John Barilaro thanked for $107,000 grant to agricultural group associated with Angus Taylor's family

Anne Davies and Lisa Cox
·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

An agricultural group associated with Angus Taylor’s family thanked the New South Wales deputy premier, John Barilaro, for a $107,000 grant that was used to fund research to support lobbying efforts for the watering down of protections for endangered native grasslands.

At the time, in late 2016, a separate Taylor family-controlled company, Jam Land, was under investigation for illegal clearing of native grasslands, in breach of the same grassland protections. It was facing potential fines of up to $1m.

Last April Australia’s environment department ruled that Jam Land had acted illegally and ordered the company to restore 103 hectares of native grasslands, but did not order any fines. That order is the subject of an ongoing ministerial review.

Related: Company part-owned by Angus Taylor illegally poisoned endangered grasslands, investigation finds

During 2017 and 2018 the energy minister, Angus Taylor, approached the then environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, to discuss the native grassland protections.

A series of freedom of information requests showed he had meetings with senior departmental officials and that Frydenberg had asked his department whether it would be possible to weaken the protections, against scientific advice. Taylor has said he made no representations about the investigation itself and has repeatedly stated that he sought the meeting with departmental officials on behalf of constituents in Hume who were concerned about the grassland listing.

Both he and Frydenberg have said the meeting was focused on the “technical aspects” of the grassland listing.

Now it has emerged that technical work done to try to convince the federal government to change the law – the same law that the Taylors were being being prosecuted under – was paid for by a NSW government grant.

Monaro Farming Systems secured a $107,000 grant from the NSW-administered Local Land Services (LLS), which was used to pay for a consultant to devise a new way to identify and measure native grasslands.

MFS is a cooperative of Monaro farmers; at the time it was chaired by Taylor’s brother Richard. He thanked Barilaro in its 2018 annual report.

“In a significant departure from our policy of leaving political issues to the farm lobby groups, MFS has taken a lead role in working with NSW Farmers and LLS to achieve a better outcome in native vegetation regulation,” Richard Taylor wrote.

“A $107,000 grant from the LLS has been provided to MFS to develop and test an improved approach, the first stage of which is detailed in a report just completed by Stuart Burge,” he said.

“Many thanks to our State MP John Barilaro in helping facilitate this work. We are optimistic of developing a plan that will achieve better conservation and production outcomes than the present regulation.”

Barilaro is the local member for Monaro, where the Taylors are extensive land owners.

At the time Bronwyn Taylor, Angus and Richard’s sister-in-law, was parliamentary secretary for southern NSW and regional communications, reporting to Barilaro. She is married to another Taylor brother, Duncan.

The three Taylor brothers had interests in Jam Land, the company that was being prosecuted. Richard was a director and a shareholder; Angus had an interest via his family company Gufee; and Duncan and Bronnie had an interest via their company, Fairross. Angus Taylor has previously made clear he has no direct or controlling interest in the company.

Now it emerges that the NSW government money was used to fund Burge, an agronomist, to prepare submissions on the problems with the grassland laws and offer an alternative way of measuring whether they contained native species.

Burge had given the original advice to the Taylors about Jam Land, which had led to them spraying the grasses with herbicide. Burge has previously told the Guardian he had done “a meticulous assessment” of the Taylors’ land and had followed the appropriate scientific protocols.

His approach is believed to have formed the basis of Angus Taylor’s arguments to Frydenberg in 2018. Burge’s work was sent to NSW Farmers, who then used it to lobby about the stultifying effect of the federal environmental protection laws on agriculture. This led to a review chaired by Wendy Craik.

In the 2019 MFS annual report, Richard Taylor noted: “The MFS role in facilitating native vegetation work has resulted in Stuart Burge’s Monaro Kangaroo Grass Strategy … This has already translated into revised definitions for protected grasslands under the Federal EPBC Act, and in the next twelve months we expect there will also be changes to the State vegetation assessments, as well as the introduction of Monaro specific codes, and a whole farm mapping option for producers.”

The federal environment department said there had been no change to the definition of native grasslands under federal law.

Richard Taylor told Guardian Australia that Burge’s work focused on state native vegetation laws and new draft maps for protected grasslands in Monaro.

He said the work had been funded by the NSW Local Land Service but he could not remember if there had been a tender process to secure the grant.

Taylor said farmers who were members of Monaro Farming Systems had been concerned the maps produced by the NSW government would regulate about “70% of agricultural land”.

“There was an overwhelming desire by the members to get involved but the involvement was very much in terms of gathering evidence rather than lobbying,” he said.

Burge’s work was to try to detect what percentage of agricultural land in Monaro had high and medium value conservation grasslands on it.

“The figure he came up with was about 17 or 18%,” Taylor said. “The second part of this work was how to most accurately find those areas and conserve them without unnecessarily regulating areas that fell outside of this.”

Although the annual report boasts that Burge’s work led to changed definitions for grasslands under federal laws, Taylor said this work was actually a separate project between the federal government and the LLS and was not associated with the MFS grant.

John Murdoch, who took over from Taylor as the chair of Monaro Farming Systems in late 2019, told Guardian Australia the organisation had not applied for the grant and had not been aware it was being awarded until Barilaro made the announcement in a media release in April 2018.

He said he understood the money had been committed after a meeting between Barilaro, Burge and landholders.

“I remember when that happened we got a press release and there was a bit of scrambling,” Murdoch said. “It was an agreement between LLS and Stuart with us as the facilitator. I never felt really comfortable with that because we weren’t dictating the terms of the work.”

Related: Josh Frydenberg backs Angus Taylor's account of grasslands meeting

A spokesperson for Barilaro said: “As the member for Monaro, John Barilaro advocates for all businesses, community groups, organisations and residents within his electorate.

“Any questions relating to processes around LLS grants should be directed to LLS.”

A spokesperson for Bronnie Taylor said: “Parliamentary secretaries have no role in decisions made by government agencies. Grants issued to Monaro Farming Systems are a matter for Local Land Services.”

The LLS said it was not aware of any direct representation made by Barilaro or his office.

A spokesperson said “LLS follows all departmental procurement requirements” but did not elaborate on how the grant was assessed or funds allocated.

“Monaro Farm Systems (MFS) was contracted to develop grassland management guidelines to support producers managing native grasslands,” the spokesperson said of the grant. “The contract required MFS to engage with landholders and provide data and analysis on historical grazing management practices.

“In the course of considering key milestones and deliverables MFS chose to engage the services of a consultant.”

Monaro Farming Systems has received other grants from LLS since the 2018 grant. On at least one occasion MFS asked for Barilaro’s assistance.

While there is no suggestion by Guardian Australia of wrongdoing in how the grant was obtained or allocated, the NSW opposition spokesman on primary industries, Mick Veitch, said the people of NSW deserved transparency in the allocation of funding.