The government’s Covid-19 commission poses an enduring risk to Australian democracy and must be overhauled, including by the creation of a public and mandatory conflict-of-interest register, a new paper has warned.
A University of Melbourne policy brief scrutinising the functioning of the National Covid-19 Commission advisory board found the body suffered from a lack of transparency, had no legislative underpinning, and had not employed an independent appointment process to select its members.
The brief, published by the Melbourne school of government, warned times of crisis often posed “risks of executive expansion”, which deserved heightened scrutiny.
Author Elizabeth Hicks wrote that the NCC “offers lessons” in the accretion of executive power during times of crisis. She said the risks of such a body would endure beyond the crisis.
“In Australia, the relationship between executive decision-making, political parties and regulatory capture remains a challenge for democracy,” she wrote. “Such challenges in turn colour the nature of novel advisory bodies and structures created to respond to moments of crisis.
“And although not immediate, the risks entailed within executive subversion of democratic deliberation reach far further than the life of the crisis itself.”
The commission was set up by Scott Morrison to drive Australia’s economic recovery from Covid-19, and is headed by high-powered company directors, who have been given a broad remit.
The NCC is chaired by the former Fortescue Metals chief Nev Power, who stepped aside from his position as deputy chairman of gas company Strike Energy in May.
The body has faced sustained criticism for its lack of transparency and the public has largely relied on leaks to understand what the NCC is doing. Last week a leaked interim report by its manufacturing taskforce showed it had proposed greater support of the gas industry.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has so far resisted numerous freedom of information requests in relation to the commission, either refusing to release or redacting critical material which would show how it handled conflicts of interest.
The briefing paper recommended a significant overhaul of the commission, building on a blueprint for reform prepared by the Centre for Public Integrity.
It recommended greater transparency measures, including a requirement that the NCC publish a register of meetings, processes, advice to cabinet and the identity of its membership.
It also recommends that a conflict-of-interest register be established and published on the department’s website, the tabling of enacting legislation in parliament, greater parliamentary oversight and a one-year review of its operations.