposing manufacturing lines, whether it’s retasking workforces that one day were taking calls for travel companies, now taking calls at Centrelink...

MIKE:

As to the members of it, they were handpicked by Scott Morrison. They're overwhelmingly businessmen and women and a number of them have connections to the fossil fuel industry. And the person leading it…

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And I’m joined by Neville Power here today, Nev Power as we know him...

Is Neville Power, who's a mining company executive, he was the CEO of Fortescue Metals Group. And he’s now of the board of another gas miner called Strike Energy.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

He has great experience in doing just this task. If you work in the mining sector, you need to know how to solve problems and big ones.

MIKE:

And he's now being compensated more than $250,000 for six months work running this commission.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And it’s great that Neville, when I rang him the other day, I simply said: “Nev I need you to serve your country.” And he quickly responded.

RUBY:

So the government established this commission to help develop a roadmap for economic recovery. And it's led by this former mining company, executive Neville Power. So what does his vision for an economic recovery look like?

MIKE:

Well, we haven't heard much of it. We were hoping to find out more about it during a hearing by a Senate committee that was established to inquire into the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Thanks everyone for coming. I declare open this hearing of the Covid-19 select committee…

MIKE:

But Power was a no show.

RUBY:

What? He just didn't turn up?

MIKE:

He didn't show up. That's right. There was an invitation extended and he didn't front, which was a great pity because there are a lot of unanswered questions around this commission. Such as, what exactly the Covid-19 coordination commission is actually doing to further its objective, which is and I'm quoting, mobilising a whole of society and whole of economy effort to ameliorate the economic impact of the virus.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Really my first question is to get a better understanding of the commission’s role, and what you actually do...

MIKE:

How Neville Power came to be appointed to the commission and when and why exactly.

Archival tape -- unknown:

You're not answering my question sorry - how were they chosen? Was there criteria established?

MIKE:

And how the rest of the commission, many of whom, as we've already mentioned, have connections to the fossil fuel industry, how they came to be appointed.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Has any consideration been given to adding anyone to the commission?

MIKE:

And what records were being kept of the commission's meetings and dealings. And by whom the commission was being directed and to whom it would report. And when that report would report and whether its recommendations would be made public.

Archival tape -- unknown:

We need to know at this point whether we will be able to scrutinize that advice, it’s a very important question…

MIKE:

And how various other advisors to the commission described it rather amusingly in the committee hearing as appendages, came to be appointed to their influential roles.

Archival tape -- unknown:

He’s a what sorry?

Archival tape -- unknown:

He’s appended to the commission?

Archival tape -- unknown:

He’s appended?

Archival tape -- unknown:

Sounds painful...

RUBY:

Mike, what's an appendage? Who and what are they?

MIKE:

Well, they're advisers, but by another name. Probably the most interesting of those is one. Andrew Liveris, who's a former chair and chief executive of Dow Chemical Company, one of the world's biggest chemical manufacturers and fertilizer manufacturers, who's also currently on the board of the Saudi petroleum giant Aramco.

Exactly how he came into the picture is uncertain. And when the Senate committee inquired into this, they were unable to find out how Liveris came to be appointed or why exactly what his role is. We did learn, however, that he is not bound by any requirement to disclose his interests or potential conflicts of interest, as the commissioners are supposed to do. So he's a bit of a dark horse. And in 2016, he was chosen by President Donald Trump to lead Trump's American manufacturing council.

Archival tape -- Donald Trump:

His name is Andrew Liveris, one of the most respected businessmen in the world....

MIKE:

And he appeared with Trump for the announcement, he said…

Archival tape -- Liveris:

President-elect Trump, I can’t tell you, I tingle with pride listening to you….

MIKE:

“I tingle with pride”. “Listening to you”. So he is a big Trumpy and is now performing for the Australian government, a similar role to that which he performed for Donald Trump.

RUBY:

Hmm, so that's someone who's advising the commission and we know who's leading it, but who actually fronted the Senate hearing and did they reveal any information about how the commission which has this important mandate is actually working?

MIKE:

Well, one person who did turn up was Phil Gaetjens, who's the secretary of the prime minister's department. But I've got to say, he didn't offer much in the way of clarity either. He was either badly briefed or he was not being forthcoming.

Archival tape -- Phil Gaetjens:

Again, I think there was a review process of trying to get broad coverage and a list of names, and these were chosen. I have no further details other than that. Could you take on notice...

MIKE:

He did suggest that a couple of points that the commission's advice to the government might be deemed cabinet in confidence and therefore would not be public, would be effectively secret. The chief executive of the commission, Peter Harris, appeared instead of Power, and he didn't offer much in the way of answers either. In fact, he conceded a number of times that major aspects of the function of the commission and how it would report were, quote, opaque, unquote, even to him.

Archival tape -- Peter Harris:

I’ve already advised senator Whish Wilson, the process is opaque for where our work goes once it is completed.

MIKE:

Unsurprisingly, I guess you would say as the list of sort of unanswered questions or questions taken on notice grew ever longer. Some members of the Senate committee became, you know, more than a bit testy.

Archival tape -- unknown:

You are the controlling person of an organisation that is funded by the taxpayer. If you were the CEO of a company and you said, 'I've got no idea what my people are doing or when they have to report,' I would fire you.

MIKE:

The committee was supposed to have been an opportunity for our elected representatives to question this group of unelected business people who've been given this wide-ranging brief and paid pretty well for it by the prime minister.

Archival tape -- Peter Harris:

I'm the CEO of a commission. In the end, the commissioners will tell me what they want done—

Archival tape -- unknown:

No, no, you are serving the Australian public, and someone is providing you with some directions as to what you should do, what the scope of your activity is, and those sorts of things. You're not paid to just sit around and make your own stuff up. You've got an objective...

MIKE:

So, you know, all in all, during more than three hours of questioning, the committee elicited little information that would go towards placating those of us who are concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability in the commission and in the government. It's a pity, therefore, that the commission leader Neville Power failed to turn up to possibly offer a little clarity and to demonstrate some accountability, particularly given that he's found time to spruik the commission's work to other audiences.

RUBY:

Hmm, and what has he been saying?

MIKE:

Well it turns out that what he's been spruiking is essentially a vastly expanded gas mining industry in Australia.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Mike, attempts by Senators to get information about the workings of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission have largely been unsuccessful.

So, can you tell me what you have found out about Neville Power’s agenda… and what the Commission might be working towards?

MIKE:

Well, it's working on a bunch of fronts. But the bit that seems to most animate Neville Power is is all to do with energy.

Archival tape -- unknown:

Nev we are absolutely delighted to have you with us today, and really thank you for your time. You’re probably the busiest person in Australia right now.

MIKE:

He gave a webinar presentation at an event organized last week by the trans-Tasman business circle and he told his audience of business leaders...

Archival tape -- Neville Power:

Things like climate change were there before COVID and will be there after COVID. There's nothing really changed and nothing should change our agenda.

MIKE:

You know, his priority, he said, was getting the economy running again.

Archival tape -- Neville Power:

So we have an urgent priority here, which is to address that and to get people back working again. But once we are over this crisis period, then the debates around climate change should continue.

MIKE:

So, you know, essentially, he was saying we could put response to climate change on the backburner for an indefinite period. Then he went on to pitch once again for expanded gas mining as a means of encouraging gradient, greater manufacturing in the country of quoting again agrochemicals and fertilizers and things like that.

RUBY:

Okay. So don't worry about climate change and start mining gas, is the message.

MIKE:

Well, yes. And I've got to say, in that particular presentation to that trans-Tasman business circle, he went rather further than he has before. But his advocacy of, you know, a vastly expanded gas mining industry isn't new. In various interviews and other forums since his appointment and before his appointment, Power has invariably come back to the examples of gas, fertilizer and chemicals manufacturing.

Archival tape -- Neville Power:

Well, ladies and gentlemen, you might be sitting there saying why is Fortescue suddenly interested in natural gas?

Archival tape -- Neville Power:

We’ve been leading the debate about the development of domestic gas supply in Australia.

Archival tape -- Neville Power:

Western Australia has a phenomenal advantage with natural gas and energy.

MIKE:

And, you know, at this point, it's worth remembering that not only does he have a big background in the gas industry, not only do a number of other members of the commission but Andrew Liveris, the special adviser, used to run one of the world's biggest chemical and fertilizer manufacturing companies. So, you know, it's some it's I guess you could say a convergence of interest, if not a conflict there.

RUBY:

Okay. So how likely is it that these ideas about a gas-fired recovery for the economy will actually be put into action?

MIKE:

Well, we’ll have to await the final report, assuming we ever see it. But what we what we can say at this stage is that the powers vision is is very enthusiastically endorsed by the energy minister, Angus Taylor, who congratulated Power on his appointment and on his focus and said that he also wants to see a, quote, gas-fired recovery, unquote, for Australia's economy as it comes out of lockdown. So Taylor suggests the industry could, you know, be a focus of post COVID government stimulus and be given financial support.

RUBY:

So what is the argument in favour of investing in gas?

MIKE:

The arguments put by the gas lobby and I would include both Power and Trraylor, and that is that it's cleaner than other fossil fuels. And it's the best way to shore up Australia's power supplies. And those are both questionable propositions. I mean, methane, so-called natural gas, is essentially methane. What we do know from international evidence is that the contribution of methane to global warming has been vastly underestimated.

There was research published in Nature in February that found that human-caused methane emissions were 25 to 40 per cent higher than previous estimates. And the bottom line is that natural gas is not the benign transitional fuel alternative to coal that its advocates claim, and that the second point here, of course, is that a gas fired recovery may not be the best option for Australia. According to a lot of climate experts.

RUBY:

What do climate experts say the best option is then?

MIKE:

Well most recently a report from the Grattan Institute this week which advocated hydrogen burning hydrogen produces zero greenhouse gases. None produces water as a byproduct. And they suggested that was the best way to power Australian industry. And in particular, they suggested it could create tens of thousands of jobs in the renewable sector.

Another very well-credentialed think tank, the Australia Institute, has found that even with the added costs of storage associated storage tacked on, renewables are now the cheapest form of power generation. But unfortunately, that, it appears, is not where the commission and the government are focusing on themselves so much. The fear is that the Morrison government is honoring the old ‘Yes Minister’ principle of never initiating an inquiry unless you know what the outcome is going to be in advance.

RUBY:

So Mike, what is your read on this? Why does it seem like the federal government is exploring a gas-fired economic recovery?

MIKE:

There's two basic reasons. Money is one, blind ideology is the other. In terms of money. There's big vested interests involved here. There's a lot of money tied up in fossil fuel extraction in this country. And those interests are big political donors. So there's a lot of political goodwill that they have bought.

Plus, of course, there's a constant revolving door between government and the fossil fuel industry with people moving from one to the other and back again. Going to the second point, blind ideology. There are still a lot of people on the conservative side of politics who don't see the urgency of addressing climate change and in some cases don't even believe it's happening.

So, you know, essentially it comes down to a combination of those things, greed and ignorance. And as the old saying goes, it's very hard to convince a man of something if his livelihood depends on not believing it. So that's where we are.

RUBY:

Mike, thanks so much for your time today.

MIKE:

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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RUBY:

Also in the news -

A Senate inquiry into domestic violence has wrapped up three months early, without holding public hearings.

The inquiry was established after a Brisbane mother and her three children were burned to death.

It was given broad scope to examine the issue of family violence but ended without public submissions, with senators declaring a wide inquiry "of limited value" due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The move has drawn criticism from advocacy groups and the crossbench… and comes as some jurisdictions report a rise in women seeking help from domestic violence during the lockdown.

And the NSW government has announced travel restrictions in the state will be scrapped from June 1.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian called on interstate residents to book a holiday in NSW, saying “we intend to keep our borders open”.

Cultural institutions like museums, art galleries and libraries will also be allowed to open from the same date.

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

The Prime Minister has appointed a panel of business leaders to develop a blueprint for the country’s economic recovery, but there are serious questions over how this influential group was picked, and how it operates. Today, Mike Seccombe on the vested interests leading this panel and what they’re pushing for.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

National Covid-19 Coordination Commission scrutinised in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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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.

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228: Who is really planning Australia’s economic comeback?