The green green grassgate of home: Angus Taylor’s latest scandal explained

Ronni Salt and Jommy Lee

In the wake of his purported involvement in the #Watergate scandal, Angus Taylor seems to be involved in yet another example of using parliamentary influence for financial gain.

 

It’s a little known fact among urban Australians that what plays out in the bush, stays out in the bush.

Just ask Angus Taylor and Barnaby Joyce, who up until April of this year had seemingly managed to evade the indelicate issue of Joyce, as Water Minister, paying $79 million in mid-2017 to a company founded by his fellow minister Angus Taylor in a deal negotiated by Angus Taylor’s long term business partner.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In a scandal that came to be known as Australia’s Watergate, Angus Taylor promptly sailed past any pesky questions about the affair and—despite having once being involved with both the farming properties and the company that owned them, and being an ex-director of the parent company in the Caymans and still currently involved in a company with the buyback deal negotiator, Tony Reid—Taylor denied any knowledge at all of the issues in any way.

Which is of course, entirely academic. As most press gallery journalists will tell you, there’s no way to prove what a minister of the crown may or may not have said in Scott Morrison’s Canberra bubble of hidden text messages and whispered colloquy.

Which could have been why Minister Taylor was confident the latest troublesome issue to envelop him would waft away too. In a developing series of news items, predominantly emerging from the brave souls at The Guardian, Angus Taylor appears to have been caught with his finger not in the cookie jar but in Josh Frydenberg’s ear no less.

Dubbed #grassgate, the issue has predominantly bubbled away on social media waiting for an urban audience to care that a federal government minister appears to have been using his position of influence to benefit his own family.

The narrative is that Angus Taylor’s brother, Richard, was caught along with his similarly confused fellow farmers of the southern Monaro, allegedly spraying out a tract of native grasslands. Despite an almost two-year investigation of the issue by the NSW government (Angus Taylor’s sister-in-law Bronwyn Taylor was the parliamentary secretary to John Barilaro during this time), the investigation stalled until it was handpassed to the federal Department of Environment and Energy.

The awkward part, of course, is that Angus Taylor was a minister in the federal government at the time and as his Watergate credentials show, he naturally distanced himself from any proceedings involving his brother.

Except for the time he did.

In April this year, Angus Taylor’s office offered this line to the media:

“The minister has not made any representations to federal or state authorities in relation to this investigation.”

Which is awkward, because as an investigation by The Guardian has shown, Angus Taylor did indeed seek meetings with Frydenberg over the issue. In fact, Taylor requested that an officer investigating the allegations against his brother be present at the meeting. Although to be fair, Taylor has assured us they were merely there as an observer, because clearly, the usual staff in Frydenberg’s office weren’t up to the task of heavy listening.

 

 

By June, when the awkward truth had emerged that Angus Taylor had indeed sought meetings with then-Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg over the issue, Taylor claimed he had merely asked for the meetings in his “capacity as the local member for Hume”—which clears all of that up nicely because the critically-endangered grasslands aren’t in Hume.

But there’s a bigger picture to the story that has been missed, largely because not many of the mainstream media understand or care about farming.

But Angus Taylor and his family, they care. Taylor’s extended family of brothers Richard, Duncan, their partners and his father Peter are some of the largest private owners of farming land in the Monaro (high plains country in southeastern NSW). At a rough estimate Angus Taylor and his family own, operate or manage close to 22,000 hectares (50,000 acres) just in that area alone.

Not only that, but Minister Taylor, his brother Richard and Tony Reid, founded Growth Farms together, a company that manages over $400 million of farm properties across Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia, the vast bulk of which are properties owned by their friend, the climate-change-denying billionaire, Sir Michael Hintze.

Which means that when then-Environment Minister Greg Hunt inserted an amendment into the Environment Protection Biodiversity & Conservation (EPBC) Act in 2016 that protected vast tracts of native grasslands in south-eastern NSW, the Taylor family were presumably none too happy. The vegetation overlay meant that certain sections of all that potential farmland could not be sprayed, cleared or used for grazing or cropping, and any interference in them required analysis by agronomists or other vegetation specialists.

And that puts quite a hole in your profits.

In any event, Taylor’s afternoon tea visits must have borne fruit because in early 2018 the federal government announced a review into that specific section of the legislation on native grasslands.

No other sections of the vast and all-encompassing EPBC Act were singled out, not the section on the Great Barrier Reef or valuable heritage sites, just the seemingly annoying south-eastern NSW grasslands section. Incidentally, the act has an inbuilt mechanism for review (Sect 528) which is due to commence this year, so the purpose of carving out that one section of the act remains shrouded in mystery.

The final EPBC Act grasslands review, headed up by Dr Wendy Craik, was quietly released last week, along with the news that another member of Angus Taylor’s family, his brother Duncan, had become embroiled in allegations of native grasslands interference.

Media reports show that Duncan Taylors’ wife Bronwyn Taylor, the NSW minister, helpfully managed to ring the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and clear the issue up. Now after some investigations by the OEH, those native vegetation clearing allegations appear to have not been substantiated.

In light of the confusion over which grass is which, and what farmers in the Monaro can and can’t farm, and what value per hectare a farm property has because of the inability to farm any land with native vegetation overlays on it, the review and recommendations by Dr Wendy Craik can’t come soon enough for farmers in that part of the world.

And for the minister Angus Taylor, who appears to have escaped any scrutiny by the national media on the #grassgate issue so far, another scandal involving the far off and mysterious world of farming will hopefully pass on by too.

 

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