The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission has refused to disclose the potential conflicts of interest of the commissioners, despite questions over links to the gas industry.
The commission was quizzed extensively at a Senate inquiry on Thursday over chairman Nev Power's many directorships, including his interest in West Australian oil and gas company Strike Energy, the use of his private jet to transport government ministers, and the wider interests that members of the commission and its manufacturing taskforce have in the gas industry.
The commission was also questioned about the $500,000 contract it awarded without tender to a former Liberal party pollster Jim Reed to do market research.
Deputy chief executive Malcolm Thompson said Mr Reed had been on a government panel for marketing work.
"I don't have any further information apart from the obvious that the judgement was this company could provide the kind of market research that was required," he said.
Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet deputy secretary Stephanie Foster said a "pragmatic decision" had been made to move whole-of-government communications to the commission.
Neither she nor Mr Thompson could say who had chosen Mr Reed's company, other than saying it would have been a staff member.
Separately, Mr Power told the inquiry he had piloted his private jet on an Easter trip from Canberra to Perth where he offered three government ministers a lift. Later, he clarified that one minister, Ben Morton, had travelled on that flight, and separately he had flown Attorney-General Christian Porter and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann between Perth and Canberra on May 3.
Senator Cormann later said that given Mr Power was making the trip anyway it made sense to accept his offer, which had been declared.
"Perth is a very long way away from Canberra and with all direct commercial flight options between Perth and Canberra cancelled, and other more indirect flight options severely curtailed, it has been extremely difficult to travel between Perth and Canberra for work," he said.
Mr Power is paid $294,000 for the six-month contract heading the COVID-19 commission, the amount calculated to cover his flights, travel and expenses, on the basis of weekly return trips at $6000 each, plus $350 a night for accommodation and expenses. He is using his private jet.
Mr Power said while he had intended to commute weekly, to date he had been kept in Canberra longer than expected and had only made four Canberra-Perth flights. While the jet has made about 20 trips since his appointment in late March, Mr Power said it was available for charter flights when he wasn't using it. Asked about a trip to Merimbula on April 27, he said, "That trip was by myself to visit a close friend who lives in Merimbula, in Bermagui actually."
Later, he returned to the inquiry to say he hadn't visited a friend or colleague in Merimbula but it had, in fact, been a private business flight, including Mount Isa, where he had travelled on "cattle station business". He had obtained an exemption from border closures for the Mount Isa trip as an essential agricultural worker. He did the helicopter mustering on the cattle station, he said.
The links between some commission members and the gas industry have come under scrutiny because of the commission's promotion of gas, including a report from its manufacturing taskforce arguing that high gas prices are holding back manufacturing. It urges government to underwrite the development of new gas fields and urgently expand gas pipelines, potentially including an east-west gas trans-continental pipeline.
The taskforce is chaired by Andrew Liveris, who is listed as a special adviser to the commission and has energy company interests.
Mr Power said the report was not a statement of the commission's views.
"The commission is not recommending any subsidised delivery of gas. But we have talked about the provision of infrastructure," he said.
The commission was advocating gas as a way of restarting manufacturing industries which had shifted overseas because of high energy prices, he said, citing the potential domestic manufacture of fertilisers and farm chemicals. If lower gas prices for households was a spin-off, that would be a good thing, he said.
Mr Thompson said Mr Liveris and the commissioners had been asked to lodge declarations of interest, but the other members of the taskforce had not. He would not release any details.
"They are private interests and it's not our intention to provide those on the record," he said.
Secretary of the Prime Minister's department Phil Gaetjens said the declarations had been provided in confidence and shared with other members of the commission.
"Each commission member has provided an undertaking to not use any information that they gain in the course of their official duties as a member of the commission for personal gain," he said. They had all agreed not to buy, sell or trade Australian investments.
Senator Rex Patrick asked Mr Power how the commission was mitigating against commissioners benefiting later from advice they had given while on the commission.
"The purpose of the commission is to provide broad business advice in to government, we are not decision-makers," Mr Power said.
Mr Power, who is a director of 18 companies, said given his role was advisory there was initially no requirement to curtail his own business activities. But given perceived conflicts of interest, he had decided to stand down from chairing the boards of Strike Energy and the Perth Airport and had appointed an attorney to act for him on his other firms. Asked whether he was receiving director fees from Strike Energy and the airport he said he wasn't sure, but he probably was.
Senator Patrick also questioned Mr Power on his shareholding in Fortescue Metals which wanted to develop a gas field, piping the gas to the east coast via a new east-west pipeline. Mr Power confirmed the project but said Fortescue had not bought the gas leases and it had not gone ahead. Asked whether it was still a possibility, he said he was no longer a decisionmaker with Fortescue but simply a shareholder and not privy to planning decisions. He also said Strike Energy would not necessarily benefit from an east-west pipeline, since the east and west gas networks were quite separate.
Mr Thompson said 35 public servants had been deployed to help the commission, as well as another three staff employed to work on whole-of-government communication.
The commission had contracted Boston Consulting for analysis and other support, at a cost of $500,000. Asked why that hadn't been done by public servants, he said the commission judged the expertise was needed. A third contract, worth $42,000 and for creative design and editorial services, went to Commtract, a company headed by a former Liberal staffer.