Australian PM’s department refuses to release Covid-19 commission documents.
Freedom of information requests related to the body that’s guiding economic recovery have been refused or heavily redacted
The prime minister’s department refused to publicly release 1,100 documents linked to the Covid-19 commission’s discussion of gas projects and 690 documents about potential conflicts of interest, while also redacting its meeting minutes on economic and national security grounds.
The government has faced sustained criticism about the lack of transparency surrounding its National Covid-19 Coordination Commission, a body designed to guide Australia’s economic recovery.
Leaks show the NCCC has pushed for government support of new gas projects as a means of driving economic growth, and that an interim report from the NCCC’s manufacturing taskforce recommended greater support of the gas industry.
The taxpayer-funded commission is stacked with high-powered company directors and 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.
A series of freedom of information requests – including from the Guardian, environmental group 350 Australia, the Australia Institute, and journalist Hannah Ryan – have asked for documents that would likely have revealed how potential conflicts of interest were handled by the commission.
The requests have so far either been refused on practical grounds or heavily redacted by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Guardian requested conflict of interest declarations made by the commissioners, and related internal correspondence, notes, internal records, briefings, or external correspondence. The department said it had identified 690 relevant documents and refused the request on the grounds it would be too onerous to process. It is now processing a revised request.
350 Australia asked for documents and correspondence held by the NCCC regarding existing or proposed gas projects. The activist group was told the department had identified 1,100 relevant documents. The request was refused because it would be too much work.
Ryan made a similar request for meeting minutes and agendas. The documents were released but heavily redacted.
In one instance, the department invoked a section of the Freedom of Information Act that prevented release if information would “cause damage to the security of the Commonwealth”.
The Australia Institute, meanwhile, requested all policy and procedure documents governing the operations of the NCCC. It was told no such documents existed. The department said the NCCC came under its remit and was subject to its policies and procedures.
Critics say the freedom of information requests show two things: a significant lack of transparency surrounding the commission’s deliberations, and significant gaps in the usual governance, policy and procedures that public servants work under.
Richie Merzian, the Australia Institute’s climate and energy director, said the institute’s FOI revealed that the normal governance, processes and expertise involved in the public service were simply non-existent in the NCCC.
He said the lack of transparency around conflicts gave the public little confidence such issues were being dealt with properly.
“The commission has also refused to release minutes of its meetings, including any reference to its enthusiastic support for more gas projects. Surprisingly, the commission claims it is dealing with information that threatens the whole Australian economy and even national security.”
350 Australia’s senior campaigner, Shani Tager, said such proposals should be rejected, and again showed the danger of its secrecy.
“This is another example of lack of transparency with the NCCC, with the government sitting on this report since late May without releasing it,” Tager said. “The prime minister should release the report and reject any recommendations to subsidise the gas industry.”