There are 13 people who should be able to help resolve the Angus Taylor mystery – and help the energy minister get it off the political agenda.
They are the 13 who downloaded the Sydney City Council annual report 2017-18 between Friday 6 September and Monday 9 September last year.
Taylor has told parliament this was the timeframe when his staff printed out travel expenses details used in a botched attempt to mock Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s climate change concerns.
He later apologised because the figures he used were bogus.
But the central unknown of what otherwise might merely have been a footnote in a book of dumb political smartarsery remains.
Where did the inaccurate travel expense figures Taylor inadvisedly hurled at Moore come from? Because no one, not police investigator, council officials and Taylor’s own staff, can find them in the report.
He has said his staff didn’t concoct them, and nor did he. And it would be pushing a conspiracy theory up a steepish hill to suggest Taylor lied about not making up the numbers.
At the very least it would be a stunning act of stupidity for him to think no one would twig to the fakery were he to try it.
It seems more likely he was duped by someone, possibly someone outside his office with a conduit to him. Clover Moore has lots of enemies in Sydney who for around 15 years have had to watch voters rebuff attempts to get rid of her.
One of them, someone he trusted, might have slipped a dodgy document to Taylor, who saw a chance for an easy cheap hit on Moore and the climate change campaign, in itself an admission the nation’s energy minister isn’t a fan of global warming worries.
The fact this episode is still something to speculate about eight months later, that even the minister hasn’t, or can’t, fluently explain what happened, is a matter of concern.
It goes to credibility.
The Morrison government has been granted a massive stock of trust as a consequence of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The faith is warranted and the government hopes to mobilise it on non-Covid-19 matters such as economic policy.
But a government’s credibility chain is as strong as its weakest link, and at the moment that is Angus Taylor, as Labor will point out when parliament returns in two weeks.
Whomever might have been involved in production of the exaggerated expense figures most likely would have downloaded the section of the council annual report, and could be one of the September group of 13.
Most in the group – a total of 10 – downloaded it on 9 September. It is likely they were council staff trying to find a document which Taylor had cited in a letter to Moore and later sent to the Daily Telegraph.
The document essentially claimed the council had betrayed Moore’s call for a “climate emergency” by spending $15m on emission-spewing domestic and overseas travel. The actual figure was $6,000.
NSW police and council staff have said the document with the inflated dollar amount simply doesn’t exist. Obviously, you can’t print out something that is not there.
The annual report was uploaded on 27 November 2018, and the appropriate metadata log shows it was not altered after that, a Senate committee has been told. There was only one version of the report, not several in Word or PDF.
That leaves three other downloaders, according to metadata provided by Sydney City Council and made public in a Senate estimates hearing this March.
There were two downloaders on 6 September, none on 7 September, and one on 8 September.
The IP addresses of all 13 would technically be retrievable and the inquirers identified, but if this has been carried out the names have not been made public.
Even if you can accept that the 10-month-old annual report of a capital city council might be fascinating to some, it still is difficult to grasp why three people would download it on a September Friday and the following Sunday.
Again, there is no evidence Taylor did the dodgy document deed himself nor that his staff compiled it. But someone did, and it is hard to believe Angus Taylor doesn’t know who it was.
The importance of this mystery is beyond the curiosity it provokes.
Labor wants to solve it when parliament returns on 12 May. The opposition has given notice it will do so in rough and unsparing fashion if needs be.
It’s not just the allegations of dirty play that Labor will produce.
Taylor is seen as a vulnerable character on the government frontbench, and representative of its standards of conduct.