The Angus Taylor story: from the Liberals' golden boy to a man on the edge

Anne Davies
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

When Angus Taylor was elected to federal parliament in 2013 he was feted as a man to watch, a prime minister-in-waiting.

However, predicting who will thrive in the mercurial world of politics is fraught with danger. Ego, self-promotion, the ability to woo colleagues and a talent for the 10-second grab can prove far more decisive than intellect or a glittering CV, and Taylor has struggled to stand out from the pack of ambitious men (and a few women) in their 40s in the Liberal party.

Now, like those described by Lemony Snickett, a series of unfortunate events may well have cruelled Taylor’s chances – even if he had been able to convince his colleagues he had the right stuff. “Watergate”, “Grassgate”, and now the doctored document scandal – all uncovered by the Guardian over the past six months – have conspired to take the gloss off Taylor.

The controversies have proved a major embarrassment for the Morrison government – something no frontbencher would wish for. But they also raise questions about Taylor’s judgment and political instincts. For the most part, he has responded with an arrogance that arguably fails to read how the public perceives his behaviour.

So how did it come to this?

The right stuff

Tall, handsome, urbane, well educated and well connected, Taylor was elected in 2013 to the NSW southern highlands seat of Hume as a Liberal – with the Nationals’ blessing, even though they had held the seat for decades.

Taylor, it seemed, straddled the interests of both Coalition partners: he came from a well-established grazing family on the nearby Monaro plains. His grandfather, Sir William Hudson, was regarded as the father of the Snowy Mountains hydro- electricity scheme.

Related: Serial gateist Angus Taylor and the mystery of the faked documents | First Dog on the Moon

Yet Taylor was also an economic dry with impeccable business contacts and a private school pedigree that couldn’t be more blue-blood: the King’s School Parramatta, St Andrews College, Sydney University, then Oxford.

He won the university medal at Sydney University in economics, and studied law as well. A Rhodes scholarship took him to Oxford, where he rowed for New College and studied a masters in economics. Then he was snapped up by the McKinsey & Company consulting firm, where he worked for clients such as Rio Tinto and several major agribusinesses.

He helped New Zealand farmers come together to form Fonterra. He advised the Victorian government about opening up its coal seam gas industry and he mingled with the cream of the mining industry.

Turnbull clearly rated his intellect but it was a relationship that would not endure

The only blot in his business career was a dot-com business Farmshed, an online store for farmers. Perhaps it was ahead of its time in 1997, but Taylor had convinced McKinsey to invest and they lost money.

Then followed a stint at the elite Port Jackson Partners, a boutique consulting firm setup by two ex-McKinsey partners, Fred Hilmer and Terry Arcus.

Meanwhile the Taylor family expanded their own agricultural holdings, focusing on a strategy of buying farms in high rainfall areas. They established Growth Farms, chaired by Angus’s brother Richard, which offered management services for farm investors.

The firm landed a major client, the UK based Sir Michael Hintze, a hedge-fund manager turned investor and a Conservative party backer. Hintze is now one of the biggest agricultural investors in Australia.

Taylor also dabbled in his own deals. Together with a New Zealander, Connor Maloney, he co-founded Eastern Australia Agriculture Ltd in 2007, which bought two large cotton farms in Queensland. They had a tilt at buying the giant Cubbie station when it was offered for sale in 2010, but were not successful.

Eastern Australia Agriculture Ltd and the punt on cotton and water entitlements might have remained a footnote on Taylor’s CV, but for what has unfolded a decade later.

But let’s not jump ahead.

Man on the move

Business wasn’t enough for the quietly ambitious Taylor. According to a 2014 profile in the Australian Financial Review, Taylor was already friends with MPs Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Heffernan, and they introduced him to former prime minister John Howard, who was impressed by Taylor’s business credentials. Howard helped smooth the way for Taylor’s preselection in Hume.

Taylor moved his family to a farm near Goulburn in 2011, and his wife, barrister Louise Clegg, stepped back from her career to run his campaign – with military precision and solid financial support. Electoral records show Taylor was a major donor to the Liberals in 2012-13, forking out $150,000 to support the party that was supporting him.

The Coalition swept into power in 2013 and Tony Abbott was installed as prime minister. Taylor was among a raft of new MPs to come to Canberra as a result.

Then PM Tony Abbott and Taylor in 2015. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Freshmen rarely go straight onto the frontbench unless they come from state politics, but perhaps Taylor had been promised otherwise. According to the AFR he was “left to languish” on the backbench by Abbott. Others who had served in opposition and had deeper political networks, such as Josh Frydenberg , Kelly O’Dwyer and Paul Fletcher, were elevated ahead of Taylor.

But the 2015 leadership coup by Malcolm Turnbull boosted Taylor’s fortunes. In 2016, during a reshuffle, he was made assistant minister for cities and digital transformation. It gave him a platform to demonstrate his abilities in the policy sphere.

Responsible for the federal government’s adoption of digital platforms, Taylor brought a consultant’s zeal for detail and clear process to the mammoth task. He was instrumental in ensuring that a single digital profile would be adopted for clients of the federal agencies, rather than letting departments run off in all directions.

Related: A timeline of Angus Taylor's mystery document controversy

He also set up a mechanism that allowed the government to take a more holistic approach to digital projects, enabling it to prioritise spending and keep projects on track. He was later shifted into cyber security, an issue of increasing concern to the government.

Turnbull clearly rated his intellect, but it was a relationship that would not endure.

The conservative uprising

A conservative at heart, Taylor became part of the Abbott and Dutton aligned insurgency that met for lunches in the Monkey Pod room – so named because of the tropical hardwood used in its table.

As internal tensions grew over a new energy policy, Taylor played a crucial role in killing first the Clean Energy Target put forward by chief scientist Alan Finkel, and then the National Energy Guarantee promoted by the embattled Turnbull.

As tensions came to a head in October 2018, Taylor backed Dutton in the leadership spill, a move that Turnbull seems unlikely to forget. After the coup Morrison rewarded Taylor with the portfolio of energy and emissions reduction.

It was an appointment that raised eyebrows in the energy sector, given Taylor’s outspoken opposition to wind farms and the role he played in frustrating policy options that were supported by most major energy companies.

Taylor has spoken at numerous anti-wind farm rallies and said Australia’s Renewable Energy Target was increasing electricity costs, a claim that is hotly disputed by the renewable energy industry, which points to rapidly falling costs in the sector.

Taylor, as minister for digital transformation, with Turnbull in 2016, before their relationship soured. Photograph: Scott Gelston/AAP

Taylor insists he is not a climate sceptic and that he does not have a vendetta against renewables. But he has also advanced a number of pro-fossil fuel policies, including taxpayer subsidies for keeping gas and coal plants open and subsidies for new coal plants. He has also urged Victoria to lift its bans on coal seam gas exploration and fracking and supported the Santos Narrabri gas project.

It’s too early to judge his policy acumen. The government insists Australia will meet the 2030 targets it made under the Paris climate agreement – though there is immense doubt about that among scientists and environmentalists.

But what has so damaged Taylor is a series of extra-portfolio activities that raise questions about his judgment and his political instincts.

Watergate

So let’s return to Eastern Australia Agriculture, the cotton company that Taylor helped set up in 2007 while a consultant, and where he served as a director in 2008 and 2009.

When the company sold some of its water to the federal government in 2017 – apparently as a result of an unsolicited approach by the government, which paid a hefty $80m without going to tender – questions were asked.

It emerged that the parent company was domiciled in the the notorious tax haven of the Cayman Islands and had booked a $52m profit on the sale, to the delight of investors.

The largest of these was Pacific Alliance Group, whose founder was a buddy of Taylor’s from Oxford.

The government has faced criticism about the high price paid, and the unreliability of the water purchased for the environment. It is yet to receive one drop from the deal because the overland flows the government paid for are only available in floods and there has been a drought since 2017.

Taylor has said he and his family did not benefit from the water sale, and that he ceased to be a director of the Caymans parent before becoming an MP. He has said he was not aware of the water purchase until it was announced.

But he has continued to face questions. The purchase has now been referred to the auditor general.

Grassgate

No sooner had Watergate died down than Grassgate flared.

It concerned an investigation into alleged illegal clearing of native grasslands in 2016 by a company, Jam Land, in which Taylor has a shareholding.

Shortly after Jam Land was investigated for allegedly poisoning the critically endangered habitat, Taylor asked for and received briefings from the federal environment department.

He insists these have been confined to the general issue of the grasslands listing, even though compliance staff were asked to attend. But when first asked whether he had made representations on the compliance action, he replied curtly, “No.”

I reject absolutely the suggestion that I, or any members of my staff, altered the document in question

Angus Taylor

Through freedom of information requests the Guardian has established that there were numerous requests for information about the listing from then environment minister Josh Frydenberg’s office, which culminated in a briefing for Taylor in his parliament house office from senior bureaucrats. No notes were taken, but Taylor has insisted that the compliance action was not discussed.

The case against Jam Land was – and is – the only prosecution for land clearing of native grasslands under way.

After the briefing, Frydenberg’s office wanted advice about how difficult it would be to quietly scrap the protections for native grasslands (the answer was “very”). The minister then commissioned a review on the impact of threatened species protections, like the grassland listing, on agriculture (the review didn’t recommend scrapping the protections either).

Related: Josh Frydenberg backs Angus Taylor's account of grasslands meeting

Taylor told parliament he was asking for briefings about grasslands listing on behalf of his constituents in Hume, a seat to the north of the Monaro, which includes some areas of protected native grasses. He has also said he was approached by a concerned but unnamed farmer from Yass.

The $15m question

Now to the latest controversy: the case of a doctored document. It involves a page from the City of Sydney’s 2017-18 annual report which was used by Taylor to blast lord mayor Clover Moore over travel expenses, and to impute she was a hypocrite in declaring a climate emergency.

The only problem is that the version that Taylor says he relied on to write a biting letter to the lord mayor is different to the version on the council’s website. The Taylor version says the 10 councillors spent “$14.2” on domestic travel and “$1.7” on international travel. Taylor interpreted these figures as millions in his letter to Moore, which Sydney’s Daily Telegraph then quoted in an article that was published before Moore had even received the letter.

When Moore complained about the baseless hatchet job in the Tele, the journalist asked for the document from Taylor’s office and then provided it to Moore to prove that she was right. But it quickly became clear that it was not the correct version and the numbers were grossly inflated.

Taylor finally admitted after a week of questions in parliament that the figures he used were wrong and apologised to Moore. But he has refused to say where he got the document, other than that it was “downloaded directly from the internet”.

“I reject absolutely the suggestion that I, or any members of my staff, altered the document in question,” Taylor has said.

The controversy has been made worse by the lengths Taylor has gone to muddy the waters, producing a dossier which essentially said two versions – a Word and PDF version – were formatted slightly differently, and this could suggest … something.

It certainly doesn’t explain the wildly different and implausible numbers Taylor relied on.

Labor has now referred the doctored document to NSW police, which has set up strike force Garrad. Police have begun collecting evidence and will probably not take long to conclude, one way or the other, whether the doctored document deserves a full-scale investigation.

Meanwhile, Taylor is due to fly to Madrid for the latest global meeting on tackling climate change. Scientists this week warned that the tipping point for irreversible damage to the planet may be closer than previously thought.

But with the possibility that the tipping point for Taylor’s career will arrive even sooner, the embattled energy minister may find his mind on these unfortunate events back home.