HomeCoronavirusTransparency around government decision-making is another casualty of Covid-19 | Katharine Murphy

Transparency around government decision-making is another casualty of Covid-19 | Katharine Murphy


n one of those strange circle of life things, about three years ago, I had a conversation with Greg Combet about how Australian politics could pull itself out of the death spiral of rolling leadership coups.

Combet – one of Labor’s brightest stars – had burned out during the leadership feud between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and with the grinding effort of legislating a carbon price in a minority parliament. Given he was a substantial loss to public life, I was interested in his thoughts about how things might become less toxic.

Part of the problem, Combet thought, was Canberra’s parliamentary culture was too insular, and the pace of governing was too punishing. One way to combat that would be adopting the American model, where people were recruited from outside the political system to serve in the cabinet or the executive. Recruiting high-powered outsiders from diverse backgrounds to mingle with the political lifers for a term of government would refresh the gene pool in the 2600 postcode, and allow some members of a government to focus exclusively on policy-making rather than having to juggle portfolio and representative responsibilities.

In a strange bit of happenstance, years later, Combet finds himself on Scott Morrison’s National Covid-19 Coordination Commission. The NCCC is not the model Combet floated, because the commissioners are advisers, not decision-makers. But the group is not that distant from his outsiders-inside concept.

The commission was a prime ministerial improvisation. Morrison pulled together a high-powered group of suits at the height of the Covid-19 crisis because he needed people with the skills to manage logistics in the economy. He needed people who knew how to find or conjure up essentials, like personal protective equipment, when global supply chains were profoundly disrupted.

Nev Power, a former Fortescue executive, and a person with many corporate and philanthropic interests, including being deputy chairman of a gas company, Strike Energy, was drafted to run the show.

The group began as troubleshooters and river guides, but it has evolved beyond the initial brief to become something of a kitchen cabinet for Morrison, providing advice on how the economy can recover after the pandemic. Covid has been a crisis where ad-hoc cabinets have proliferated. I’ll come back to this point shortly, but first, we need to finish ventilating Combet’s idea.

When he championed the idea of recruiting expert civilians to the heart of Australian governments in our conversation in 2017, Combet was clear doing this would require significant adjustments to governance. Given these external appointments would be funded by taxpayers, new forms of public accountability would need to be considered, perhaps a committee process that would deal solely with the draftees.

But in this particular instance, we’ve had the coordination commission constituted in haste, with accountability retrofitted in what looks to be chaotic and patchy fashion. A couple of quick examples. In the middle of May, officials reported NCCC commissioners were required to disclose any conflicts of interest ahead of any internal deliberations, but a special adviser to the commission on manufacturing, Andrew Liveris, the former chairman and chief executive of the Dow Chemical Company, was not required to make a disclosure. It wasn’t clear why not, because Liveris was obviously hands on, preparing advice recommending a taxpayer-backed expansion of the gas industry. A draft of that advice later leaked.

A couple of weeks later, it was reported that Liveris was now required to make a declaration, but none of these declarations would be made public. We’ve learned this week that commissioners are required to declare any potential conflicts of interest to one another, but Morrison’s department is refusing to make these declarations public.

So we have the truly bizarre situation of an in-house conflict of interest register that can’t be scrutinised by the people paying for the whole enterprise – taxpayers.

As well as accountability procedures obviously lagging the advice giving, the NCCC enterprise is expanding. It started with a budget of $3m, and that’s now up to $5.4m. There’s evidence of mission creep.

A Senate committee examining the government’s response to coronavirus heard this week a whole-of-government communications group had been located within the orbit of the commission rather than in the prime minister’s department, which is a head-scratcher, given the NCCC started as a nuts and bolts group, evolved to a policy advisory group, and now is apparently contributing to government messaging. Through the commission’s budget, taxpayers have funded a $500,000 market research program undertaken by Jim Reed, a long-term researcher for the Liberal party’s pollster, Crosby Textor, who now has his own agency, Resolve Strategic. That contract was awarded by limited tender.

As well as the extemporising, expanding, NCCC – the other ad-hoc revolution in governance we’ve seen during Covid has been the creation of the national cabinet. I reported in early April that Morrison and the premiers invented the national cabinet on the fly on 13 March after an arm wrestle in a Parramatta football stadium about how fast to impose restrictions enforcing social distancing. These characters are still making it up as they go.

The first thing to say is the national cabinet has worked during this terrible crisis. Australians have discovered that their federation functions. But leaders now want to preserve the crisis structure in perpetuity, and it’s really not clear how that will work, or whether that idea is actually in the public interest.

Morrison and the premiers presumably want to persist with the national cabinet, replacing the moribund bureaucratic creature of Coag, which in recent years had become a place where ideas go to die or be buried, because it represents a massive centralisation of government decision-making and an aggregation of power by leaders and treasurers. Cue clapping of hands.

But tucking the national cabinet in as a committee of the federal cabinet (which I gather is the proposal) is a development that will reduce the transparency of government decision-making. It means deliberations by leaders will be conducted in secret, largely outside the realm of freedom of information requests, and scrutiny by parliamentary committees.

Then there’s the practicalities. A few obvious questions present themselves. Do the states grasp that Morrison will likely set the agenda if the group works as a committee of the federal cabinet as opposed to Coag, where the agenda historically has been shared? Also: what happens if the federal cabinet overturns decisions of the national cabinet? What would that do to cooperative federalism?

A few more questions. If the national cabinet is supposed to be bound by secrecy and solidarity (and I gather that’s the intention), what happens during the first battle over health or education funding? Does everyone stay secret and solid, or does the predictable wailing and finger pointing resume? Also: does this new government of nine leaders, which could easily become a forum for captain’s picks, marginalise ministers in state and federal governments, and if the answer to that question is yes, does that dynamic become a force for instability?

There’s been a lot of naysaying in this column, so let me make a couple of things clear. The first is governments cannot be expected to get everything right in a crisis. It’s called a crisis for a reason, and we are lucky our governments have managed this pandemic competently.

But the problem with constant crisis management is it can set you up for problems down the track.

One more thing just for clarity. The point of me recounting a historic conversation with Combet is not to set him up in mortal conflict with the organisation he is now part of, the NCCC, because I have no evidence that’s the case. The point of the stroll down memory lane is to highlight the intrinsic problems associated with putting the advice cart before the governance horse.

For what it’s worth, I think Combet, in-principle, was right: it is good for governments to open the windows and get a range of voices in (the emphasis here being range of voices, and the problem with the NCCC is the membership isn’t diverse enough).

But it’s best that happens not as an improvisation, but as part of a carefully thought out strategy – otherwise the clean-up, rather than the contribution, becomes the story.

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