In the period since the members of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) started work, there has been no shortage of bright ideas to counter the collapse in output and secure recovery. From building transcontinental gas pipelines to quantitative investing, regulation-busting initiatives, social housing and a “Green New Deal” — rightly or wrongly, the hopes and dreams for Australia’s future prosperity have been piling up on the NCCC’s doorstep.
“We’ve been inundated with pleas for assistance and offers of help,” says NCCC chair Neville Power MAICD. “We’re getting ideas and suggestions, and a lot of businesses are looking from the angle of how they can be part of the recovery. It’s in that innovation and entrepreneurial spirit for us to find every opportunity.”
The chair of Perth Airport and the Royal Flying Doctor Service Federation Board, and former CEO of Fortescue Metals Group, who pilots his own jet, has become a household name since Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked him to serve on the NCCC.
Established on 25 March, as reports of COVID-19 infections escalated and fears were at their height, the commission was created in crisis, built on the run and has played a crucial, if controversial, role as conduit between politics, bureaucracy and business. The NCCC has rapidly transitioned through the first two phases — from damage control and workarounds during the shutdown to helping businesses get back to work, deal with IR issues and develop “COVIDSafe” work plans. Now comes the next most strategic phase — restoring economic activity and developing a roadmap for the longer term.
Power has a consistent message: this needs to be a reset. “It’s critically important,” he says. “It won’t be business as usual. The crisis provides opportunities for businesses to rethink, to be more efficient, more productive and better address the markets they have. My take is that businesses are looking at this through the lens of how do I change my business and what are the barriers and enablers to make that transition quickly?”
“The key thing is, we can’t just treat this like a one-off where it’s going to go away and we can get back to normal. We need to think about the longer-term impacts.” Neville Power MAICD
Power says Australia has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get things moving and he thinks we’re up for it. “The key thing is, we can’t just treat this like a one-off where it’s going to go away and we can get back to normal,” he says. “We need to think about the longer-term impacts. I’d encourage directors and executives to think of this as a business shock — whether it’s a market shock, regulatory shock or a natural event. You assess the impact and think about risk management — the risk and opportunities out of that — and how you can nimbly reconstruct and reconfigure business around that. We want to restore consumer and business confidence, but maintain the very strict discipline.”
The recovery is going to be nuanced, says Power. “We know there are areas of the economy that can come back quite quickly and operate effectively — mining and construction, for example. They can integrate safety into their workplaces and their businesses.”
However, customer-facing businesses will take longer to restore some sort of normality, and anything international will take even longer. One of Power’s focus areas is tourism, one of the sectors most affected by the pandemic and economic recession. “Hospitality and tourism are down 65 per cent and that [sector] is not going to come back quickly, but there are other parts of services and trades where it is coming back quickly.”
He sees the restrictions on international travel as an opportunity to attract Australians to holiday at home.
“We are not going to have [the chance to visit] the Trevi Fountain any time soon,” he says.
Power’s priority is what can be done fast; the reforms that can be made to remove barriers for business, and approval processes that are “quicker, simpler and provide more clarity — not cutting corners”. After that, it’s about jobs — transitioning people into areas of the economy that need those jobs and rapidly reskilling — and underpinning that with a concerted effort to lower the cost of energy to spur local manufacturing and improve competitiveness.
Initial signs are the federal government is looking to reset national governance. On 29 May, the prime minister announced the “congestion-busting” scrapping of the Council of Australian Governments process and the establishment of the new National Federation Reform Council (NFRC).
The national cabinet set up in response to COVID-19 has become a permanent fixture — and the Council of Federal Financial Relations involving all state and federal treasurers, will report to it.
The NFRC will take responsibility for all funding agreements including National Partnerships. Taskforces on women’s safety and Indigenous affairs will feed into that process, as will expert advisory groups such as the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, the state, territory and federal decision-making committee for health emergencies. Ministerial cabinet subcommittees, drawn from the states, territories and commonwealth, will focus on rural and regional Australia, skills, energy, housing, transport and infrastructure, population and migration, and health.
Ministerial forums and regulatory councils on tourism, trade, consumer affairs, sport/recreation, the environment, vehicle emissions, the Great Barrier Reef; and regulatory councils on disability, infrastructure, energy, education, health, the Murray-Darling and gene technology will be “consolidated and reset”.
Post-COVID-19, the national cabinet will meet monthly. Once a year, it will meet with the treasurers and the Australian Local Government Association with a focus on priority national federation issues. It “will streamline processes and avoid endless meetings that do not result in action,” said Morrison.
David Thodey AO FAICD, who led the independent review of the Australian Public Service and chairs the NSW Federal Financial Relations Review, applauds the national cabinet. “It’s exactly what is required. Federations have to evolve to fulfil their fundamental purpose. We are taking a national step.”
NCCC deputy chair David Thodey AO FAICD emphasises the urgency of returning confidence and helping business and employees get back to work. “The most important thing is we get people back to salary and get household income going,” he says. “We have more than 4.9 million people receiving government support — 1.64 million receiving JobSeeker payments and Youth Allowance, and 3.29 million on JobKeeper. Fifty-five per cent of employees work for small businesses. By September–October, the bank guarantee and JobKeeper will end. We need to help them transition and make sure small business receiverships are minimised.”
Asked about expectations and opportunities for a reset, Thodey says there is fragility, but also opportunity. “You have to be pragmatic, but within that there are opportunities — be it regulatory reform or policy reform. We’ve already seen that with telehealth.”
Also on Thodey’s list of reform priorities are retraining and micro-credentialing so employees can more quickly build skills to align with where long-term value creation needs to be; digital enablement across all production — from food and agriculture to traditional manufacturing. “Everything has to be digitally enabled,” he says. “There is a big opportunity to upscale the VET sector and universities will play a critical role. Getting all those levers right is critical.”
In a 29 May National Press Club speech, the prime minister said it is not only about getting Australia “out of the ICU” and “off the medication before it becomes too accustomed to it”. It is also about “making the boat go faster”, setting up Australia for economic success over the next three to five years.
“We now have a shared opportunity to fix systemic problems and to realise gains as a matter of urgency to get more people back into work,” the prime minister said.
The government’s reform agenda is familiar to those who have been frustrated at complacency and Australia’s declining performance — skills, industrial relations, energy and resources, higher education, research and science, open banking, the digital economy, trade, manufacturing, infrastructure and regional development, deregulation, federation reform and a tax system to support jobs and investment. Skills and industrial relations reform are near-term priorities. Between now and September, Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter will chair five working groups on issues ranging from award simplification and enterprise bargaining to casual workers, compliance and greenfields projects — which will include representatives from employers, unions, business and community.
The recovery efforts involving the NCCC join a concerted collaborative effort across the broader business, union, government and NFP community. For example, organisations such as the Business Council of Australia (BCA) have working groups addressing issues such as corporate governance, digital economy, energy and climate change, health, housing, regional development, major projects, tax and workplace relations — with input from the likes of RBA board member Prof Ian Harper AO FAICD and former NAB chair Dr Ken Henry AC.
Alison Watkins FAICD, group managing director of Coca-Cola Amatil, who co-chairs the BCA’s COVID-19 economic recovery working group, says there has been “a fantastic spirit of collaboration — collaborative, but fast-tracked”.
“This stage is the time-critical one,” she says. “We have a cliff approaching where, as an economy, we’ve bought ourselves time until October with JobKeeper and interest deferrals. Those [programs] come to an end around that time. We need to make sure we’ve got positive momentum back before then, otherwise the multiplier effect will cause more damage.”
Watkins’ priorities are improving the ease of doing business, finding opportunities to rectify weak business investment of the past decade and improving project planning and approvals. “There may be a case for ongoing support for individuals; to have a skills account for people to draw on,” she says.
Accessible, affordable child care is another priority. “In a recessionary environment, it’s impacting women disproportionately, and younger people, so both of those cohorts are often challenged with family responsibilities,” says Watkins. “If you take an investment mindset, you can think about things differently — if it helps us build earning capacity, it has broader benefits.”
In early June, the government announced it would reintroduce the Child Care Subsidy and end JobKeeper for childcare workers on 12 July. Instead, the government will allocate $708m to pay childcare providers a transitional payment of 25 per cent of their fee revenue from 13 July until 27 September.
“We’ve bought ourselves time until September and October... It’s really important we get demand going because... there’s no point skilling people up if the jobs aren’t there.” Alison Watkins FAICD
Governance and conflicts of interest
Power and other members of the NCCC emphasise they are not a decision-making body, but advisory. The aim is to bring their experience and networks to bear, working between the politics, the bureaucracy and business.
Amid headlines implying the NCCC was championing gas development rather than renewables as part of recovery and criticisms of conflicts of interests, Power fronted a Senate inquiry in June. He said to avoid perceived and actual conflicts of interest, he had not attended a board meeting of Strike Energy since his NCCC appointment. However, he stood by his view that we should be looking at competitive gas supply for its potential as a raw material for existing and new manufacturing industries to preserve and create jobs.
“Australia has an abundance of energy sources and I agree with the chief scientist, whose view is there is a role for gas in firming up renewables as we transition to lower emissions.”
Declarations of interest have subsequently been lodged and he says there are processes to check in for any conflicts of interests. Power stresses the NCCC was started when the number of infections was rising daily. “It was a crisis and everyone did everything they could to put things in place, but the number-one priority was saving people’s lives.” He notes each commissioner is there because of their experience.
Success, he says, will be “the economy back running better than it was before, more people in jobs and for us to have taken every opportunity to use the crisis to come out stronger. The PM said six months, I’d say we’re on track for that.”
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Who’s who in the NCCC and focus sectors
The NCCC reports to the prime minister and cabinet. Its budget is $5.4m as of 4 June.
Neville Power MAICD, chair, Chair Perth Airport, Foundation for the WA Museum, RFDS Federation Board; Mining & resources; tourism & hospitality
David Thodey AO FAICD, deputy chair, Chair CSIRO, Xero, Tyro; director Ramsay Healthcare, Vodafone Group; Telecommunications; science & research; tertiary education; technology
Greg Combet AM Chair IFM Investors, Industry Super Australia; Employment, labour force & industrial relations; manufacturing; defence industry; superannuation
Jane Halton AO PSM FAICD, Chair Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Vault Systems, COTA, Crown Sydney; director ANZ Group; Health; social services; finance & banking; immunity assurance; NFP
Paul Little AO Chair Little Group, Australian Grand Prix Corporation, Skalata Ventures; Transport & logistics; infrastructure; agriculture; wholesale, retail & supply chain
Catherine Tanna MD Energy Australia, director RBA, BCA; Energy & utilities
Peter Harris AO, CEO Former chair Productivity Commission
Andrew N Liveris, special adviser to NCCC, Former chair and CEO Dow Chemical; former executive chair DowDuPont, director IBM, Worley Parsons, Saudi Aramco; advisory board member Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, NEOM
Charity, Philanthropy and Fundraising Advisory Group
In mid-May, the NCCC established a NFP working group to provide recommendations to lessen the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable in society.
The committee is chaired by Tony Stuart, CEO of UNICEF Australia and chair of the ACNC advisory board, supported by NCCC Commissioner Jane Halton. The members are Judy Slatyer (CEO Australian Red Cross), Nicola Forrest (co-chair Minderoo Foundation), Stephanie Harvey (CEO Community First Development), Dr Martin Laverty (deputy chair ACNC Advisory Board), Dr Lisa O’Brien (CEO The Smith Family) and Claire Robbs
(CEO Life Without Barriers).