When Scott Morrison announced the launch of the “National COVID-19 Coordination Commission” in March, he explained that this new government body was tailor-made to combat the effects of the pandemic. Its task was to mobilise a “whole-of-society and whole-of-economy effort so we come through this unprecedented health crisis”. Its every decision would be “guided by the best possible medical advice”. But the team that Morrison has assembled to carry out this mission is perplexing, to say the least.
Nev Power stepped up to chair the new commission after a phone call from the prime minister. “Nev, I need you to serve your country”, Morrison told Power over the phone, according to the prime minister’s account at a press conference. Power has no experience in public health or epidemiology. He has spent his career serving as CEO of mining company Fortescue Metals Group.
Paul Little, one of the richest men in the country, is another member of the commission. Little built his fortune through aggressively expanding Toll Holdings, a large logistics company. One of Toll’s distribution centres was shut down by a strike earlier this month, in response to the company’s inadequate safety practices and poor contact tracing.
Rounding out Morrison’s elite health squad is Bao Hoang, CEO of Roll’d Group, a chain offering a fresh take on Vietnamese street food.
The commission’s special adviser is Andrew N. Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical. This is a company with decades of experience with health crises: the use of its defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War has been tied to disability, cancer and birth defects in as many as 3 million people. Its industrial herbicides are today being investigated as potentially deadly carcinogens.
The COVID commission, as its leading personnel indicate, was not established to manage a public health crisis. It is a board of capitalists assembled to push for pro-business scams.
Left-wing writer Naomi Klein used the term “shock doctrine” to describe how the capitalist class uses the disorientation created by crisis—whether an economic meltdown, a natural disaster or a global pandemic—to radically promote its agendas. This term could be fittingly applied to the COVID commission. Its cynical marketing as a body to coordinate crisis response has allowed the commission to operate outside of even the minimal accountability and scrutiny that is applied to capitalist state institutions.
Two weeks ago, the commission was reclassified from an independent body to an advisory board “within government”, reporting directly to the prime minister. Its proceedings are subject to in-cabinet confidentiality. Even the declared conflicts of interests of the CEOs who staff it are subject to strict confidentiality and don’t have to be released publicly, making the commissioners largely unaccountable. Such is the level of secrecy that most of what we know about the commission’s proposals comes from internal leaks.
During a Senate committee hearing on 11 August, chairperson Nev Power confirmed leaked documents claiming the commission was advocating a “gas-led” economic recovery. In the midst of the highest unemployment rate in decades, collapsing incomes and health infrastructure pushed to its limit, the commission is focusing on taxpayer handouts to the fossil fuel industry. Projects earmarked by the commission include a $6bn gas pipeline spanning the continent. Power is here applying a pretty peculiar interpretation of Morrison’s exhortation to “serve your country”. Until May, Power sat as deputy chairperson of Strike Energy, a company currently developing a gas field in Western Australia.
It is tempting to see this brazen profiteering as just the latest in a long line of Liberal Party rorts. But it also reflects something far more dangerous: a trend toward technocratic and undemocratic forms of governing during a period of unprecedented economic and social crisis.
In periods of instability, proposals that grant extra powers to elites can seem necessary. But the COVID commission shows that capitalism’s elite decision makers are mostly experts in enriching themselves and the rest of their class at our expense.