Barnaby Joyce and senior Nationals MPs have warned that the Coalition agreement could be severed over energy policy, setting up a showdown with city-based Liberal MPs fearing a voter backlash over coal in affluent blue-ribbon seats in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
After Scott Morrison yesterday rejected a push to fund new coal-fired power plants in central Queensland, Mr Joyce, the Prime Minister’s hand-picked drought envoy, told The Australian the termination of the Coalition was an option on the table.
Mr Joyce, who would stand for the Nationals leadership if a spill were called, openly defied the Prime Minister, declaring there was “no law saying the Nationals and Liberals must be together”.
“It is misleading to tell people that we are bound by covenant to always be together,” Mr Joyce said. “The only thing we are bound by is that we must represent our people to the best of our abilities.”
Mr Joyce, who lost the Nationals’ leadership last year after revelations he had an affair with a staffer, described the Coalition as a “business arrangement, not a marriage”.
Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack responded with what appeared to be a veiled swipe at the breakdown of Mr Joyce’s marriage.
“I understand what it takes to have a successful marriage, to make sure that we work together to build a better Australia — that’s what I do with the Liberals,” Mr McCormack said.
Rejecting any threat to his leadership, he said: “There is no coal war. There is no war absolutely whatsoever.”
While no move is expected against Mr McCormack’s leadership before the election, Nationals MPs said the future of the Coalition was under pressure and they would defy the Prime Minister by campaigning on a pro-coal platform.
The warning from Mr Joyce — who said he was hurt by Mr McCormack’s comment about marriage — came after Mr Morrison stoked Coalition tensions by talking up renewables and slapping down the push by some Nationals MPs for a new clean coal plant in Queensland. The Prime Minister argued that the Queensland Labor government had “no intention of approving any such projects at all”.