Do you remember the fabulous game show of the early 2000s, where Australia’s answer to Nurse Ratchet, Cornelia Frances, would cruelly intone “You are the weakest link. Goodbye” to hapless contestants when their time was up?
The Labor opposition certainly appears to remember, having spent most of Question Time this week testing the mettle of the minister it considers to be the weakest link in the Morrison government.
In fact, this is a tactic long-favoured by opposition parties, particularly when the prime minister of the day is a strong parliamentary performer. There are potentially more political points to be scored this way, rather than giving the PM a succession of free kicks to hector the opposition in response to their questions.
There might even be a ministerial scalp up for grabs if there’s any substance to the criticisms being levelled against the hapless minister in question.
The frontbencher in Labor’s spotlight this week was the minister for energy and lowering emissions, Angus Taylor. Mr Taylor is reportedly the Liberal heir apparent, according to conservative Coalition MPs, but he may never get to realise that calling if Labor succeeds in destroying his credibility.
An earlier attempt to do so in May ended in fizzle when the Opposition was unable to show how the dots connected to prove the minister had allegedly benefited from the ‘watergate’ deal. This was when the government paid $80 million for agricultural water rights from a company that Mr Taylor had set up in the Cayman Islands during his previous life as a consultant.
However this week we had ‘grassgate’, which looks to be much more problematic and has the potential to elevate the minister from ‘hapless’ to ‘embattled’.
The new drama came to light due to an investigation by Guardian Australia, which uncovered Mr Taylor had met with the representatives of the then-environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, and his department to discuss the law that has made it illegal for farmers to clear certain endangered grasses from their land.
It was also revealed the meeting occurred at the time an investigation was being held into the poisoning of the same type of grasses on a property owned by Jam Land Pty Ltd. Mr Taylor’s brother is a company director of Jam Land, and Mr Taylor has an interest in the company through his family investment company.
According to the report, Mr Frydenberg’s office subsequently asked his department whether the relevant law could be watered down, and whether any such change would have to be made public.
The revelation was a godsend for the Opposition this week as it struggled to identify its reason for being. Under Labor’s sustained questioning, Mr Taylor repeatedly claimed there was no connection between his request for a meeting to discuss the environment law’s application to the grasses and the potential action against Jam Land over the same type of vegetation.
According to the minister, his interest in the matter was driven only by requests from his constituents.
“I make absolutely no apology for seeking and receiving briefing on policies that affect the farmers in my electorate,” he said.
“I am a proud farmer in my electorate and I will always seek and receive briefings on policies that impact them.”
Undeterred, Labor tried to set up a Senate inquiry to press further into the murky details of grassgate, but could not muster enough support from the crossbench. One of the senators who voted against Labor was the Centre Alliance’s Rex Patrick, who was convinced by a letter shown to him by the government that Mr Taylor was indeed responding to a constituent request.
However, it turns out the letter was sent by a farmers’ lobby group almost seven months after the contentious meeting was held. Labor is understandably livid and has vowed to try again on Monday to establish the inquiry.
Whether the Opposition is successful or not on this occasion, it won’t be the last time Labor tries to make a weak Coalition minister (or backbencher) buckle under pressure.
Other candidates for the Cornelia Frances treatment include the personification of hapless minister, Stuart Robert, another formerly invisible minister for the environment, Melissa Price, and the disgraced backbencher formerly known as the Deputy PM, Barnaby Joyce.