Taylor’s super grass

Imagine a federal minister who has a stake in a company alongside other members of his family. Imagine that company is accused of illegally poisoning more than 28 hectares of critically endangered grassland. Imagine the minister talks to senior officials in the office of the future treasurer.

Perhaps there is an intercept of the conversation. Perhaps a federal integrity commission is investigating claims the minister lobbied to have environmental protections removed while the treasurer was still minister for the Environment.

Imagine this commission asks a senior bureaucrat what he meant when he wrote “Minister keen to see [whether] he can accommodate Angus Taylor’s requests … Want a how to for Minister in event he wished to amend or delete thresholds.” What did it mean in these notes, the commission might ask, when you drew a little arrow and wrote “need to know in advance if going to get a brief which does not support”?

Maybe this minister says he “never asked Mr Frydenberg to change laws governing the clearing of native grasslands”. Maybe the commission might ask him straight: What were these requests, then?

Perhaps this same commission takes an interest in the sale of water rights to the government by a company connected to the minister. Perhaps it is able to subpoena financial records. Maybe it asks questions about the $80 million valuation, about why this was offered without tender, about whether any water has actually been acquired under the deal.

Maybe this commission would look at changes made to a document, purporting to be from the City of Sydney’s website. Maybe the prime minister would be called as a witness and asked about an intervention he made with the New South Wales police commissioner. When you say friends, the commission might ask, what do you mean? What did you ask him on the call?

Perhaps another inquiry looks into the awarding of grants in marginal electorates, and asks what processes were followed and if any laws were breached. Maybe there is an inquiry into the purchase of land at Leppington, south-west of Sydney, from Liberal donors, at possibly 10 times its value. Maybe another looks at the use of electorate office staff to do party work.

The Saturday Paper is not suggesting an integrity commission would find evidence of misconduct in any of these cases. For that, it would have to exist.

The federal government has proposed a national integrity commission, but it is narrow and impotent and unlikely to be effective in exposing corruption. Its definitions are restrictive and its thresholds for investigation too high. An inquiry such as the one under way in NSW, the one that might yet cost a premier her job, would be doubtful under its terms.

Still, it’s nice to imagine a federal government unafraid of standards. It’s nice to imagine grant programs conducted with integrity and open to scrutiny, or ministers answerable for their actions, or a public served by politicians whose conduct was open to review and whose decency was assured by robust processes.

As it stands, the company Taylor part owns is appealing the findings against it. After three-and-a-half years, the environment department ordered Jam Land to remediate more than 100 hectares of damaged grassland. Taylor says it is a matter for the company and he does not have a controlling interest.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "Taylor’s super grass".

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