The manufacturing taskforce that recommended underwriting a huge gas expansion to help drive Australia’s Covid-19 recovery was receiving “pro bono” advice from a lobbyist firm with links to the Saudi government and gas companies.
Civil society groups have repeatedly raised questions about conflicts of interest, a lack of transparency and weak governance structures surrounding the body handpicked by Scott Morrison to lead Australia’s post-coronavirus economic recovery, the national Covid-19 commission.
The commission’s manufacturing taskforce, led by Andrew Liveris, a former Dow Chemical executive and current Saudi Aramco board member, came under fire earlier this year when leaked documents showed it wanted the government to underwrite a massive expansion of gas.
New freedom of information documents released to Greenpeace show that the taskforce, a publicly funded body, was being helped in its work by a firm named Dragoman, which lists Liveris as the chair of its international advisory board.
Dragoman is a registered lobbyist firm headed by Tom Harley, a former BHP executive and vice-president of the Liberal party, which counts the chair of gas retailer Alinta Energy, Mark Johnson, among its long list of counsellors.
At the time it was working for the manufacturing taskforce, Dragoman was also listed as lobbying the Australian government on behalf of Saudi Arabia. The government’s foreign influence transparency register shows Dragoman worked for the Saudi geological service to further Saudi mineral interests for the 12 months until July.
Dragoman’s role in the taskforce has not been made public until now.
Dragoman told Guardian Australia it was not paid for its work for the taskforce, saying it provided “pro bono support to the NCCC manufacturing taskforce”.
The Covid-19 commission said Dragoman provided “administrative, research and policy advisory support”, but that this support was provided to Liveris externally.
“The commission understands that Dragoman provided administrative, research and policy advisory support on a pro bono basis to Mr Liveris in an external capacity,” the commission said in a statement. “[Neither] the commission nor Mr Liveris has made payment to Dragoman.”
Dragoman’s involvement with the commission was revealed through documents provided to Greenpeace by the Queensland government through the state’s freedom of information system.
The documents show Dragoman approached the office of the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, acting on behalf of Liveris in June.
Dragoman attempted to set up a meeting between Liveris and Palaszczuk to talk about the manufacturing taskforce’s work.
“I am writing on behalf of Andrew Liveris AO,” an unidentified Dragoman employee said in an email to the premier’s office in June.
“Mr Liveris is special adviser to the commonwealth’s national Covid-19 coordination commission (NCCC) where he is leading the manufacturing taskforce reporting to Nev Power. The taskforce is focussed on growing Australian manufacturing industry in the post virus economy.
“Andrew would appreciate a half hour meeting (virtual) to get the Premier’s views and discuss the recommendations of the taskforce.”
Stephen Bartos, a public sector governance expert and former finance department deputy secretary, said it was not unprecedented for a taskforce head to bring in private staff to help with administrative tasks.
But he said the use of such a firm for research or policy advice was problematic.
“Administrative [work] wouldn’t be unprecedented and wouldn’t raise concerns,” he said.
“But research … you do research and you can direct people in particular directions, depending on what you select as your research findings, and policy advisory support is clearly something that will lead to particular conclusions about what government should or shouldn’t do.”
Bartos said the arrangement could create a perceived conflict.
“Conflicts of interest are not a good thing, but the perception of a conflict of interest is, in many senses, almost as bad,” he said.
The documents also show the Queensland government had no idea of the manufacturing taskforce’s focus on gas, until the Guardian revealed the contents of its draft report.
Greenpeace are now calling for the commission to be replaced with a “participatory, independent, transparent and accountable body guided by expertise”.
Officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have previously been asked about Liveris’s role at Dragoman in a parliamentary inquiry.
The officials were not asked whether Dragoman was working for the Covid-19 commission.
Bartos said transparency was key to managing perceptions of conflict.
“If it’s declared and it’s open to the parliament, that almost automatically leads you to believe there’s not a conflict, whereas if it’s not transparent, it gives rise to that perception,” he said.
“It’s a question of perception. If you dig into this a lot deeper, you might find there’s nothing to it. But they’ve already created the perception.”
Dragoman has repeatedly denied suggestions it is a lobbying firm and, for a number of years, did not place itself on the federal lobbyist register, despite meeting with MPs on behalf of naval shipbuilders.
It has since placed itself on the register and is now listed as a lobbyist for Worley Limited.
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