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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Caitlin Cassidy and Nikki Marshall

Angus Taylor and the doctored document mystery: ‘It took us about 30 seconds to realise it was a fake’

Guardian Australia investigative reporter Anne Davies at home in Sydney
Anne Davies at home in Sydney. She exposed the doctored documents scandal after Angus Taylor accused Clover Moore of climate hypocrisy. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Anne Davies admits she’s a “slightly obsessive person”.

It’s a trait an investigative reporter needs in spades when it comes to digging to the truth of a story.

So when Davies’ persistence met the determination of Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, it spelled trouble for Angus Taylor.

The doctored document saga began with a “very, very sarcastic” letter the former federal energy minister wrote to Moore, accusing her of driving up emissions by spending $15m on travel in a year. Its gist was that she was a hypocrite on the climate crisis, alleging that her council’s travel expenses contradicted its strong net-zero position.

Moore received it on 29 September 2019, then woke the next morning to see it in Sydney’s News Corp tabloid.

“They did contact her very late for comment,” Davies says. “She said, ‘Oh, this is just wrong.’ Nonetheless, the Daily Telegraph proceeded to run it, saying, ‘Well, we’ve got a document.’”

Over the next two weeks Moore wrote to Taylor informing him his figures were wildly inaccurate, and to the Telegraph, demanding an apology.

“It quickly unfolded that somebody had drafted up a document, so that Angus Taylor was relying on false figures,” Davies says. “It’s possible Clover went to a couple of conferences in a year – but the idea she spent millions of dollars was a little bit implausible …

“We got hold of the document and we started asking questions.” The most immediate was – just where had this document come from? “It took us 30 seconds to realise it was a fake.

“There were questions asked in parliament of Angus Taylor,” Davies says. “How could this have happened? Who’s responsible?”

“Mr Taylor was then energy minister and he’d been in the firing line for quite some time over various aspects of his portfolio management.”

These controversies became known as “watergate” and “grassgate” and Davies had broken stories on both, the latter alongside her Guardian Australia colleague Lisa Cox. “He’d really not given very satisfactory answers,” Davies says.

Davies with with her dog Banjo
Anne Davies with with her dog Banjo: ‘It was like lifting up the bonnet on politics and seeing how it worked.’ Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The doctored document controversy – laid bare in an exclusive written by Davies with input from her colleague Chris Knaus – “was the easiest one for people to understand”, she says. “And it came after the two other ones … He’d gone from being arguably the next leader of the Liberal party to someone who was under pressure.”

It’s what the story tells us about the psyche of politics that Davies loves. “It was like lifting up the bonnet on politics and seeing how it worked,” she says.

“There you had somebody in the office who’d come up with this strategy to pour a bucket of dirt over Moore. They got the minister to write the letter and used their favourite sympathetic media to put it out there and do maximum harm to her.

“And then she responded, just as forcefully.”

City of Sydney council documents alongside the one released by Taylor’s office

Eventually Taylor admitted it was possibly an incorrect document – saying his staff had downloaded a different version from the council website.

Nobody has ever found this version.

“One of the things I have tried to do – because I’m a slightly obsessive person – is I’ve tried to get hold of all the computer logs and materials around that,” Davies says.

“The council says there was only ever one version on the website … they couldn’t understand where these numbers came from.

“Angus Taylor’s version [of events] has never been entirely coherent.”

In a statement, Taylor said: “I reject absolutely the suggestion that I, or any members of my staff, altered the document in question; however, I will be writing to the lord mayor to offer my apologies for not clarifying those numbers with the City of Sydney before writing to her.”

A New South Wales police investigation into the matter didn’t go anywhere, nor did one launched by Australian federal police.

Taylor’s department also ordered an investigation. The most telling information came from WhatsApp messages, which Davies obtained under freedom of information laws, written by the minister’s staffers on the night before the article went live.

“Someone from the Telegraph rang and said these numbers aren’t right,” Davies says.

“And at some point one of the staff went back up to the office to try and find the piece of paper to verify the numbers, while another staff member was on the other end of the WhatsApp chat.”

They went back and forth – then a document with different numbers in slightly different typeface appeared.

“They then sent it to the senior staff member who wrote – in what must have sent a chill down Angus Taylor’s back of his neck – ‘It looks a little messier than we hoped.’

“I don’t know what was going through Angus Taylor’s head at the time,” Davies says. “Certainly I think the staff members would have been pretty worried … but I have very little doubt they knew on the night of publication there was something wrong.

“And they obviously decided to tough it out and thought, well, Clover will get mad. You know, nothing will happen. But of course that underestimates the lord mayor of Sydney.”

Taylor, she says, “was a very ambitious man who had his eye on the main prize of becoming a prime minister. So I think he thought attacking Clover Moore was a good way to score points with his constituency. It backfired very, very badly.

“If you play in the dirty end of the pool, you’re going to get dirty. And that’s what happened in this little case.”

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