The energy minister, Angus Taylor, held talks with federal environment officials over an issue at the centre of an illegal land-clearing action brought by the same department against a company part-owned by him and his brother, Guardian Australia can reveal.
Taylor, who was minister for cities at the time, had meetings in 2017 to discuss the federal government’s designation of a critically endangered grassland species.
At the time of the meeting requests, federal and state investigations were under way into the alleged poisoning of 30 hectares that contained the grass species on a property in New South Wales’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.
Angus Taylor has previously denied on the record that he intervened in the investigation of the alleged illegal clearing of the critically endangered grasslands on the property near Delegate.
In April, in response to the issue being raised in Senate estimates, a spokesperson for the minister told Guardian Australia: “The minister has not made any representations to federal or state authorities in relation to this investigation. This is entirely a matter for Jam Land.”
The ministerial code of conduct says ministers must “make arrangements to avoid conflicts of interests arising from their investments” and “it is critical that ministers do not use public office for private purposes”.
In response to questions from the Guardian, Taylor today said he asked for meetings in his “capacity as the local member for Hume.”
It can now be revealed that Taylor had detailed talks with senior department officials and the office of Josh Frydenberg – who was the environment minister at the time – about the very laws that were at the centre of the investigation involving his brother.
Documents obtained under freedom of information by Guardian Australia show Frydenberg’s office in 2017 sought meetings for Taylor with department officials about the decision to upgrade protection of natural temperate grassland of the south-eastern highlands to critically endangered.
The grasslands were listed as critically endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act by the former environment minister, Greg Hunt, in 2016. They had previously been listed as “endangered” and have been protected under national law since 2000. But the 2016 changes had infuriated farmers in the Monaro, notably Richard Taylor, who was quoted in the rural press opposing the laws.
Emails obtained by Guardian Australia show Frydenberg’s office raised the grasslands protections with the Department of the Environment and Energy on 8 March, just a day after officials from the same department met with Jam Land to discuss potential contraventions of the EPBC Act.
An email sent on 9 March on behalf of Geoff Richardson, the department’s assistant secretary for the protected species and communities branch, records that Frydenberg’s office pointed to “the recent email traffic on the natural temperate grassland of the south-eastern highlands EC [ecological community]”.
“He [a person in Frydenberg’s office whose name has been redacted] started quizzing me on the changed definition, and I gave him some basic information on the thresholds that were applied in the new listing in 2016,” the email said.
“He is now keen for [redacted] and I to meet with Angus Taylor to answer questions on the technical aspects of the listing outcome.
“He made the point that for farmers in Monaro this is ‘the number 1 issue’ of concern for them.”
“When I tried to draw him on how the ‘issue’ was manifesting, ie stopping them from doing stuff on their land, or confusion over the definition and therefore what might constitute a significant impact, he couldn’t really explain it.”
Richardson told his colleagues that before agreeing to a meeting, he needed a full picture of any “departmental sensitivities including any compliance action under way”, noting that departmental officers would “stay out of that [the compliance action] completely”.
The email went to senior department staff, including Monica Collins, who at that time was the department’s assistant secretary for compliance and enforcement, the special office that manages investigations and prosecutions into breaches.
A day later Richardson sent another email saying they needed to get together to “fully understand the compliance actionthat is under way”, highlighting that at least in the officials’ minds, these requests for meetings were extremely sensitive.
But Frydenberg’s office continued to push for a meeting between the department and Taylor.
“I am meeting with Angus Taylor at 11am on Monday at APH [Parliament House] to discuss the listing of the Monaro grasslands. Geoff, I need you there to discuss history, consultation, thresholds, practicalities, etc. Monica, it would be good to have you there also if you can make it,” a person in the minister’s office, whose name was redacted, wrote.
The Monaro region is not in Taylor’s electorate although some of the critically endangered species do stretch into Hume.
Richardson met with Taylor on 20 March. The department had prepared a briefing document on the grasslands which explained that the species had been protected since 2000 and that, collectively, temperate grasslands are among the most threatened vegetation in Australia, with only about 5% remaining in relatively undisturbed condition.
The briefing also stated there was wide consultation before the decision to upgrade the species to critically endangered was made.
“There is a perception of a significant burden, but the regulatory impact due to ecological community listings has historically been minor for individual landholders and agriculture,” the department said.
In response to questions from Guardian Australia, Angus Taylor said: “In early 2017, I received a briefing in my capacity as the local member for Hume, on a revised listing under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
“The purpose of the briefing was to understand the technical aspects of the revised listing and its impact on those affected, which included many constituents in my electorate.
“I did not make any representations to federal or state authorities in relation to any compliance action being undertaken.”
An environment and energy department spokesperson said the compliance official, Monica Collins, did not attend and has not attended any meeting with Taylor relating to grasslands or any other matter despite the emails showing she had been asked to.
But the department said it was aware of the compliance action involving Taylor’s part-owned company prior to the meeting and the spokesperson said officials “did not discuss the matter with Taylor”.
“The purpose of the meeting was to outline the technical aspects of the grasslands listing which had been raised as the number one issue of concern to farmers in the Monaro region,” the spokesperson said.
On 24 March, Richardson wrote again to colleagues that “following our meeting with Angus Taylor on Monday, we are exploring options to deal with the concerns raised related to the natural temperate grasslands of the south-eastern highlands ecological community”.
“Since the meeting, we have had some initial discussions with the regional Local Land Services office,” the email said.
“There appears to be little confusion about interpreting the refined definition, so we are focusing our thinking on clarifying when a particular action may have a significant impact on the listed community, and thus potentially trigger the EPBC Act.”
Emails sent in April show Taylor continued to raise his concerns with Frydenberg’s office which then raised it with his department, though it is unclear whether there were more face-to-face meetings.
The emails show that by then the secretary of the environment department, Gordon de Brouwer, was being copied into discussions as the department pushed back on altering the laws.
By late April the NSW environment department dropped its prosecution of Jam Land, saying the scientific evidence that native grassland had been cleared was inconclusive.
Guardian Australia sought additional documents regarding the federal investigation but these have been denied on the grounds that the investigation is ongoing.
The natural temperate grassland of the south-eastern highlands is still listed as critically endangered.
The department’s spokesperson said “the compliance action in the Monaro is ongoing”.