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Defending Angus Taylor (the lone wolf and the albatross)

Nov 29, 2019 • 15m 12s

Scott Morrison has put himself in a difficult position, calling the NSW police commissioner to check on an investigation into his own minister.

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Defending Angus Taylor (the lone wolf and the albatross)

132 • Nov 29, 2019

Defending Angus Taylor (the lone wolf and the albatross)

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Scott Morrison has put himself in a difficult position, calling the NSW police commissioner to check on an investigation into his own minister. Paul Bongiorno on the questions that now need to be answered.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

How are you, Paul?

PAUL:

Oh, no, I'm good. Yes, it's terrific. I think a bit weary at the end of a fairly long and eventful year.

ELIZABETH:

Yes. And it's a sitting week, of course. Next week and this week.

PAUL:

Yes, it is. Final two sitting weeks for the year. There's always drama. In years gone by, we’d be talking about leadership challenges. There's no talk of that just at the moment.

ELIZABETH:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

Archival Tape — Scott Morrison:

“I’ve since spoken with the NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, about the instigation, the nature, and substance of their enquiries, which he advised me were based only on the allegations referred by the shadow attorney-general, and based on the information provided to me by the Commissioner, I consider there is no action required by me...”

ELIZABETH:

So, Paul, how significant is it that Scott Morrison called the New South Wales police commissioner this week over the investigation into Angus Taylor?

PAUL:

Well, bluntly, Elizabeth, the significance is the prime minister of Australia, our most senior elected official, has been seen to be interfering in a police investigation into one of his ministers. This is the perception, without a doubt, Morrison has created and his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, is gobsmacked.

Archival Tape — Malcolm Turnbull:

“Well, it is always critically important that in any police enquiry particularly something that involves a politician, that the police are and are seen to be acting entirely free of any political influence.”

PAUL:

Turnbull says he wouldn't have made the call and the record shows neither would have John Howard. In fact, John Howard had quite firm views on this. So in the view of his predecessors, this was a most unwise thing to do. In fact, it's one of the most brazen displays of flouting conventions of propriety. But Morrison was so brazen, he announced in the parliament he was going to ring up commissioner. Then he rang him. So it's trashed. Any appearances of integrity with regards to the way the prime minister's handling this police investigation into his own cabinet minister, Angus Taylor.

ELIZABETH:

So with that all said, why on earth would the prime minister make such a phone call?

PAUL:

Well, one view is that Morrison claimed previously that Fuller, the police commissioner, was one of his best mates.

Archival Tape — Scott Morrison:

“Two of my best friends, particularly Mick Fuller, who’s actually from my area originally, Mick, he lives down The Shire in Sydney.”

PAUL:

In a doorstop interview this week, the commissioner denied that claim point-blank. He said he didn't have the PM's mobile number, he never socialized with him, and he only knew him professionally. He admitted they were once neighbors, but the commissioner says he was joking in another radio interview when he suggested Morrison used to bring in his bins on garbage night.

Archival Tape — Ben Fordham on 2GB:

“Once upon a time, if the bins were left out and they hadn’t been taken out by you, the bloke who’s now the most powerful person in the country used to go get the bins and take them in. He doesn’t do it anymore for you, is that true?”

Archival Tape — Mick Fuller on 2GB:

“Well, he was the treasurer at the time and he did tell me recently that he’s the prime minister now and really that should be Josh Frydenberg’s job. But he won’t take my calls so...”

PAUL:

So the commissioner's distancing of himself in this way is a clear indication he knows Morrison had put him into what looks like a compromised position.

Archival Tape — Ben Fordham on 2GB:

“You have just been raised in a conversation with Mick Fuller…”

Archival Tape — Scott Morrison on 2GB:

“Yeah, good bloke.”

Archival Tape — Ben Fordham on 2GB:

“Because once upon a time when you were neighbors, you used to bring his bin in. When he’d the bin outside, the wheelie bin outside, you’d collect his bin and bring it in for him. True or false?”

Archival Tape — Scott Morrison on 2GB:

“Well that’s what good neighbors do.”

PAUL:

Fuller would know that politically, Morrison only wants one outcome from this investigation, and that is that his minister has no case to answer. His phone call has tainted whatever the investigation finds.

ELIZABETH:

And Paul, do we know what was actually discussed on the phone call?

PAUL:

Well, Fuller, in his doorstop interview said the prime minister didn't ask questions that were inappropriate

Archival Tape -- Mick Fuller:

“He didn’t ask for anything that was inappropriate, and I’m comfortable with the discussion that we had.”

PAUL:

Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? He said in the call with the prime minister, he talked around a police statement that was released on Tuesday. That police statement revealed detectives from the State Crime Command's Financial Crime Squad had launched Strike Force Garrard to investigate the reported creation of fraudulent documentation. Now, the police commissioner said he offered no opinion to Morrison on whether the prime minister should stand aside Angus Taylor. But he told Morrison the complaint had been made in a well-constructed letter from shadow Attorney General, that is the Labor Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus QC, which, according to the police commissioner, went to an obscure part of the Crimes Act. Well, that was enough for Morrison to see the issue only in political terms. And that's a grave error of judgment. Sure, politics are involved, but they're not the only factor. Fuller seemed all over the place, I've got to say, in the news conference he said he didn't regard the allegations themselves are serious in terms of things he would normally stand up and talk about. But at the end of the day, he said they were public figures and he then conceded that he's highly trained computer expert police may find Taylor was involved in a crime. So for his part, Morrison told Parliament that he'd asked the commissioner directly about the investigation and how it would impact Taylor. He said he asked about the initiation, the nature and the substance of the inquiries. Now, look, why he didn't leave the phone call to his chief of staff to maybe ring the chief of staff of the police commissioner has old heads perplexed. They just can’t understand why Morrison acted in this way.

ELIZABETH:

I mean, it's staggering. I mean, whatever happened on that call, of course, that could lead to questions of impropriety. What does it tell us about Morrison's judgment and his character by extension?

PAUL:

Well, look, it says that the prime minister, as been the case in other jobs he's had both inside politics and outside of them, especially at the tourism commission, he's a lone operator. He doesn't consult, he’s cocksure of his own judgment and whose instinctive reaction when he's under pressure is to throw his weight around.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So, Paul, we're talking about the phone call that Scott Morrison made to the New South Wales police commissioner this week. How did that phone call come about?

PAUL:

Well, it started with a letter Angus Taylor sent to the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, telling her that if she wanted action on climate change, she should start with her own air travel. Taylor had been upset that Moore's council had declared a climate emergency and had written off to the federal government to inform them of this. Now, in his letter, Taylor put figures claiming that the council had spent 1.7 million dollars on international air travel and 14.2 million on domestic travel in the previous year. That is the, you know, the Councilors of Sydney. This letter was then leaked to The Daily Telegraph.

ELIZABETH:

And those figures, I mean, it seems almost like an impossible amount for a councilor to have spent on air travel.

PAUL:

That's right. Look, the real figure is $1727 on international travel and $4206 on domestic travel.

ELIZABETH:

So much less, obviously.

PAUL:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ELIZABETH:

And so how do the police come to be involved?

PAUL:

Well, Taylor’s office provided The Daily Telegraph with a document when the Telegraph was under fire from Clover Moore for making these allegations, she said they're wrong and she demanded a correction. The Telegraph then went to the minister and said, what the hell's going on? Virtually. Now they provided, that is Taylor and his office, provided the paper with this document. But the figures in the document were false. Now, Taylor denies he or his office created the fraudulent document but refuses to say where he got it.

Archival Tape — Angus Taylor:

“This is an outrageous accusation against me by the Labor party. I reject absolutely the suggestion that I or any members of my staff, altered the documents in question.”

PAUL:

He claims it was taken directly from the council's website, although the council's metadata evidence and public internet archives show this is simply not the case. Now Dreyfus’ submission is that the fraudulent document was created to illegally influence councilors in the exercise of their public duty. Now, that's the subject of the police investigation.

ELIZABETH:

I mean, they’re the details of what's being investigated, what are the bigger questions here?

PAUL:

Well, who created the document is one. And if Taylor's not protecting his own hide by refusing to say who created it, then who's he covering up for? And more to the point, why has the prime minister not told him to simply come clean? I mean, if it doesn't really amount to much, as the government is claiming, will just come clean and say, well, X gave it to us and we took it at face value.

ELIZABETH:

This is a huge distraction now and it's the result of what was essentially a cheap shot at Clover Moore, something silly has now ended up being quite serious. What did Taylor's colleagues make of this?

PAUL:

Well, look, Taylor's performance generally is not impressing many or most on the government backbench, certainly many I speak to. One of his colleagues says the Rhodes Scholar is, in fact, a smartass. You know, another one said, look, he's a dill. There is criticism for him even bothering to attack Lord Mayor Clover Moore in the first place. Interestingly enough, the department told the Senate estimates that it didn't write the letter. It prepared another letter for the minister to send to the lord mayor. That was ignored and was beefed up in the minister's own office. So the parliamentary tactics of the government are compounding, I’d like to use the Italian word, the mess, the impasticciare. And it hardly inspires confidence in Taylor. The leader of the House Christian Porter repeatedly shuts down any opposition attempt to debate the issue. This easily leads to the conclusion that defending the trouble magnet minister is simply too hard to do credibly.

ELIZABETH:

Taylor, of course, is also involved in a number of other scandals or has been in the recent past. This isn't the only one.

PAUL:

Oh, that's exactly right. And that's why he's rapidly gained the reputation as being a trouble-magnet. And certainly a bit of an albatross around the prime minister's neck in political terms. The minister's left questions unanswered on the buyback of $80 million worth of water leases from a company to which he was connected. He hasn't really answered very well at all the lobbying for rezoning endangered grasslands on a property connected to his family business, he's looking, as we say in politics, embattled. And if you're looking embattled, you know you’re in some sort of trouble.

Archival Tape — Speaker:

“The leader of the opposition…”

Archival Tape — Anthony Albanese:

“Thank you, Mr Speaker. My question is again addressed to the Prime Minister. The ministerial code makes it the personal responsibility of the Prime Minister to decide whether to stand aside a minister in the exact circumstances that the minister for emissions reduction finds himself in right now. Prime Minister, why is he still sitting there? When will you stand him aside?”

ELIZABETH:

Is this Morrison basically saying, I’m going to do what I want?

PAUL:

Well, yes. This is Morrison showing, I think, a dangerous hubris, if you like, that he's right and everybody else is wrong. And if the government wants to bat on, this will just hang around like a bad smell and if anything else happens with Angus Taylor, it'll be raised again. But anyway, as I say, we'll see how this plays out in the days, if not the weeks ahead.

ELIZABETH:

Paul, thank you so much.

PAUL:

Thanks, Elizabeth. Bye.

[Advertisement]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Victorians will soon pay a new tax to fund mental health after a royal commission found years of chronic underinvestment in the sector. Premier Daniel Andrews told Parliament that all of the recommendations in the report tabled on Thursday would be adopted, including a special tax to fund the sector, similar to the state's fire services levy.

And in Washington, President Donald Trump has signed into law congressional legislation backing protesters in Hong Kong in the face of angry objections from Beijing.
The legislation requires the State Department to certify that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify favourable US trading terms, and also threatens sanctions for human rights violations.

7am is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh with Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show.

Erik Jensen is our editor.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, see you next week.

Scott Morrison has put himself in a difficult position, calling the NSW police commissioner to check on an investigation into his own minister. Paul Bongiorno on the questions that need to be answered.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

Taylor twist as Morrison phones a 'friend' in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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132: Defending Angus Taylor (the lone wolf and the albatross)