Coalition denounces call from Labor-Greens dominated Senate committee as ‘party political attack’
A Senate committee has recommended the prime minister, Scott Morrison, order an inquiry into the energy minister, Angus Taylor, after it found Taylor “consciously used his position as an MP and minister” to try to influence an investigation into clearing of grasslands at a property he and his family part-own.
The majority of the Labor-Greens dominated committee want the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to investigate the energy minister and treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s handling of the grasslands saga after finding it amounted to a major breach of ministerial standards.
“It is inconceivable that Mr Taylor was unaware that he and his family stood to benefit directly from his actions,” the interim report of the Senate’s faunal extinctions inquiry states.
It was tabled on Wednesday with backing from the Greens and Labor, but not from government senators, who said the opposition and the Greens had used the inquiry to make “party political attacks”.
In a dissenting report, Coalition senators said the “evidence provided by the department confirms Mr Taylor had acted appropriately and in accordance with the rules.”
“In submitting this dissenting report, Coalition senators note and deplore the blatant abuse and misuse of the Senate’s committee process.”
They said the Senate had voted multiple times against holding an inquiry into the matters detailed in the report. In July, government and One Nation senators blocked two attempts to launch an inquiry into the conduct of Frydenberg and Taylor.
“It is disappointing that Labor and the Greens have seen fit to ignore the will of the Senate to hijack this inquiry for a clearly partisan political purpose,” they said.
The government senators said Taylor had made detailed statements to the House of Representatives and the department had confirmed compliance matters were not discussed at the March 2017 meeting.
The report examines whether Taylor, when he was the assistant minister for cities, acted improperly when he asked for briefings on the listing protections for the critically endangered natural temperate grassland of the south-eastern highlands.
Taylor’s family are major landholders on the Monaro plains, where the majority of these ecological communities are located, and at the time a company in which Taylor and his brothers had interests was under investigation by the federal environment department for poisoning grasslands at Corrowong.
The company, Jam Land, faces potential fines of more than $10m if proved. Taylor has a shareholding through his family company Gufee and his brother Richard is a director.
A Guardian Australia investigation revealed Taylor requested and was given briefings from the environment department on the grasslands protections in March 2017 and that compliance officers were asked to attend by the office of Frydenberg, the then environment minister.
Frydenberg’s office later sought advice on whether protections for the grasslands could be weakened and whether that could be done without making such a decision public.
In its report, the committee considered evidence given by the department in public hearings, as well as email correspondence between the department and Frydenberg’s office, which was released to Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws.
“In considering the evidence, the committee has reached the conclusion that Mr Taylor consciously used his position as an MP and minister to make representations to minister Frydenberg that were aimed at affecting the outcome of the Jam Land compliance case,” the committee states.
“In doing so, Mr Taylor repeatedly failed to disclose his family and personal financial interests in Jam Land in an appropriate and transparent manner, not only to minister Frydenberg and his department but also the parliament.”
The committee said Taylor’s behaviour constituted “clear breaches” of ministerial standards. It also noted that Frydenberg made no declaration to his department about Taylor’s interest in Jam Land.
“Evidence indicates that Mr Taylor did not only fail to disclose his vested interests, but also sought to use his ministerial office and parliamentary connections to obtain special treatment for himself and his family, which is not offered to any other landholder in Australia,” the report states.
It says that Taylor’s claims he was acting in the interest of farmers in his electorate appear to be overstated and that individuals Taylor claimed had raised concerns, such as an unnamed farmer near Yass, “have never been identified”.
In addition to recommending both ministers be investigated, the committee said Morrison should “enforce disclosure obligations” with respect to Taylor’s personal and pecuniary interests and “remind” ministers that their office “must not be used to advance private interests”.
The committee has also recommended the national audit office conduct a performance audit of compliance actions undertaken by the environment department.
Forty-one investigations into alleged breaches of environment law were launched by the department in 2016-17. The investigation into Jam Land has not concluded and is one of only four cases launched that year that are still ongoing.
In their dissenting report, the Coalition senators labelled the recommendations blatantly partisan.
“The evidence provided by the department confirms that Mr Taylor has acted appropriately and in accordance with the rules. Labor and Greens senators continuing to repeat claims and assertions for partisan political reasons do not change this fact,” it said.
“Coalition senators deplore this inappropriate misuse of a Senate committee with a valid environmental terms of reference to be subverted for partisan political purposes.”