The Morrison Government continues to defend embattled energy minister Angus Taylor, following the launch of a police investigation into the circumstances of his letter to Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore, as Labor also accused the prime minister Scott Morrison of an improper intervention with the police commissioner.
The row over Taylor’s future – which again dominated question time in both the House of Representatives and the Senate on Wednesday, has put the Morrison government on the back foot in the final two weeks of parliament before the lengthy summer break.
It has also gripped the energy industry, many of whom are frustrated by the lack of co-herent policy and Taylor’s repeated interventions into the sector – although it is not entirely clear that things would change much should he be replaced.
Labor continues to demand that Taylor stand aside from his ministerial portfolios – which also include emission reductions – while the NSW police investigation is in progress.
Labor has also claimed that Morrison may have made an “unprecedented” intervention in the investigation, dubbed Strike Force Garrad, after the prime minister called the NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller – also reported to be a friend and former neighbour – seeking details of the nature of the investigation.
In Question Time on Wednesday, Labor peppered Morrison with questions around the circumstances of his phone call to Fuller, and his decision to allow Angus Taylor to retain his ministerial positions.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese has sought to label that call from Morrison to the NSW police commissioner as inappropriate, as it could create the perception that there has been political interference or influence from the prime minister on the investigation.
“His job is to act in the national interest when he talks to authorities, not in his own personal interest, and I found it pretty unprecedented, frankly, that he would suggest that there had been a discussion about details of an investigation that was only launched hours beforehand,” Albanese said.
Shadow climate change minister, Mark Butler added to the pressure Labor seeking for Taylor to stand aside from his ministerial portfolios while a police investigation is taking place, adding that Taylor had misled the parliament over figures used in Taylor’s letter to Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore.
“I am very much saying he misled the parliament and he repeated that mislead this week,” Butler told ABC’s RN Breakfast radio program. “The question of where he got the documents is unclear. The only thing we do, we can be absolutely sure of, is he did not get those figures from the City of Sydney council website. He did not get them from there.
“The idea that Angus Taylor can continue in office while a strike force has been launched into the possible commission of three very serious criminal offences makes an utter mockery of ministerial standards and ministerial accountability under this prime minister,” Butler added.
Morrison’s predecessor, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, echoed the concerns over potential perceptions of political interference, telling Sky News that he would not have made such a call to the NSW police commissioner.
“Now, I am sure the call that the prime minister made to the NSW police commissioner was innocuous, but it would have been much better if it had not been made,” Turnbull said.
“Because it is really, it is vitally important that that inquiry that is being conducted by the NSW police – like every inquiry they undertake – is seen to be conducted entirely free of political influence.”
Following question time, Albanese sort to move a motion in the House of Representatives to force Morrison to release a transcript of his conversation with the NSW Police commissioner, claiming that “prime minister’s account of the conversation is at odds with the account of the NSW Police Commissioner”
Government members used its majority to block the motion.
Commissioner Fuller has played down the significance of the phone call, telling The Australian that “at the end of the day, he received no more or less information than what was in the media release.”
“It was an extremely short conversation in that he just wanted confirmation we were conducting an investigation.”
That appears to contradict Morrison’s own statement to parliament, where he said he had been assured by Fuller that the only lead in the investigation had come from a letter from Labor. That was not in the commissioner’s media release.
The NSW Police investigation will focus on the circumstances of how falsified travel figures came to be included in a letter from Taylor to Clover Moore, and how a fabricated version of a City of Sydney annual report was provided to the Daily Telegraph, and whether a criminal offence may have been committed.
Morrison told Question Time yesterday that he would wait to consult with the NSW police commissioner on the investigation before making a decision over Taylor’s future as a minister, as he is obliged to do under the ministerial standards.
Morrison later told parliament that no action was necessary, as the investigation was based solely on the referral made to NSW police by shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus.
There are many within the energy sector that would privately welcome Taylor being moved from the energy portfolio, who has taken a more combative approach to the energy portfolio since taking over the position from his predecessor Josh Frydenberg.
It is not clear that Taylor has the broad support of his own party room, a point repeatedly made by Labor. And his tenure has been controversial, and punctuated by questions over alleged clearing of native grasses at properties associated with him and his family, and trading in water rights.
Despite taking on the additional title as the ‘minister for emissions reduction’, Taylor has overseen ongoing increases in Australia’s emissions. Taylor has sought to obfuscate these rises by claiming they are the result of increases in Australia’s natural gas exports, for which Australia should receive credit, claiming they have reduced emissions overseas.
Taylor has provided no evidence to substantiate this claim and has been contradicted by energy sector experts.
Where Frydenberg had sought to engage with State and Territory governments on energy policy, leading to the proposed National Energy Guarantee, Taylor has sought to deal only with ‘friendly’ states, taking an ad-hoc and uncoordinated approach to energy policy.
Taylor has also appeared to have abandoned any efforts to develop a consistent national energy policy, prolonging a period of policy uncertainty that has hampered investment in new energy projects. But this appears to be overall government policy.
This was a point made by wind farm developer Infigen Energy, whose managing director Ross Rolfe lamented at the company’s annual general meeting last week that a lack of federal leadership was making energy sector investment more difficult.
“The divisive policy debate has left the nation without a credible framework through which to meet its international commitment to the Paris Agreement, or that would form the basis of a viable national response to emissions reduction,” Rolfe said.
“A coherent, long-term, market-based emissions policy remains elusive – even though it should be a critical element of any integrated strategy that is likely to deliver a smooth transition to a low carbon future.”
The NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller expects to wrap up the investigation by next week.