City of Sydney offers evidence it did not alter documents, as Angus Taylor denounces 'conspiracy theory'

Anne Davies and Christopher Knaus
Minister could face investigation as Sydney lord mayor calls on Taylor to release evidence to back up his ‘implausible’ claim. Labor is calling for a police investigation into whether a document was forged in Angus Taylor’s office with the purpose of influencing the exercise of duty by the lord mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, with Labor declaring it will refer the matter in the next 24 hours. Labor rounded on the controversy-prone federal minister for emissions reduction in parliament on Thursday following a revelation by Guardian Australia that false figures were used by Taylor’s office to unleash a political attack on Moore last month. Taylor claimed that Moore had increased carbon emissions by spending $15m on travel, a claim that was later backed up with a doctored council document provided to the Daily Telegraph, which subsequently reported the incorrect figure. Asked to explain his conduct in parliament, Taylor dug in, insisting his office did not forge the document it supplied to the Sydney tabloid. The minister said he was “advised”, presumably by staff, the document the office used was “drawn” from the council’s website and was “publicly available”. But Taylor has not provided a copy of the document he sent to the Daily Telegraph or an analysis of metadata to back his claim. Asked after question time whether there was anything else to add, Taylor’s office referred Guardian Australia to the minister’s statements in question time. That has failed to alleviate the pressure on Taylor from the City of Sydney. Moore issued a statement late on Thursday calling on the minister to follow the council’s lead and publicly release evidence of his office’s dealings with the document. “We have provided conclusive metadata to prove our annual report documents have been available online, unchanged since November 2018,” Moore said. “If the minister expects the public to believe his version of events, as implausible as they seem, it is incumbent on him to now provide evidence.” Ahead of question time on Thursday, the City of Sydney produced evidence to verify its insistence that it didn’t alter a document to publish the false figures used by Taylor in the attack over Moore’s travel-related emissions. The council said the annual report was uploaded on 27 November 2018 and had not been updated after that date. Guardian Australia corroborated this through its own analysis of the metadata on the PDF and Word versions currently on the council’s website. Labor began the question time attack on Taylor by asking Scott Morrison whether the principle that “no one was above the law” – an observation the prime minister made earlier this week to argue that journalists should not be exempted from national security provisions – applied to his own ministers. Morrison said: “No one is above the law in this country.” Labor bookended Thursday’s line of questioning by asking whether Taylor was aware it was an offence under the NSW Crimes Act to fail to bring information about the condition of a forgery designed to influence public duty to the attention of the New South Wales police force. The minister said he absolutely rejected the premise of the question. With the minister stonewalling, Labor suspended the standing orders, dubbing the controversy a “Taylor-made scandal”. After question time, with parliament about to adjourn, the shadow climate change minister, Mark Butler, warned that the opposition would refer the issue to the NSW police within 24 hours if the government didn’t. “The NSW Crimes Act provides that the making of a forged document that is intended to influence the exercise of a public duty by a publicly elected official like the lord mayor of Sydney is an indictable offence punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment,” Butler told reporters. “It is also clear that the NSW Crimes Act provides that a failure to make a report about such a document to the police is also a criminal offence punishable by up to two years imprisonment after the person becomes aware of the forgery.” Butler said it was clear that Taylor had used a different document to the the annual report of the Sydney City Council, which remains available on the website, because the document he provided to the Daily Telegraph had different formatting, spacing and a different font “as well as very different numbers”. “The circumstances surrounding minister Taylor could not be clearer,” Butler said. “He refused today during question time to do what the City of Sydney has done and release metadata logs that back up his claim that he downloaded that document from the City of Sydney website. “It is a claim that just does not stand up to scrutiny and for which he will not provide any evidence. If [the prime minister] won’t refer this Taylor-made scandal, then the Labor party will, over the next 24 hours, write to the NSW police seeking their investigation of the matter”. Butler said Taylor had not been candid about whether the fake document was made by him, or his office, or provided by someone else to him. “Instead he tries to pretend this is not a forged document when all of the evidence is to the contrary.”

The City of Sydney has produced evidence to back up its insistence that it never altered a document to introduce the false figures used by Angus Taylor in an attack on the lord mayor over her travel-related emissions.

The evidence places further pressure on the office of the energy minister to explain how the false figures came to be in the document he used to launch the extraordinary attack on Clover Moore last month. On Thursday Taylor labelled the affair a “conspiracy theory being perpetrated by the lord mayor” and accused her of “hollow virtue-signalling” on emissions.

The Guardian revealed on Wednesday that Taylor sent Moore a letter, which was received on 30 September, criticising what he said was a $15m travel bill during 2017-18 and suggesting she could reduce the council’s carbon emissions by cutting down on international travel.

The letter was reported in the Daily Telegraph the same day. After Moore queried the $15m figure with the Telegraph, it justified its story using a document from the minister’s office purporting to be a page of the City of Sydney’s annual report.

It showed figures which seemed to align with those quoted in Taylor’s letter: namely “$14.2” on domestic travel for councillors and “$1.7” on international travel. But those are entirely different to the figures that appear in the annual report as published on the council’s website.

The annual report online shows on page 14 that the council spent just $4,206.32 on domestic travel and $1,727.77 on international travel for councillors. The total travel budget for all employees was $229,000.

The one-page document provided to the Telegraph also has strange formatting in the paragraphs in question, which does not accord with the format used in the rest of the figures in the annual report.

Emails between the council and the Telegraph show that Taylor’s office said it downloaded its erroneous document from the council’s website on 6 September 2019.

But the council has now provided evidence to the Guardian that it had not altered the publicly available version of its annual report at any point since it was uploaded with the correct figures in November 2018. That evidence includes emailed advice from its IT department and screenshots of its content management system.

“Metadata logs prove that the City’s annual report documents, both PDF and Word versions, were uploaded on 27 November 2018 and not updated after that date,” a council spokesman said.

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.  

“The documents have not been removed, altered or substituted at any time. The same files that were uploaded and made available to the public in 2018 are the files that are publicly available on the City’s website today,” he said.

The Guardian has corroborated this through its own analysis of the metadata on the PDF and Word versions currently on the council’s website.

It is unclear who altered the document. There is no suggestion that Taylor himself was responsible.

Taylor has refused to answer any specific questions about the controversy.

Instead he issued a short statement saying: “I make no apology for suggesting that the lord mayor should take real and meaningful action to reduce the City of Sydney’s carbon emissions instead of hollow virtue-signalling through letters.

“One way to reduce emissions is through limiting unnecessary air travel and I suggest that the lord mayor’s flights to Paris for the Women4Climate conference was an unnecessary indulgence.”

The City of Sydney employed 1,837 staff at 30 June 2018, including childcare workers, parking inspectors, rangers and planning staff. Each staff member would have had to spend an average of $8,165 on travel during 2017-18 to rack up the $15m travel bill claimed by Taylor in his letter.

An angry Moore queried Taylor’s figures on Twitter on the day they appeared in the Telegraph and wrote to him directly on 22 October.

She received a copy of the altered document from the Telegraph, which said it had got it from Taylor’s office.

“I want to provide you with the opportunity to respond,” Moore wrote to Taylor. “Could you verify the Daily Telegraph’s claims that the erroneous documents originated in your office, or is my office being misled by the newspaper’s journalists?”

Moore has lodged a complaint with the Press Council over the Telegraph report. The Telegraph has reported on the controversy, saying it had not received answers from Taylor’s office about the origins of the altered document.

The City of Sydney is at the forefront of councils reducing emissions through carbon offsets, moving to renewable energy and cutting its usage. It says its carbon emissions from operations are currently 25% below its 2006 baseline.

The Women4Climate conference will be held in Sydney in 2020.