Former Mining Boss Heads Australia’s Economic Response to COVID-19

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Neville Power

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared the closure of Federal Parliament in March 2020, he made a last minute announcement to the Australian public that a new National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) would be created.

The Commission’s job is to “coordinate advice to the Australian Government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic.”

So far, the NCCC has assisted with procuring vital supplies to health workers and also to educate businesses on how to keep employees safe.

The Commission’s mandate also includes looking at recovery projects that will kick start the economy when the lockdowns ease.

‘Gas-fired’ recovery for Australia?

It’s been reported that one of the Commission’s top recovery projects is a fertiliser plant in Narrabri in Northern New South Wales. Another project high on the list of priorities is a west-east pipeline from the North West Shelf in Western Australia.

What’s unusual about the first project is that it will be heavily dependent on the controversial Narrabri coal seam gas project, which is yet to be approved by the New South Wales government.

The second was considered by the Federal Government in 2018, and shelved after a study concluded it was feasible but not the most economical way to increase gas supply.

Favourable treatment of mining and coal

Neville Power, former CEO of Fortescue Metals Group, which is heavily involved in gas projects in Western Australia and NSW, is the NCCC’s head.

At the time of his appointment, many Australians were critical of him being appointed to lead such an important taskforce, as well as concerned about the potential for conflict of interest given his extensive contacts within the industry.

But the NCCC says it’s confident it has “best-practice arrangements for managing the integrity of its advice,”  including recusal from discussions where there may be a conflict of interest and written declarations to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet recording their interests and those of their family members.”

The NCCC claims to have put in place additional processes to manage potential conflicts of interest, such as commencing each meeting of the Commission with a declaration of any relevant conflicts.

Even so, these don’t necessarily address the potential for bias in favour of fossil fuels and mining or the fact that he majority of Australians have been pushing the Federal Government for some time, to make policies that take urgent action on climate change, by for example, transitioning away from fossil fuels and  being more mindful of damage that mining does to the natural environment.

Around the world in recent months, although the climate change debate might have been knocked out of the headlines, images doing the rounds of social media show a significant reduction in air pollution.

It’s impossible to ignore what we can all see with our own eyes. With a third of the world in lockdown there is less air travel, less cars on the roads, minimal factory production, The climate change experts say that  2020 is on track to deliver more than a 5 per cent drop in global Co2 emissions.

Climate change inaction continues

Only four months ago, the Australian Federal Government, PM Scott Morrison in particular, was facing serious backlash over government policies and inaction on climate change which have, over time, contributed to long-term drought and bushfires.

The spread of COVID-19 too, has been linked to poor air quality in some countries.

In amongst the current catastrophe that is COVID-19, these issues have been minimised as the focus now turns to protecting public health by putting the economy into an ‘induced economic coma’ that will force many small businesses to close, and millions of Australians to lose their jobs.

But in rebuilding Australia, there is an opportunity to do things differently. Certainly, Australia currently relies heavily on the gas and coal industries and simply stopping the production of both would be tantamount to economic suicide. But it’s also been acknowledged for many years that Australia has an opportunity to lead the way in renewable energy technology – including solar and wind. Information published recently showed that the renewable sector – could – if given the opportunity to expand create around 60,000 jobs.

And yet, there’s still no real movement in favour of either of these at a federal level.

This is increasingly frustrating for those Australians who have fought hard for a stronger position on climate change and for the government to create policy to support it. But it would appear, right now, that the Government looks likely to remain committed to its current stance with no real change on the horizon.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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