When should a minister ‘stand aside’ (that is, be stood aside); when should a minister resign (be sacked)? Prime Minister Morrison has provided his answer in the case of Angus Taylor, his Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction. Not now. But not ever? – we will see.
The ‘stand aside’ call came from the Labor Party after it emerged that the NSW Police had established Strike Force Garrad to investigate claims by Labor’s shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, that Taylor could have committed offences under sections 253 and 254 of the NSW Crimes Act. These make it an offence for a person to make a false document with the intention of using it to induce a person to influence a person in public office in the exercise of their duties.
The ‘false document’ was the document sent to a Daily Telegraph reporter by Mr Taylor’s ministerial office showing travel expenses incurred by the City of Sydney Council in 2017-8 that appeared to be a wildly inflated version of those in the Council’s actual annual report. However the Minister’s office claimed the document it provided was a copy of that annual report, downloaded from the council’s website.
Leaving aside the Council’s insistence that it only ever posted the one set of figures, there are real problems with those in the document provided to the Telegraph. The annual report says the cost of overseas visits undertaken by Councillors was ‘$1,727.77.’ The version given to the Telegraph says the cost was ‘$1.7.’ This was changed in a letter written over Taylor’s signature to Lord Mayor Clover Moore to ‘$1.7 million’. There is no explanation where the ‘million’ came from. On its face, the false document is saying the cost of overseas travel was less than two dollars – ‘$1.7’. Which of course is ridiculous – but then so is adding ‘million’ and getting to amounts that Mr Taylor, his office and the Daily Telegraph seem to have wanted to believe.
The figures for interstate visits are equally problematic. According to the official annual report the cost of interstate visits undertaken by Councillors was ‘$4,206.32.’ The Ministerial office copy reports this figure as ‘$14.2.’ Again, nothing to indicate whether that should be 14.2 dollars, or 14.2 thousand dollars or 14.2 million dollars.
But clearly neither the Minister nor the Daily Telegraph took sufficient notice of what their false document was telling them.
So wherever the false document was concocted, Minister Taylor was at best careless in signing a letter that used these figures as his reason for attacking the Lord Mayor’s climate credentials. The document says $1.7 and $14.2. The Minister’s letter added the crucial ‘m.’
The false document issue is being investigated by the police. It will be interesting to see whether they want to interview Mr Taylor and his staff and if they do, whether they will agree to answer questions. But whether or not they had anything to do with the forgery (which they appear to have denied) Mr Taylor is or ought to be in serious political trouble.
A long time ago, one of the issues that intrigued political scientists and (sometimes) journalists, was the extent to which Ministers were responsible for mistakes that are made in their public service departments. That is no longer the case, not least because the top of the public service has become politicised (through short-term appointments replacing ‘permanent’ heads of departments). No-one, for example, appears to be calling for the head of the Minister responsible for the robo-debt fiasco that has had appalling consequences for many thousands of people on social security.
It was also before Ministers developed large scale private offices (paid for by the public purse) to act as an interface between them and their departments, and also to drive their political agendas. Ministers probably are responsible (in terms of being accountable and having to answer for) what happens in their own offices. When someone in the office bungles, the blame must be sheeted home to the Minister.
So whatever the outcome of the NSW police inquiry Mr Taylor has to answer for the fact that he used his ministerial status to try to belittle and score political points against the Sydney Lord Mayor using false figures. Whether his mistakes about those figures were the result of his own carelessness or poor staff work, Mr Taylor is himself responsible and must answer for it. He should pay a price for it.
Scott Morrison has added a complication. Asked in Parliament why Mr Taylor had not been stood down while the police investigation was under way, Mr Morrison volunteered to take up with the NSW Police Commissioner the substance of the inquiry. What was he thinking? His subsequent phone call established nothing. But his intervention has poisoned the well – there will be many people who won’t accept that a police tick for Mr Taylor was not influenced by the prime ministerial intervention.
As it turns out, Mr Morrison had a good reason for not standing Mr Taylor down – though he apparently did not know it at the time. Attorney-General Christian Porter pointed out this week that his shadow, Mark Dreyfus, has called for police investigations into seven other ministers, which had got nowhere. It is entirely reasonable under these circumstances, for ministers not to be required to stand down simply because a police inquiry has been sought by the Opposition.
But this is different. Irrespective of the possible breach of the Crimes Act, Mr Taylor was guilty of a political sin. He misquoted (turning dollars into millions of dollars) a document in his attempt to denigrate a political opponent. And he was caught out and forced to apologise.
He has earned some time in the sin bin.
But of course, there is more. He is also under fire over the appropriateness of his contacts with officials in relation to the illegal clearing of protected grasslands by a company of which he is a shareholder.
It may be that he is merely accident prone. That in itself has been sufficient reason for former Prime Ministers to stand aside and even remove the occasional minister.
David Solomon is a retired journalist and author.