Angus Taylor to face grilling over doctored City of Sydney travel documents

Anne Davies and Lisa Cox
Photograph: David Crosling/AAP

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.

(June 24, 2019) 


Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, declares a climate emergency, which is endorsed by the council.


(September 29, 2019) 


29 September: The energy and emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, writes to Clover Moore, claiming the council’s annual report “shows your council spent $1.7m on international travel and $14.2m on domestic travel” in 2017-18.


(September 30, 2019) 


The Daily Telegraph publishes a story on page three and online accusing Moore of hypocrisy over the council’s emissions. The story quotes a letter from Taylor which says the council spent more than $15m on domestic and international travel.

Moore disputes the Telegraph story and asks the reporter to provide evidence of this claim.

The reporter provides a page from the council’s annual report. The page contains two figures purporting to show the council spent “$14.2” in expenses on interstate travel and “$1.7” on overseas visits. 

Moore checks the annual report: on page 14 it shows councillors spent $4,206.32 on interstate travel and $1,727.77 on overseas visits. Moore angrily disputes the story with Taylor via Twitter.


(October 22, 2019) 


Moore writes to Taylor asking him to “ correct a stark error in your letter” saying the $15m figure was grossly inaccurate.

Moore lodges complaint with the Press Council.


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.

Related: Angus Taylor apologises to Clover Moore 'unreservedly' over false travel figures

“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.


Evidence supplied by the council

The council has provided evidence that the documents on its website have not been changed since they were first uploaded on November 27, 2018. 

It has supplied screenshots from its content management system – the system used to maintain its website - which shows the PDF version was last updated at 11:01am on November 27 2018 and the Word document was last updated at 2:53pm on the same date. 

Both documents showed the accurate travel expense figures when they were first uploaded, and have not changed since.



Metadata check

The Guardian has corroborated this by performing its own checks of the metadata attached to the two files currently on the council’s website.

They show that the PDF document currently on the council’s website was last modified on 27 November 2018 and the Word document was created on 19 November 2018 by an executive at a creative agency, Satsuma Creative’s Kirsten Dreese.



Internet archive records

Though not conclusive, checks of the internet archive – a system that takes sporadic snapshots of websites over time – lend weight to the suggestion that the documents have not changed since they were uploaded.

Three archived versions of the council’s annual report are available and display the accurate figures in March, April, and June.



Scrutiny of formatting

The formatting and line spacing of the document used by Taylor’s office suggests it was originally a Word document, before being converted to PDF in some way.



Document lodged with minister

The City of Sydney is also obliged by local government laws to provide a copy of its annual report to the NSW Minister for Local Government. After that it is not permitted to alter the document.  


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.

Related: Not a drop of water after government spends $80m on rights from agribusiness

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.

(April 14, 2016) 


Former environment minister Greg Hunt declares Southern Highlands temperate native grasslands critically endangered. Normal farming practices, such as grazing, are permitted, but not clearing.


(October 14, 2016) 


Poisoning of grasslands is alleged to have occurred near Delegate in southern NSW shortly after a company, Jam Land Pty Ltd, purchased the property, prompting complaints from a neighbour.


(November 14, 2016) 


NSW environmental authorities investigate.


(November 17, 2016) 


Federal environment department investigates under the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act because grasslands are federally listed.


(November 20, 2016) 


Department becomes aware of the familial connection between Jam Land director Richard Taylor and the then cities minister, Angus Taylor, through a media search.


(December 14, 2016) 


Taylor says he got complaints from the farming community in his electorate about the endangered listing of native grasslands.


(February 7, 2017) 


Parliament resumes for 2017.


(February 15, 2017) 


Grasslands compliance action is allegedly raised in parliament (no record of this in Hansard for the House or Senate). Department says minister’s office sought urgent talking points about the compliance action involving Jam Land.


(February 16, 2017) 


Department provides a dot point briefing, released to Guardian under freedom of information with redactions of all material relating to “an ongoing investigation”.


(February 21, 2017) 


Taylor says he had a detailed conversation with unnamed farmer from Yass and that prompted him to seek a meeting on the grasslands listing.


(February 7, 2017) 


Environment department officials met with Jam Land to discuss potential contraventions of EPBC Act and possible offsets.


(March 9, 2017) 


Environment minister Josh Frydenberg’s office phones for information regarding the listing of grasslands. “He (the staffer) started quizzing me on the changed definition … He made the point that for farmers in the Monaro this is the ‘number 1 issue’ of concern,” bureaucrat Geoff Richardson writes.

The minister’s office requests that the department meet with Taylor to answer the technical aspects of the listing outcome. The bureaucrats say they they need to know any sensitivities “including any compliance action (that we would of course stay out of completely).”


(March 20, 2017) 


Bureaucrats from the environment department meet with Taylor in his Parliament House office to discuss the grasslands listing. A compliance branch officer attends at the request of Frydenberg’s office. Taylor says only the policy was discussed. No notes were taken.



(April 21, 2017) 


Frydenberg asks his department if he can make changes to the grasslands listing to weaken the protections. He’s told it can’t be done without making reasons public and would be against a recent scientific assessment. No changes are made.


(July 28, 2017) 


More contact from the environment minister’s office about the compliance action on Jam Land.


(October 9, 2017) 


Richard Taylor does an interview on ABC Rural blasting the listing of the grasslands, saying it’s unworkable.


(October 12, 2017) 


More contact from the environment minister’s office on the Jam Land compliance action.


(October 25, 2017) 


Frydenberg and the deputy secretary of the department, Dean Knudson, meet with Nationals MPs.


(December 30, 2018) 


More contact with the minister’s office about the compliance action.


(March 10, 2018) 


Federal government commissions former National Farmers’ Federation chair Wendy Craik to undertake a review of how the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) affects farmers.


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.”