Angus Taylor will face a further grilling when parliament returns over the origins of a doctored document he says informed a letter blasting the City of Sydney over its travel spending.
An estimates spillover hearing on Monday heard his department had prepared a draft that did not include the highly inflated figures and the minister representing him at the hearing refused to answer questions about where they came from.
Taylor, the minister for energy and emissions reduction, will also be under pressure over the grasslands saga as new answers to questions on notice revealed the department had not been contacted by the unnamed Yass farmer that Taylor says prompted him to seek meetings with the environment department over the grasslands listing.
Parliament resumes on 25 November.
A special estimates hearing on Monday heard that the minister’s department provided a draft letter to the minister’s office responding to a letter from Clover Moore, the lord mayor of Sydney, which she sent in July.
“The draft letter is very different to the final letter to the lord mayor. The department’s draft letter provided to the minister’s office contained no reference to the City of Sydney’s travel expenditure,” said Mark Butler, the opposition’s energy spokesman.
“The department confirmed that after it provided this draft response, Angus Taylor’s office did not request any further information or drafts. It was also confirmed that the department was not asked to verify any additional information in the version of the letter signed by Angus Taylor which contained the doctored figures.”
Labor senator Kristina Keneally repeatedly asked Simon Birmingham, who was representing Taylor, where the figures had come from and whether the prime minister’s office had been involved.
In response, Birmingham repeatedly read out Taylor’s statement to parliament which claimed there were different versions of the document on the City of Sydney’s website.
This appears to refer to the two documents online – the PDF and word versions – which show minor formatting differences but do not contain the different figures.
Keneally said the National Library’s Trove archive of websites showed that in April 2019 the same version of both documents was online as is present today.
“Only Minister Taylor has seen this version on the City of Sydney’s website,” she said, adding that Taylor’s explanation amounted to saying that the website had been changed and then changed back.
“Did Godwin Grech bring it to him? Fairies from the bottom of the garden?” she said referring to an incident of forged documents which tripped up former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
“Angus Taylor needs to come clean about exactly how these doctored figures turned up in a letter signed by him because we have yet to see a public document that confirms his version of events,” Butler said.
Meanwhile the environment department replied to questions on notice that it was never contacted by a farmer near Yass about the listing of critically endangered grasslands that are at the centre of an investigation into a company part-owned by Taylor.
Taylor has repeatedly stated he sought a March 2017 meeting with the department to discuss the critically endangered listing of the natural temperate grassland of the south-eastern highlands after concerns about the listing were raised with him by farmers in his electorate of Hume.
At the time of the meeting, Jam Land Pty Ltd, a company part owned by Taylor and his relatives, was under investigation for the alleged illegal clearing of about 30 hectares of those same grasslands on a property in the NSW Monaro region.
In a statement to parliament in July, Taylor said farmers raised concerns about the listing with him in late 2016 and early 2017 and, specifically, that he sought a briefing after he had a conversation with a farmer near Yass on 21 February 2017.
The environment department was asked, via written questions to a senate committee investigating Australia’s fauna extinction crisis, if it had ever had any contact with the farmer near Yass in relation to the listing.
In responses published this week, it said, “No.”
Asked if any other private farmers had made representations in relation to the grasslands listing, the department said it had received “detailed questions” from one farmer in 2018, a director of Monaro Farming Systems.
Monaro Farming Systems is an organisation that works with the Monaro grazing industry. Until recently, its chair was Richard Taylor – Angus Taylor’s brother and a director of Jam Land Pty Ltd – and he is still a director on the board.
John Murdoch, the new chairman, said he wrote to the department to ask questions about the grassland listing but he had done so in his capacity as an individual landholder and grazier in the Monaro region.
He said the grasslands are not found on his property.
“That was my individual enquiries about interpreting the (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) Act and the implementation of the actual EPBC listing,” Murdoch said.
“I was trying to ask how I would implement it on my land holding.”
Murdoch said he had been frustrated because conservation planning had not focused on the “considerable threat of weeds” such as African lovegrass.
“No one at state or federal level would acknowledge weeds as a threat in their conservation policy,” he said.
“The objectives they were trying to achieve were great. But in trying to achieve it they regulated everything.”