The Politics    Wednesday, May 13, 2020

On notice

By Paddy Manning

On notice

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens

Fast and loose worked okay in a crisis, but no longer

Australia’s national cabinet is operating in such a grey area of process and legality that even the nation’s most senior public servant, DPMC secretary Phil Gaetjens, had to take basic questions on notice in a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19. Do the decisions of the national cabinet have to be ratified by the full cabinet? Do they bind the states and territories? How, exactly, is it different to the Council of Australian Governments? Are all of its workings covered by cabinet confidentiality? These questions do not have clear answers. Just as cloudy (or flying in rarefied air above them) is the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), whose chairman – Nev Power – is getting paid an astonishing $500,000 for his services (this also covers the occasional trip by private jet). Power, a former chief of Fortescue Metals, was oddly unavailable to answer questions from the parliament today. His chief executive, Peter Harris AO (a former chairman of the Productivity Commission), padded up and admitted that the NCCC’s processes were somewhat “opaque”. All this opacity, who does it serve? Well, it serves the Morrison government, which is still ducking and weaving about the sitting of parliament itself, and which is no fan of accountability at the best of times. 

The national cabinet is running Australia’s response to the coronavirus – a once-in-a-century challenge to the Federation. It has won plaudits all round, particularly from the participating first ministers themselves. Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy lauded the national cabinet today, while Health Minister Greg Hunt has said that “in 50 and 100 years’ time, I suspect people will look back on this national cabinet as being one of the most amazing achievements of the Federation in Australia’s first 200 years”. But the fluidity and ad hockery that served in an emergency – and worked with the goodwill of all involved – is not appropriate as things get back to normal. If the national cabinet is going to endure, either supplementing or replacing COAG, serious questions need to be asked.

Shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally asked Phil Gaetjens this morning whether her former Sky News co-host Peta Credlin was right to say that the national cabinet had not actually bound the states to do anything. Gaetjens said Credlin was entitled to her opinion, and Keneally pressed him. Has the national cabinet bound the states to do anything? No answer. Gaetjens – a career public servant who was formerly Treasury secretary and chief of staff to former treasurer Peter Costello – instead did his best impression of Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister in his evidence, dancing on the head of a pin about whether and when and with whom the PM (the only permanent member of the national cabinet, which is a subcommittee of federal cabinet) might be considered to be holding a cabinet meeting.

Gaetjens also hedged his bets while answering questions from Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson about whether advice from the NCCC would be considered cabinet-in-confidence and therefore unavailable for scrutiny by the parliament. Gaetjens said maybe, depending on whether or not the advice was prepared specifically for cabinet. When his time for questioning was up, Whish-Wilson got stuck into committee chair Katy Gallagher, saying, “This is a joke … we’re not getting to scrutinise anything!” Gallagher drily thanked Whish-Wilson for his “always welcome” feedback. But there is no doubting the importance of the work the NCCC is doing, particularly on manufacturing. The NCCC has no commissioners with expertise on clean energy but is stacked with people with direct or indirect ties to fossil fuels and who are set to push for a gas-fired recovery, as the ABC has reported. Independent MP Zali Steggall told Guardian Australia she is concerned about the NCCC, which needs “transparency, proper governance and independent reporting so the Australian people know what it is considering, and why it’s considering it, and what it is recommending to government. It also needs a clear disclosure process for conflicts of interest.” Harris said today that there had been no conflicts of interest declared so far, except by himself on one occasion. 

There was one clear answer today: Nev Power, who is a director and shareholder of oil and gas company Strike Energy, is getting paid $500,000 for six months’ work (including travel and accommodation costs), while other commissioners are getting $2000 a day. To do what? Problem-solve. When Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick asked for a detailed breakdown of the work done so far by the NCCC, Harris got snarky: “That’s not how problem-solving works, Senator.” Taxpayers are paying for all this, and they deserve answers. 

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“In Melbourne’s north-east, Lawrence Harvey, who directs the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL) sound studios at RMIT, wrote that the ‘acoustic horizon’ has expanded, and sound is reflecting off houses and buildings to a greater degree. ‘Our dog kept herself amused reacting to another dog’s response the other night. There was no other dog, of course – it was her echo,’ he wrote.” 

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“In March, the organisation’s managing director, David Anderson, was to announce a five-year response to the latest round of funding cuts; it was expected job cuts would be in the hundreds, and major changes would be made to operations and programming. But the coronavirus prompted a stay of execution. As one senior ABC journalist puts it: ‘Obviously you don’t want to be telling people they’re losing their jobs on a Zoom conference.’”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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