Environment officials say Angus Taylor did not declare his financial interest in a company under investigation for poisoning endangered grasslands. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Angus Taylor did not declare at a meeting with environment officials about critically endangered grasslands that he had a financial interest in a company that was under investigation for poisoning them.
And no notes were taken by the senior department official who attended the meeting in 2017, a Senate committee has heard.
Officials from the environment and energy department gave the evidence at a special hearing of the Senate’s inquiry into the extinction crisis on Friday.
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The hearing focused on grasslands and, specifically, a March 2017 meeting between Taylor, senior officials and the office of the then environment minister Josh Frydenberg to discuss the federal government’s designation of the critically endangered grasslands known as the natural temperate grassland of the south-eastern highlands.
At the time the meeting occurred, New South Wales and federal investigations were under way into the poisoning of about 30 hectares that contained the grasses on a property in the state’s Monaro region owned by Jam Land Pty Ltd.
One of the directors of that company is Richard Taylor, the minister’s brother, and the minister himself holds an interest in the firm via his family investment company, Gufee.
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At Friday’s hearing, the department’s chief compliance officer, Monica Collins, told senators she was aware before the March 2017 meeting of Angus Taylor’s familial connection to Richard Taylor.
But she took on notice whether the compliance team investigating the case was also aware of the minister’s financial interest in Jam Land.
“We were aware that Angus Taylor was the brother of one of the directors of the land we were investigating,” she said.
Collins also confirmed the investigation of Jam Land was the only compliance case involving these grasslands.
Geoff Richardson, the assistant secretary of the department’s protected species and communities branch, was one of the officials at the March 2017 meeting.
He told the hearing Taylor did not disclose his business interest at the start of the meeting.
“Did Minister Taylor declare ahead of that meeting his business interests in Jam Land?” the Labor senator Katy Gallagher asked.
“No senator, there was no interest disclosed at the start of that meeting but the meeting was about the listing of the grassland,” Richardson replied.
“You don’t think that was relevant?,” Gallagher asked.
“I don’t have a view, senator,” Richardson said.
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The Greens senator Janet Rice, the committee’s chair, asked again: “And minister Taylor did not declare his own personal interest?”
“No senator,” Richardson replied.
Taylor and the government have repeatedly stated that the meeting did not discuss the compliance action involving the Taylor company and was focused on the listing process for the grasslands.
Taylor has said the issue was of concern to his constituents in the electorate of Hume.
Department officials on Friday reiterated the compliance action was not talked about at the meeting. Richardson said “it was not raised, it was not discussed”.
When Gallagher asked if Richardson took notes at the meeting, he said that he didn’t
Earlier in the day, the former nationals senator John Williams said he had also raised the issue of the grasslands with Frydenberg after hearing Richard Taylor on the radio in late 2017.
The committee heard there was a meeting with National party members, Frydenberg and the department’s deputy secretary for the environment protection group Dean Knudson in October 2017 about the issue and broader concerns relating to environment laws and agriculture.
Knudson said he also didn’t have notes from that meeting.
“We’ve now been told two fairly critical meetings to this whole issue that the department has not kept a note on it,” Gallagher said.