The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) is supposed to coordinate advice to the federal government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic1. The commission’s chairman is Neville Power, a former Managing Director and CEO of Fortescue Metals Group Ltd and current Deputy Chairman of Strike Energy Ltd2. A leaked draft report by a manufacturing taskforce (led by NCCC board member, Dow Chemical executive and Saudi Aramco board member, Andrew Liveris) advising the NCCC, recommends the Morrison government dramatically increase the Australian gas market by underwriting a massive expansion of the domestic gas industry, including opening new fields and building hundreds of kilometres of pipelines3. The report does not consider alternatives to gas, or what happens if greenhouse gas emissions are to be cut as promised under the 2015 Paris climate agreement3. Power’s company, Strike Energy, owns assets of gas (about 500 billion cubic feet; 14.2 billion cubic metres) in the Perth (WA) and Cooper (SA-Qld) basins4.
After publication of this draft taskforce report, which was supposed to be kept under wraps, Power has agreed to step aside from his position as deputy chairman of a gas company over conflict of interest concerns5. So he has agreed to step aside only because of the leak. If there had been no leak he would not have stepped aside. A spokesman for the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission said on Friday evening (May 22): “Because of the perceptions of conflict of interest he has stepped back from participating in [Strike Energy] board meetings and will not participate in the decisions of the board”5. However, he will presumably still attend meetings of the NCCC and will contribute to NCCC reports and advice to the government. This sounds almost acceptable until you realise that it is just window dressing, because Power recently purchased $A320k worth of shares in Strike Energy at $A0.16 per share6. So, there still exists a severe conflict of interest, in that increases in the gas market and the installation of pipelines will benefit Strike Energy. Therefore, the only acceptable solution is for Power to either sell all his shares and formally sever his ties not only with Strike Energy, but with any companies which may benefit from reconstructing the economy after the pandemic, or to resign as chairman of the NCCC.
Not taking a conflict of interest seriously is something that began with the Howard government, with then minister Jim Short being surprised at the perceived need for him to resign when it was discovered that he had ANZ shares, while having ministerial responsibility for the banking sector of the economy7. Conflicts of interest have been taken less seriously ever since. That has to change, and Power needs to go.