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Environment and Communications References Committee
23/08/2019
Australia's faunal extinction crisis

WILLIAMS, Mr John, Private capacity

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

[10:21]

CHAIR: I now welcome former Senator Williams. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have any comment to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Williams : I am appearing in a private capacity and also as a farmer.

CHAIR: I invite you to make a short opening statement, and after you've finished we will ask you some questions.

Mr Williams : I have no opening statement to make. I'm just glad to chat to you and am prepared to answer any questions to the best of my ability.

CHAIR: Mr Williams, you have been reported in the media as making comments about the whole process with the alleged poisoning of the grasslands on the Monaro tablelands by a company called Jam Land. Would you like to talk us through your understanding of what occurred there?

Mr Williams : I can tell you exactly what happened. I think it was early 2018. I was listening to the Country Hour on ABC radio and Michael Condon was interviewing a farmer who was looking at being in trouble for breaching a federal environmental law for spraying noxious weeds and killing some native grasses. I phoned my chief of staff, Greg Kachel, one of the many people in the building there, and I said, 'I want you to replay the Country Hour. I want you to find that bloke, his name and number. I want to talk to him about the situation he is facing,' which he did. I spoke to Richard Taylor and he explained to me what was happening—how they had serrated tussock, a noxious weed since 1938 in New South Wales, as well as African lovegrass, in a paddock. The agronomist advised him to spray the weeds out—obviously with a boom spray, a bulk spray, because they were not breaching any state regulations—which he did, to kill the noxious weeds. Then, of course, he realised that he was facing a breach of the EPBC Act—where the grass had been listed under I think the then minister Greg Hunt as 'protected' or 'threatened'—facing a breach of a federal act that he knew nothing about, which I thought was quite amazing, and quite silly, in my opinion.

CHAIR: You say it was early 2018. Can you be more specific about exactly when that was?

Mr Williams : No. I can't give the specific date. That's when I heard the story on the Country Hour, and that's what made me call Mr Taylor—I realised his name was Richard Taylor.

CHAIR: We should be able to follow up the Country Hour broadcast with Richard Taylor on it and find out when it was. You had no awareness of the issue before then?

Mr Williams : None whatsoever. I thought, 'This is so wrong.' The analogy I put is: imagine you're driving down the Newell Highway in New South Wales, where the speed limit is 110, set by the New South Wales government, and the Federal Police pull you up and book you for doing 110 because they have a federal law of 90 kilometres an hour—but there are no signposts and you don't know the law is there. But you get booked anyway by the Federal Police. In other words, you have a state law and a federal law, you're not familiar with the federal law, you don't realise you're breaking the law and you get pinged for it. I think that would be quite strange. That's the analogy I put to you. The agronomists—the specialists in agricultural management, weed control, nutrition of soil et cetera—advised the Taylors to spray the weeds out, saying they weren't breaching any state laws. I was very familiar with the native vegetation conservation act brought in by the Carr Labor government in New South Wales back in the nineties.

CHAIR: Once you had heard thisCountry Hour report with Richard Taylor, you got your staff to follow up with him. Can you talk us through exactly what happened after that?

Mr Williams : I had a discussion with Mr Taylor. I told him I thought the whole thing was appalling—how he was facing fines or legal action, court action, for breaking a law for spraying a grass he knew nothing about. I then took it to the National Party room. I was very annoyed, as were many of my colleagues. I called for the then minister, Josh Frydenberg, to meet in the National Party room with many National Party MPs and senators to discuss the issue, which he did. He had with him one of the members of the department as well.

CHAIR: Sorry; can you go through that again? Who?

Mr Williams : I got Josh Frydenberg, the then environment minister, to come to the National Party room to talk about this very issue that Mr Taylor was facing. Of course, at the time when I spoke to Mr Taylor, I had no idea he was a relative, a brother, of Angus Taylor, the current member for Hume. I had no idea of that. That wouldn't have made any difference. We called the then federal minister for the environment, Josh Frydenberg, to our National Party room, where we had some pretty firm discussions about the law and what was going on. Out of that meeting came the review by Wendy Craik into the EPBC Act as far as grasslands go.

CHAIR: I just want to go back to the time line again and clarify all of those actions. You heard Mr Taylor on theCountry Hour. You then had a discussion. Did you meet with Mr Taylor in person after that Country Hour?

Mr Williams : It was a phone discussion. It's the only time I've ever spoken to him. I rang him on the phone back then.

CHAIR: Was that soon after the Country Hour broadcast?

Mr Williams : Yes. It would have been the same day or the next day.

CHAIR: How long after that did you take it to the National Party party room meeting?

Mr Williams : I'm guessing a few weeks. I think it would have been probably January when I spoke to Mr Taylor—I'm not sure of the time. It was certainly a couple of weeks later I raised the issue in the National Party room and expressed my disgust at how a farmer was facing charges for something he absolutely had no idea was breaking the law.

CHAIR: Would you be able to take on notice to recall exactly when you did take it to the National Party room that first time?

Mr Williams : That would be quite difficult to answer, because I no longer have an office, calendars, diaries et cetera. It's not as though I would write a note down and say, 'I'm going to take this to the party room now.' I could go back and have a guess, but it might be difficult to answer that question, because, as you know, I'm no longer in the Senate and I don't have those resources. I can tell you when you'll get an idea. The idea would be soon after that. The minister then, Josh Frydenberg, launched an inquiry into the EPBC Act by Wendy Craik, so it would have been shortly prior to that. It would have been just prior to when Ms Craik started her review into the EPBC Act, I imagine—a week or two before then.

CHAIR: Can I clarify: you raised it in the National Party room meeting, and then there was a further National Party room meeting that Minister Frydenberg and a departmental adviser attended—or was it the same meeting?

Mr Williams : That's correct; no, it was not the same meeting. I raised it in a meeting, and then it was some time afterwards we had the meeting with the then minister and a member of the department in the National Party room.

Senator GALLAGHER: Do you recall the name of the departmental official?

Mr Williams : No, I don't, I'm sorry. I'm a shocker on names at the best of times.

Senator GALLAGHER: That's fine. Was it prior to the Craik review?

Mr Williams : Yes, it would have been, for sure.

CHAIR: How much time elapsed between that first meeting, when you first raised it with the National Party room, and that second meeting, when Minister Frydenberg and the departmental official attended?

Mr Williams : I would guess a week or two. It wasn't a long period of time; it certainly wasn't months, because I was that angry about it I wanted to meet with the minister to express my disgust at the situation.

CHAIR: Did you have conversations with Minister Frydenberg as part of inviting him to attend that meeting?

Mr Williams : We sat around the table in the National Party room—probably a dozen of us in total—expressing our disgust with the situation. We thought it was just terrible for people who were spraying noxious weeds on their properties—because noxious weeds are a huge problem. I've spent much of the last two years spraying weeds myself. I've been getting rid of noxious weeds and trying to win that fight. To have us facing charges for simply spraying noxious weeds would sound to me and any other farmer like just a crazy situation.

CHAIR: Prior to Minister Frydenberg attending the National Party room meeting, did you have a conversation with Minister Frydenberg about the issue?

Mr Williams : I may have. I can't recall specifically, but I may have said, 'Josh, I want you to come to a meeting; we need to discuss this issue,' or whatever. I may have but I can't confirm that. I don't have any notes or anything in my diary to say if I had that conversation. I certainly remember him coming to the party room meeting where we had a pretty stern discussion, if I can describe it that way.

CHAIR: Do you feel that that engagement with the National Party room and you having that conversation with Minister Frydenberg was the reason the EPBC Act agriculture review was initiated?

Mr Williams : No, I wouldn't say that. I had my own personal opinion, which was to amend the act to exclude grasslands and leave it solely to the states so we'd have one set of state and territory laws and not have a federal law overriding them where people were not aware of the change of laws. I actually did some numbers around the Senate and, having the strong opinion that if I went to amend the act to remove grasslands from the EPBC Act I certainly wouldn't get any support from Labor or the Greens, I actually spoke to Derryn Hinch and people on the crossbench such as Stirling Griff to round up the numbers to amend the act so we could put it back to having one set of laws over the one issue instead of two sets of laws. But, after the discussion with Josh Frydenberg, the Craik inquiry was put in place.

CHAIR: What do you think initiated that ag review inquiry?

Mr Williams : We called for something to change. In my time in politics ministers don't say, 'Yes, we'll change it.' They get someone in to inquire into it. They have some sort of inquiry to see what the benefits, the advantages and the disadvantages will be, and Wendy Craik was appointed to have an inquiry into the EPBC Act. I met with her at the end of the inquiry, along with the then minister, Melissa Price.

Senator FAWCETT: Can I clarify that what you are saying is that your intent was not to have a review—your intent was to change the act—but that, as a consequence of the meeting in the National Party room, the action the minister decided to take was to initiate that review?

Mr Williams : That is spot on. If I were running the show I'd have changed the act the next day, if I could have gotten the numbers in the Senate. I just found it an appalling mess. Innocent people were following the advice of their agronomists, who were saying, 'You are not breaching state laws,' thinking they were under state laws. When Minister Greg Hunt listed this grass as a threatened species, I question what actually happened to inform the farmers who had that grass on their properties that it had been listed. There was probably a notice on the department's website, and that would have been all. I think the communication from the federal department was appalling. People didn't know what they were doing. If I'd had my way, I wouldn't have had an inquiry. It was told to me afterwards that Wendy Craik was put in place to run her inquiry.

Senator FAWCETT: Can I take you away from this particular incident, to look at the broader issue? You mentioned you've spent a lot of time over the past couple of years spraying noxious weeds. Could you outline for the committee what the normal process for a landholder would be, in terms of seeking professional advice on both what is legal and the most effective way to control noxious weeds and how they would go about doing that for a large parcel of land?

Mr Williams : Most farmers know the weeds pretty well. If you go out into your paddock and you've got a big crop of thistle, say—saffron thistles, variegated thistles or whatever—you know you can spray them out with a broadleaf spray, such as ester, amine or whatever. And when you spray them out you kill the broadleaf weeds; you don't kill your grasses. When it comes to killing grasses, you can't use a broadleaf spray; you've got to use a grass spray, such as Roundup, which kills all grasses. There's the difference. Serrated tussock and African lovegrass are grasses, so you can't use the broadleaf spray; you've got to use the grass spray. I've been informed that African lovegrass, when it grows, puts out an enzyme that stops other grasses from growing around it.

In my experience, when my wife, Nancy, and I lived at our last place, seven years ago, we had one plant of African lovegrass at the edge of the verandah amongst our kikuyu lawn. I sprayed that heavily, with a diameter of probably 100 millimetres, the size of your fist or a bit more. I sprayed that one plant of African lovegrass and it died, and then nothing grew on it for six months. I had to hoe the dirt out and put another piece of fresh dirt in. Then, in no time, the kikuyu spread over the area where the African lovegrass was. That would be the enzyme from the African lovegrass, because the Roundup dissipates when it hits the dirt.

This is the sort of weed you're facing. It's a weed that chokes out all your native grasses and everything and takes control. It's a useless stock feed—they will eat it if they're very hungry. When it comes to spraying weeds, farmers know most of the weeds. They know the noxious weeds, and they're used to abolishing noxious weeds to keep their native grass and pastures in good shape and stop the spread of the noxious weeds to other properties, whether the seed be carried by wind or by livestock or whatever.

Senator FAWCETT: I guess what I was trying to get at there is: if a farmer is looking at a paddock and they want advice, who would they go to for advice on the efficacy of the type of spray, the legality of what they're going to do and the approach for a larger area of land?

Mr Williams : I'll speak for myself. In my case, I'd go to my local Elders branch, where I deal with all our merchandise. They have their own agronomist, there, Darren. I would say to Darren, 'I've got these problems in the paddock, this sort of weed. I've just planted a crop. I need to spray these weeds out. What can I spray it with? What chemical is it, how much does it cost, what's the application rate and when will I apply it to the crop?' or paddock et cetera. Most of the chemical outlets now, whether it be Landmark, Elders or even the privateer ones, have their own agronomists. We seek advice from those agronomists all the time when it comes to fertilisers, chemical sprays, lice protection for the sheep, prevention for the sheep of worms or whatever. They're all-round knowledgeable people who've lived their experiences. It's like when you sell anything: you’ve got to know the product you sell. Our local Elders store does that very well with me.

Senator FAWCETT: Sure. Thank you.

Senator GALLAGHER: I've got a few questions around the meeting that was held in the party room, which I could quickly work through. Did members of Mr Frydenberg's office attend that meeting as well?

Mr Williams : I don't think so. He may have had a staff member, I can't recall. But he certainly had a member of the department with him. We had a very strong few words, to say, 'This really annoys us,' and how the department is being heavy-handed, putting these people through the court and fining them et cetera or whatever punishment is dealt out to them. It wasn't a heated meeting, but the National Party members and senators were very direct in what they said to Minister Frydenberg and the departmental person to say, 'Back off, let's sort this out and see what sort of clean-up we can do on this mess where people are simply spraying noxious weeds and facing a courtroom.'

Senator GALLAGHER: At this point you were still unaware that Richard Taylor was related to Angus Taylor?

Mr Williams : By that time I reckon I would have known he was Angus Taylor's brother, but I wouldn't pay any attention to that. The fact that Richard Taylor was Angus Taylor's brother, if I did know in the first place, would have made no difference to the approach I took on it. It was certainly after I discussed it and took it to the party room that we found out he was Angus Taylor's brother.

Senator GALLAGHER: When Mr Frydenberg attended the meeting, did he disclose that to the party room? Did he make the point of saying, 'This is the brother of Mr Angus Taylor'?

Mr Williams : I can't recall, but you might check with that departmental person who was in the party room at the time.

Senator GALLAGHER: And you are not sure if—

Mr Williams : After a few weeks it became common knowledge that it was Angus Taylor's brother who was facing the gun.

Senator GALLAGHER: You are not sure what role that department person had in the department? Were they a policy adviser or in compliance? Did the meeting go to the role of the department official?

Mr Williams : No, not really. I saw a situation where a bloke from the department was one of the senior officers who were responsible for taking the action against people who do the wrong thing on their properties—for example, spraying protected grasses.

Senator GALLAGHER: Was this the only item on the agenda for that meeting?

Mr Williams : Yes, it was. It wasn't a National Party party room meeting; it was a meeting of the National Party—some MPs and senators—in the National Party party room with Minister Josh Frydenberg and the departmental chief.

Senator GALLAGHER: When you were giving Mr Frydenberg and the department official your advice, did Mr Frydenberg indicate whether this had been raised with him before or whether he'd sought advice from the department about this matter?

Mr Williams : No, I don't think he did. But he certainly was aware of the problem we faced. One concern was people getting rid of noxious weeds, which they've got to do by law. If you've got 30 or 40 acres of noxious weeds, you can't go out with a pair of tweezers and pull them out one by one. You would die in the paddock of old age. He was well aware of the situation. We made the point that this bloke, this Taylor fella, followed the advice of his agronomist—the specialist person who said, 'Spray it out; you are not breaching any laws or regulations under the state laws'—not knowing that there had been a federal law on grasslands listed prior to that by Minister Greg Hunt.

Senator FAWCETT: I will make a point of order. The Senate voted very clearly against holding a specific inquiry into the Jam Land affair. I recognise there is an overlap between grasslands and that. I'm here providing quorum, because the inquiry is about grasslands. But, where the predominance of questions starts narrowing into something the Senate has specifically voted against, I will have to consider whether or not I continue to provide quorum.

CHAIR: With the relevance of former Senator Williams here and his insight into the issues of threats to the grasslands, and how grasslands are being impacted by agricultural development, I think it's still very relevant—

Mr Williams : I'm here because I know the rules. I was asked to come to the hearing. I know the power the Senate committee has to summons. I think this is just a witch-hunt on the Taylor family, so I'm glad to be here.

Senator GALLAGHER: I'm almost finished! My last question, Wacka, is: did you have any involvement with the Craik review?

Mr Williams : No, none whatsoever, except I met with Wendy Craik and then Minister Melissa Price after the Craik review came out. The three of us sat down and went through it in the National Party party room and I said, 'What are you going to do?' They said, 'A review of the EPBC Act next year.' I said, 'That still doesn't stop innocent farmers from spraying noxious weeds, which they are compelled to do by law, and not knowing what grasses have been listed by the federal department of the environment under the EPBC Act.' Here is one of the problems: if they are going to list these grasses, what action are they taking to notify the farmers and landowners, from the Southern Highlands right around to Canberra, to be aware? This grass is everywhere, and if you spray it you are going to be in trouble. We all know the difference between right and wrong. We know when we break the law and when we don't. But, when there's a new law introduced and no-one knows about it, you have a serious problem, because people are totally ignorant of the law.

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes, and certainly we can follow up with the department this afternoon about what steps they take. I just missed you at the beginning, Wacka; you said you didn't get involved in the Craik review?

Mr Williams : I wasn't involved in it, Senator, no. I knew it was going on, because I kept saying, 'What's going on?' And they'd say that they were having a review and Wendy Craik was leading it. As to when that review came out, it was supposed to be, I think, in July last year, but it went on for some time—long enough that I kept saying, 'Where's this review?' When it did come out, I met with them and I thought the review did virtually nothing to point the whole situation in a direction I wanted it to take it.

CHAIR: Wacka, in terms of the issues that you're raising now, about people feeling that they were doing the right thing under the New South Wales legislation but not being aware of the EPBC Act, in your discussions with then Minister Frydenberg in the Nationals party room, was that a key item of discussion?

Mr Williams : It certainly would've been raised, Chair. It would've been raised where people are now facing a courtroom from carrying out an action of spraying noxious weeds when they had no idea they were breaking any law or any regulation; it certainly would've been highlighted, because that was the guts of the whole argument I brought forward: that we should have one set of laws, not two sets of laws—have one lawmaker, so that everyone can follow them, like the agronomists, instead of two lawmakers with different laws at different times and no-one knowing the difference.

CHAIR: So was there discussion of the fact that there was compliance action being undertaken against Richard Taylor?

Mr Williams : Can you run that past me again, please?

CHAIR: In that party room meeting, how much discussion was there about the compliance action that was being undertaken against Mr Taylor and Jam Land?

Mr Williams : I can recall we said to the minister and to the departmental chief: 'Can you back off a bit with your court action so we can get some sort of clarity on what's been going on here, because you're putting people through the courtroom when they knew they were doing nothing wrong or they believed they were doing nothing wrong. They followed the advice of their agronomists, which basically every landowner in Australia would do.' The agronomist is the professional person in that field of weed control, land management et cetera—that's what they're trained in university for and why they're put in place in these rural outlets: to give advice to help farmers make the right decisions. And we have a lot of faith in our agronomists and what they say.

CHAIR: Did you get any commitment from former Minister Frydenberg or the departmental adviser that they would back off a bit?

Mr Williams : Not really. I think the answer to that question was: 'Let's proceed to have an inquiry.' I don't think there was a committed promise, of: 'Look, we'll back off now and won't take any action.' I think it was just a message that went through to them as to how they approached that, and what decision they made was their decision.

CHAIR: Can I take you to that? So you did get the message that they would proceed with having an inquiry. What details were you given about what that inquiry would look like?

Mr Williams : I was told some weeks later that they were going to have an inquiry. I didn't know the terms of reference or anything. I just went along with the inquiry when it was set up, and then of course it was longer reporting than we'd first planned or was planned by the minister, and I was getting a little impatient when it hadn't reported on the due date; it was months later. Then I met with Wendy Craik and the then minister, Melissa Price, to discuss the report.

CHAIR: When the idea of an inquiry was first raised with you, was your understanding that it was just going to be into the grasslands issue?

Mr Williams : Well, that's the way I saw it, yes, but I saw it as some sort of stalling tactic anyway.

CHAIR: Right! So basically you saw it as a stalling tactic because they weren't going to take the action that you wanted them to take and they were just going to send it off to an inquiry and hope it would go away?

Mr Williams : Not hope it would go away, but a stalling tactic. I was very keen to have the EPBC Act amended—I'll be frank and honest with you, as always—thinking two sets of laws by two departments was crazy. Let's have one set of laws, because the New South Wales Native Vegetation Act is about exactly that, native vegetation conservation. What in the hell is the federal department doing stepping into those grounds when we already have one environment and science department et cetera studying that very issue and recommending regulations on it? I remember that when the Native Vegetation Conservation Act came out they listed red grass as a threatened species up home. Everywhere you look in our country, for thousands and millions of acres, you see red grass. I couldn't believe it was ever listed as threatened, because it's everywhere.

Senator GALLAGHER: Wacka, you said that by the time you took it to the Nationals party room you were aware that Richard Taylor was the brother of Angus Taylor. At what point did you become aware that Angus Taylor was also part owner of the land in question?

Mr Williams : A difficult question to answer. I know that when I rang Richard Taylor I had no idea he was Angus's brother. I found out some time later that they were brothers. I couldn't tell you exactly when. I think there are three brothers: Angus, Richard and the husband of Bronnie Taylor MLC in the upper house in New South Wales. I think the three of them were involved in it. As I said, it would not have altered my attitude one bit if Richard Taylor were King Kong's brother. It wouldn't have made an ounce of difference to the approach I took on what was happening to these people.

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes, I understand that. I guess my question is: at what point did you become aware that Angus Taylor had a business interest in the land in question that was being discussed?

Mr Williams : I can't answer exactly, Senator, but I'd say it would be from media reports or that someone told me. I still don't know how much of a business interest Minister Angus Taylor has in the land anyway.

CHAIR: Thanks, Wacka. Thank you very much for your evidence to our committee today.

Mr Williams : I'd like to say it's been an absolute pleasure, Chair, but that might be misleading and deceptive information to the committee, so I won't say that! But it's good to hear your voices!

CHAIR: Thanks!

Senator GALLAGHER: We won't take offence at that!

Proceedings suspended from 10 : 52 to 11 : 04