Mystery of the doctored documents: Angus Taylor and the climate attack on Sydney's lord mayor

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.”

Angus Taylor baselessly accused Sydney’s lord mayor of driving up 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 reported the figure.

On 30 September, the Telegraph reported on page three and online that the “City of Sydney Council’s outlay on flights outstrips that of Australia’s foreign ministers”.

The story quoted a letter sent by Taylor to the mayor, Clover Moore, saying the council’s annual report for 2017-18 “shows your council spent $1.7m on international travel and $14.2m on domestic travel”, contrasting the spending with Moore’s declaration of a climate emergency in June.

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After the story was published, Moore vigorously disputed the figures on Twitter. In subsequent emails between the Telegraph and Moore’s office, the paper justified the figures using a document supplied by Taylor’s office, purporting to be the council’s annual report.

City of Sydney’s publicly available annual report shows councillors spent $1,727.77 on overseas travel and $4,206.32 on domestic travel. In total, the council spent $229,000 on travel during 2017-18, under its $300,000 budget.

But the document provided to the Telegraph shows wildly different figures, which appeared in a strange format unlike the one used elsewhere in the annual report.

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

The council is adamant that it did not alter the figures. It said it had checked the metadata to establish that the report had not been changed on its website since being posted in November 2018.

On the Sunday night before publication of the Telegraph’s story, the council spokesman tried desperately to convince the Telegraph its story was wrong. Moore’s staff had not yet seen Taylor’s letter.

It was waiting for them in the office the next morning.

(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.

Taylor’s letter began by outlining how the government had a comprehensive set of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, before telling Moore: “You might be interested to know that there are many practical ways local councils can take real and meaningful action to reduce their carbon emissions.

“One way was to limit unnecessary air travel,” he said, before quoting the erroneous figures.

Meanwhile, that morning the Telegraph journalist was being asked by the council to stand up the claims she had made in the story by quoting Taylor.

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“Taylor’s office printed a copy of your annual report out on September 6,” she wrote in an email to the council’s communications manager.

“I have a copy of those relevant pages which I’ll forward you in a second email. But they say that the cost of interstate visits was $14.2 million and overseas visits was $1.7 million.

“If you look online now, that report has been changed or updated to say interstate visits were $4206 and overseas visits were $1727.”

A spokesman for the City of Sydney told the Guardian: “I think she was as upset to have been taken for a ride as we were.”

Taylor declined to answer detailed questions from Guardian Australia about the document, instead branding it a conspiracy theory by the lord mayor and saying: “I make no apologies.”

His letter sent Moore into a rage on Twitter.

Moore wrote to Taylor again on Tuesday saying she was referring the Daily Telegraph to the Press Council over its erroneous reporting and asking Taylor for his version of events.

“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 wrote.

“It is my deep belief that in dealing with important and pressing issues, it is our responsibility as elected officials to deal in facts. Providing false information to journalists and the public further erodes the community’s confidence in elected representatives to lead and serve.”

Moore pointed out that the City of Sydney was the first government in Australia to be certified as carbon neutral in 2011 and has offset all emissions, including from flights, since then.

This week it signed an agreement to source 100% of its power from wind and solar and its emissions were down 25% to date on 2006.

On Thursday morning Taylor issued a 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 Women for Climate conference was an unnecessary indulgence.”

Moore, the City of Sydney’s chief executive, Monica Barone and her chief of staff, Shehana Teixeira, travelled to Paris in March to attend this year’s Women4Climate Summit.

The 2020 conference, which promotes the involvement of young women in action to counter the climate emergency, will be held in Sydney at the Town Hall.

A spokesman for the Daily Telegraph said: “The Daily Telegraph reported on the fact a letter was sent by Federal Minister for Energy Angus Taylor to Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

“The letter was newsworthy in its own right and we approached Ms Moore for comment. She disputed figures quoted in Mr Taylor’s letter. The Daily Telegraph accurately reported her response,” he said.