Pauline Hanson has saved Energy Minister Angus Taylor from an inquiry into his intervention over endangered grasslands, with a Labor motion defeated 33-32 in the Senate.
Earlier Taylor defended his intervention in a statement to the House of Representatives, insisting he had obtained a meeting with officials on the grasslands in response to representations from local farmers, and there was no canvassing of the compliance issues that were on foot relating to land in which he had an interest.
The opposition continued to pursue Taylor in question time, but it was already clear it would not have the numbers in the Senate for the inquiry. Hanson said One Nation, which has two votes, would not back a “witch hunt”. Labor’s motion had the support of the Greens, Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie. The other crossbencher, Cory Bernardi, voted with the government.
In 2017 Taylor sought a briefing on the classification as endangered of the natural temperate grassland. The environment minister at the time was Josh Frydenberg who was not, however, at the meeting that occurred in response to Taylor’s representation.
At the time there was an investigation into the clearing of a section of the grassland on the property of the company Jam Land Pty Ltd, of which Taylor’s brother Richard is a director. Angus Taylor has an interest in Jam Land through his family company.
Taylor told parliament that when he took up the matter there “had been strong antagonism expressed by the farming community about federal and state native vegetation regulation.”
In late 2016 and early 2017 he had spoken with farmers in his Hume electorate and nearby about their worries with the listing of the grassland.
“On 21 February 2017, I spoke with a farmer near Yass who expressed strong and detailed concerns about the revised listing, pointing out that it had occurred despite the concerns of the National Farmers’ Federation and NSW Farmers, and with little consultation with farmers themselves,” he said.
“All of these farmers were completely disconnected from our family farming operations.”
Taylor said the revised listing of the grassland – which is in both the Hume and Eden-Monaro electorates – “would ultimately halt pasture improvement and efficient weed control across the Southern Tablelands and Monaro” and “has the potential to do untold damage to agricultural productivity throughout the region”.
“I sought a briefing on the revised listing from the then minister’s office, which I made clear was not to include any discussion of compliance matters.”
Taylor said FOI documents already released showed that an official had written that the meeting was “to answer questions on the technical aspects of the listing outcome”, and would “stay out of completely” any compliance action underway.
This was how the meeting had gone, Taylor said. “At no time during this meeting, was any compliance matter, or any personal interest of mine, discussed. At that meeting we discussed precisely what the department had said we would discuss.”
The opposition pressed Taylor to produce any correspondence from complaining farmers. Nothing was forthcoming.
Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong accused Taylor of using his ministerial position to “shore his investments up”.
She told the Senate: “Mr Morrison says Mr Taylor has one KPI, to be the minister for lower prices. But he is the minister to increase the value of his own investments.
“Angus Taylor failed to declare a direct financial interest in a company [in the declaration of interests register]. But worse, he then used his position, as a minister, to defend that company’s interests after it was accused of breaking the law.”
The government has lobbied crossbenchers with fresh material in a last minute effort to head off a Senate inquiry into Angus Taylor’s intervention on endangered grassland.
It is expected to produce the material publicly on Monday before the Senate is due to decide whether to establish the inquiry.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has become the decisive player in whether Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s actions over NSW endangered grassland are probed by a Senate inquiry.
Taylor, seen by the opposition as a weak parliamentary performer, came under sustained attack in question time last week and faces continued heat.
Labor is putting him under pressure on two fronts – his interest through a family company in a farm that is under investigation for land clearing, and his portfolio issues of high energy prices and rising emissions.
In 2017 – when Josh Frydenberg was environment minister – Taylor sought a government briefing on the classification as endangered of the natural temperate grassland. He says he was acting on representations from constituents in his NSW seat of Hume.
There was an investigation at the time into the poisoning of a section of the grassland on the property of the company Jam Land Pty Ltd, of which Taylor’s brother Richard is a director. Angus Taylor has an interest in Jam Land through his family company. Although Taylor’s declaration of interests lists his family company, it does not include that company’s interest in Jam Land. Taylor says this omission is within the rules.
A compliance officer was at the briefing.
Under the Labor motion to be moved on Monday a Senate inquiry would examine
whether a compliance investigation by the environment department in relation to the natural temperate grassland of the south eastern highlands ecological community had been adversely affected by the actions of Taylor, Frydenberg, or anyone else.
whether the conduct of Taylor and Frydenberg, in relation to the compliance investigation, represented “a proper and disinterested exercise of their responsibilities”.
The opposition last week failed in its move for an inquiry. But since then, Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick has signalled a change of mind.
Patrick had been dissuaded from backing an inquiry by material the government showed him. He has subsequently decided the material is irrelevant, saying that after studying the reporting on the issue and federal and NSW FOIs “I am now prepared to support an inquiry”.
This change leaves One Nation as crucial – the motion won’t pass if it opposes. Pauline Hanson did not support Labor’s push last week, but on Sunday was being coy.
One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts said on Sunday night the party was still weighing its position and would decide on Monday morning.
“We’re not going to allow ministers to get away with an abuse of power. But we’re not going to allow witch hunts,” he said.
He said the issue had been hurting farmers since the Howard government caused the problem by driving, through the states, native vegetation legislation “that stole farmers’ property rights”.
“Angus has been caught up in this – now that he’s involved, the government is interested, ” Roberts said.
Taylor accused Labor of a “grubby smear campaign”
“My indirect interest in Jam Land Pty Ltd has been widely reported in the media, and was declared in accordance with the rules,” he said. “I have had no association with the compliance action, and I have never made representation in relation to it.” He said he had been “sticking up for the farmers in my electorate”.
Labor’s climate spokesman Mark Butler said Taylor was “embroiled in a growing scandal over whether or not he sought to interfere in a compliance action, by his own department, over illegal land clearing on a property in which he had a financial interest which he had not disclosed.
“He had not disclosed that financial interest to the parliament, to the Australian people and it would appear not even to the Prime Minister.”
Our “state of the states” series takes stock of the key issues, seats and policies affecting the vote in each of Australia’s states.
We’ll check in with our expert political analysts around the country every week of the campaign for updates on how it is playing out.
New South Wales
Chris Aulich, Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra
There is a clear fault line in the Coalition between conservatives and moderates, reflected in the number of centre-right women challenging more conservative members.
Some sitting moderates have chosen not to renominate – Ann Sudmalis in NSW won’t recontest, while Julia Banks in Victoria has resigned from the Coalition to challenge Greg Hunt in Flinders. Other moderate women are standing as independents (Kerryn Phelps and Zali Steggall in NSW, and Helen Haines in Victoria) or as candidates for other centre-right parties (Rebekha Sharkie in SA).
What typically unites these women is a rejection of conservative social policies – and perhaps also a rejection of the alleged culture of bullying within the Coalition parties. These candidates are modernists in that they support progressive policy issues. As independents they can also sidestep the Coalition’s internal fracas about quotas and targets for women.
In NSW, independent Zali Steggall is challenging Tony Abbott in Warringah. Front and centre of her campaign is action on climate change, refugee policy and foreign aid. Her views on marriage equality contrast dramatically with Abbott’s in an electorate that overwhelmingly voted “yes” in the marriage equality postal vote.
Similarly, independent MP Kerryn Phelps, contesting Wentworth, was a significant player in the marriage equality debates and has argued forcibly for a more humane treatment of asylum seekers.
Both Steggall and Phelps have complained about “dirty tricks” and the negative campaigns being mounted against them. Billboards linking Steggall to Labor, allegations that she is receiving funds from GetUp! (she is not), the renting of premises next to her office that were then plastered with anti-Steggall advertising, and the sexualising of Steggall posters all appear to be an attempt to intimidate and demean her.
A number of articles critical of Steggall have been published by the Daily Telegraph, with free copies delivered to residents who are not subscribers to the paper. This includes a front page story in which Steggall’s ex-husband and his current wife described her as “opportunistic” and “lacking the temperament of a leader”. The couple have since declared that the Telegraph article does not reflect how they feel about Steggall’s candidature.
Kerryn Phelps says dirty tricks were behind the removal of hundreds of her election posters in her campaign to retain the seat of Wentworth. Labor’s Tim Murray has also complained that his posters had been removed and replaced by Liberal posters. Liberal challenger, Dave Sharma, rejects any allegation that this activity has been sanctioned by him or the Liberal Party. Today it was reported that Sharma’s posters have also been defaced.
The seats of Wentworth and Warringah are critical to the reelection of the Morrison government and it’s clear that some supporters of the conservative wing of the Coalition have “taken off the gloves”. We can only speculate if it’s because the independents are women or because they are moderates.
Maxine Newlands, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at James Cook University
Labor leader Bill Shorten’s first hustings in Herbert coincided with reports of a deal that the Coalition will preference Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) over other populist parties.
UAP’s candidate, former NRL player Greg Dowling, will run for the lower house, while Palmer has his sights on the Senate. Palmer’s big cash splash announcement may cause more of a ripple than a bounce, considering former Queensland Nickel workers will have to wait until after the election to get their money back.
With One Nation and Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party (FACN) also throwing their hats into the ring, there’s now four right-leaning minor parties vying for votes.
Herbert’s 2019 election is shaping up to be a rerun of 2013. Six years ago, preferences played a huge role in deciding 97 of the 150 seats nationally. 40% of Queensland seats were decided on preference votes in 2013.
The latest polling shows UAP at 14% – almost the same as 2013 after preferences (15.52%), but this was before Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON) confirmed their candidate. In 2016, One Nation preferences helped push the incumbent, Labor’s Cathy O’Toole, over the line. With a preference deal between LNP and UAP, Palmer’s chance of a seat in the Senate is a good bet, but it’s now a four-way spilt for the lower house.
UAP and Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) will be the benefactors in the Herbert electorate, placed ahead of Liberals and Labor on the how-to-vote cards. In a battle between UAP, PHON and FACN, it’s the Greens that could benefit the most.
With UAP aligned with LNP, the Greens candidate Sam Blackadder has a chance of picking up protest votes against Labor. The Greens could also take votes from latecomers, the Animal Justice Party, thanks to its clear policy on climate change – something that has eluded the major parties.
There’s a similar picture in Dickson, with One Nation, Fraser Anning and the Animal Justice Party all putting up candidates. Plus there’s former Palmer United Party, now independent candidate, Thor Prohaska running on a democracy ticket.
Like Herbert, PHON and FACN will have to fight for votes from UAP in Dickson. In 2013, Palmer’s party polled 9.8% of the vote in Dickson. With UAP favouring LNP over ALP like it did in 2013, it could help Dutton to retain his marginal seat this time around.
Ian Cook, Senior Lecturer of Australian Politics at Murdoch University
Attention was on Bill Shorten and Clive Palmer in WA election news this week.
Bill Shorten came under scrutiny when it was revealed that three WA Labor candidates had been forced to include him in their election advertising after they were found distributing pamphlets that made no reference to the Labor leader.
Polls consistently show that Australian voters prefer Scott Morrison to Bill Shorten as prime minister. But Shorten is a bigger problem for Labor in WA than he is elsewhere – although it’s not clear by how much.
A poll last month by Crosby Textor showed that Shorten had a minus 26 favourability in the Perth seat of Cowan, which is held by Labor’s Anne Aly by a margin of just 0.7%. That makes Shorten more unpopular in Cowan than he is in other marginal seats across the country. And it’s the reason that candidates would rather put Premier Mark McGowan in their campaign material.
Like the rest of Australia, many West Australians will vote Labor even though they don’t particularly like or trust Bill Shorten. So, we can expect more ads attacking Shorten as the Liberals look to capitalise on one of the few positives (or should that be negatives) they have to work with in WA.
Clive Palmer was in WA news for the same reason he was in everyone’s news: the Newspoll that showed that his United Australia Party would change the result in some marginal seats. That includes one of one of ours: Pearce.
Pearce is held by Christian Porter and this election is a big moment for him. Porter was Attorney-General in Scott Morrison’s government, and he has a high profile in WA. He was also on the way to becoming premier when he took a detour into federal politics. Porter undoubtedly has ambitions and is one of the bright young(ish) things in the WA Liberal Party, so his future is important to his party’s fate in the West.
After One Nation’s disastrous campaign in the last state election, WA voters are obviously looking elsewhere and Palmer has spent a lot of money on the UAP campaign. Christian Porter and the WA Liberals will be hoping that it isn’t enough to make the difference in Pearce.
Rob Manwaring, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University
It would be ironic, to say the least, if former Labor state Premier Jay Weatherill’s legacy will be to have delivered the final nail in the coffin of the Turnbull-Morrison governments.
Last week, water policy dominated the political and campaign agenda, with the issue of water buybacks causing significant problems for the Coalition, and the Nationals in particular. Yet the groundwork for this poisonous issue was laid when the Weatherill government set up a state royal commission into alleged water theft by the upstream states.
Since then, the issue has been a lingering problem, exacerbated by the dead fish in the Menindee. Since the revelations of the water buybacks story, this has proved a problematic issue, culminating with a remarkable interview on the ABC with the former Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Barnaby Joyce.
While elections are rarely ever decided in key marginal South Australian seats, this issue could be the exception. It’s striking how it has unified South Australians. When the original allegations of water fraud were revealed by the ABC, there was a press conference with all key South Australian senators, including Sarah Hanson-Young, Cory Bernadi, Nick Xenophon and Penny Wong. Commonwealth governments rarely benefit from this issue in the state where the Murray ends.
The Nationals have no presence in South Australia, and the electoral damage is likely to be limited to the Liberals in the seat of Mayo, where Centre Alliance MP Rebekah Sharkie has been strong on water policy. But this issue, so close to South Australian politics, could prove problematic on the national stage.
Michael Lester, researcher and PhD student at the Institute for the Study of Social Change
The Tasmanian North West Coast seat of Braddon is sitting on a knife-edge. Braddon is notoriously fickle, having changed hands five times since 1998, and margins are always tight.
Labor’s Justine Keay won the seat from the Liberal’s Brett Whitely in 2016. She retained the seat after having to resign and recontest it in the July 2018 citizenship byelections, but failed to make any electoral gains. She is now defending a very slim 1.7% margin.
In 2018, Keay had seven opponents. This election she is up against eight:
Karen Wendy Spaulding from the United Australia Party
independents Craig Brakey and Brett Michael Smith
Shane Allan from Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party
Liberal Gavin Pearce
The National’s Sally Milbourne
Phill Parsons from The Greens
Graham Gallaher from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Braddon is hard to call. In the absence of polling, local commentators are looking to the betting odds which presently place Keay as clear favourite at $1.45, with Pearce at $2.65. Despite that, some see Braddon as Liberal Party’s best chance of winning a seat in Tasmania – especially since an electoral boundary redistribution in 2017 added the more affluent Port Sorell area.
There is no single electorate-wide issue here. Braddon is a diverse mix of regional centres and agricultural districts extending from Devonport and Latrobe in the east, through Ulverstone, Burnie, Wynyard, Stanley, Smithton and Waratah, then down the west coast to the mining towns of Rosebery, Zeehan, Queenstown and the tourism and fishing village of Strahan. It also includes King Island in Bass Strait.
Tasmania’s recent economic renaissance has been slow to reach many areas of this electorate. So, candidates are aiming their promises at people’s concerns over economic development, jobs, youth training, health services and education. And both major parties have been careful to match almost anything the other side offers up.
Labor’s commitment of a A$25 million grant to support a Tasmanian AFL team has emerged as one big point of difference in the strongly pro-football Braddon, while the Liberals run a campaign on what better uses that money could be put to.
We’ll be back with an update on Victoria next week.
It’s hard to believe Barnaby Joyce really wants to lead the Nationals again. Of course everyone knows he does, desperately, but his unhinged ABC interview with Patricia Karvelas on Monday showed a breathtaking absence of political judgement or personal restraint.
Joyce went on the program to defend his conduct in the 2017 A$79 million water buyback from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA).
Regardless of how his approval of this deal will ultimately be judged, his shouting, interruptions and at times absurd language drowned out any chance of his getting his points across.
Joyce loyalists will see it as Barnaby-being-Barnaby. But it was further reason for Nationals to despair about the parlous state of their party, as they watch an ineffective leader and an out-of-control aspirant.
The Joyce interview made it harder for the government to manage this big distraction in a messy second campaign week.
The controversy over the water purchase is based on an old story; the election has enabled it to be resurrected for a powerful fresh spin around the political circuit.
Water expert Quentin Grafton, professor of economics at the Crawford School at the Australian National University, lays out the issues.
Grafton estimates the Commonwealth paid about $40 million too much for this water. He identifies three areas of concern: the government’s failure to get value for money (remembering this was floodwater, which is unreliable); the lack of transparency in the deal, and the nature of the process – a negotiated sale rather than an open tender.
Much has been made of EAA being a subsidiary of Eastern Australian Irrigation (EAI), which is based in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. This does, however, seem an irrelevance in the context of the value for money issue.
Also, it is one thing to say tax avoidance structures should be cracked down on, quite another to suggest the government should decline to deal with a company with a structure that accords with the law.
There has also been talk about Energy Minister Angus Taylor. As a business consultant Taylor helped set up the two companies and was a director of each.
But according to Taylor’s office he ended all links before entering parliament, never had a direct or indirect financial interest in EAA or any associated company, had no knowledge of the water buyback until after it happened, and received no benefit from this transaction.
So the questions in this affair centre on the conduct of the Agriculture Department and its then minister.
Grafton says: “Either the public servants were incompetent in relation to understanding value for money – or there’s an alternative explanation.”
The department is sensitive, taking the unusual step during Easter (and in the “caretaker” period) of issuing a statement defending its actions. It said it had done “due diligence”. The water purchase had been consistent with Commonwealth Procurement Rules “and paid at a fair market rate, as informed by independent market valuation,” the statement said.
Joyce is known in general to have been a meddling minister.
In this case, he insists he followed departmental advice in approving the purchase, and had been at arms length from the deal.
“My role was never to actually select a purchaser or to determine a price,” he told a Tuesday news conference. But he approved the authority to negotiate without tender, and imposed conditions, including having the department report back to him before finalising the deal.
The current Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, tried to stem the damage on Tuesday by asking the Auditor-General to inquire into the matter. Littleproud added a political twist, requesting the audit to look back as far as 2008, to encompass Labor’s period.
But this wasn’t going to satisfy Labor in an election campaign.
The opposition had demanded documents by the end of Tuesday; predictably, it didn’t get what it wanted.
Bill Shorten had already flagged the need for a judicial inquiry.
Late Tuesday, environment spokesman Tony Burke accused Scott Morrison of “trying to cover up his government’s incompetence, chaos and potential misconduct”.
“It is now clear that there needs to be an independent inquiry into the Eastern Australia Agriculture scandal, with coercive powers so that Australians can get the truth,” Burke said. (That inquiry, however, wouldn’t be probing Labor deals.)
If Labor wins on May 18, yet again we will see a government launch an investigation into the conduct of its predecessor. If this comes to pass, Joyce will find himself in the witness box, a prospect he seems to relish – at least now.
In 2017, the then agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, signed off on an A$80 million purchase of a water entitlement from a company called Eastern Australia Agriculture.
The problem is that Energy Minister Angus Taylor used to be a director of Eastern Australia Agriculture – though he didn’t have a financial interest – and the company is a Liberal party donor. What’s more, the value of the water purchased for A$80 million is under question.
Now, as the election looms, this issue has resurfaced. But why should taxpayers be concerned?
Water buybacks using an open tender were halted by the current government in 2015, even though this is the most cost-effective way to set aside water for the environment. Instead, the government pronounced that subsidies for irrigators were a better deal.
Until 2015, the government bought back most water using an open tender process, before it was replaced by a subsidy scheme for irrigation and occasional closed tenders.
The problem with the closed tender process is that it tends to lack transparency, which raises questions about how effectively the government is spending public money. And it’s hard to prove closed tenders deliver the most cost effective outcome.
The Murray-Darling Basin is a very productive agricultural zone and its rivers have been used to boost agricultural outputs through irrigation.
State governments spent much of the 20th century allocating this water to agricultural users. By the 1990s it was clear too much water was being extracted. This resulted in both harm to the river environment and potential reduced reliability for those with existing water rights.
Various attempts to rein in extractions were made around this time, but ultimately the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was adopted to deal with the problem.
In agreeing on the plan, the federal government committed to spending A$13 billion to reduce the amount of water being extracted from the Murray-Darling Basin. To accomplish this the government has two basic strategies.
One involves buying up existing rights for water use. The other hinges on using subsidies so farmers use less water when irrigating.
Reducing water extraction from the basin
The second approach of using subsidies is generally more politically appealing. This is because few farmers ever object to receiving a subsidy and the public has an affinity with the idea of “saving” water.
The problem, however, is that subsidies are a more costly way of returning water to the river system than simply buying back existing water rights. And so-called water savings are hard to measure how much water savings are a result of subsidies or some other factor.
This is why some analysts even claim subsidies are reducing the level of water available for the environment.
Buying back water rights is generally more cost-effective than providing subsidies. But a clear and transparant process still matters because water rights are not the same for everyone and it’s a complex process to determine their overall value.
Allocations and entitlements
First, most water users hold a legal right, known as an entitlement. Water entitlements represent the long-term amount of water that can be taken and used – subject to rain, of course.
Second, water allocations represent the amount of water currently available against a given entitlement – this is the water that is available now.
If a farmer owns an entitlement in the River Murray, chances are the annual allocation will be determined by how much water has flowed into upstream storages like Hume Dam, Dartmouth Dam or Lake Eildon.
Even then the allocation will vary, depending on which state issued the original entitlement. For instance, New South Wales water is generally allocated more aggressively. This means NSW entitlements tend to be less reliable in dry years than Victorian or South Australian entitlements.
If a farmer owns an entitlement where there are no upstream storages, as is the case with much of the Darling River system, then the allocation will vary depending on how much water is flowing in the river.
All of this means the amount of water that can actually be used for the environment when an entitlement passes to the government will depend heavily on the underlying characteristics of the water right.
Partly for this reason, water buybacks were historically conducted using an open tender process.
This meant the government would announce its willingness to buy water entitlements. Farmers would then notify the government about what entitlements they held and the price they were prepared to take.
Running an open tender allowed the government to assess the value for money of the different entitlements on offer at the time.
Water buybacks through open tender began seriously in about 2007 to 2008. This meant the price owners were prepared to sell for would be registered, and then the government would determine which offer provided the best value. Around 60% of all water now held for the environment by the Commonwealth was secured through open tenders.
As a general rule, a relatively high-reliability water entitlement was bought for about $2,000 per megalitre and this has become the metric for many in the market. But the current government halted this process in 2015.
Now, the government buys water through direct negotiation with water-entitlement holders.
The government justified ending open-tender buybacks on the basis that the water being secured was causing undue harm to rural and regional communities. And, instead, much more expensive subsidies would supposedly generate a better overall return.
This view is not universally shared. The receipts from openly tendered water entitlements were being used by many farmers to adjust their business, while still staying in the region.
Many rural communities continue to thrive, regardless of the strategy chosen to secure water for the environment. Subsidies also tend to favour particular irrigators rather than the community in general.
Having set aside the cheapest option of open-tender buybacks and declaring support for irrigation subsidies, the problem the government now faces is that it must explain why closed tenders persisted (albeit in isolated cases) and were signed off by Ministers as good value for money.
Closed tenders need not deliver a poor outcome for taxpayers. But it does mean the likelihood of establishing the best value for money is reduced, simply because there are fewer reference points.
And if it’s legitimate to overspend public money on irrigation infrastructure subsidies, the credibility of a supposedly cost-effective closed tender is also brought into question.