Scott Morrison has rebuffed Barnaby Joyce and insurgent Nationals’ call for more coal-fired power, dismissing it as a “hypothetical debate” because the Queensland government would not approve a new power station.
On Monday, Joyce demanded the Coalition commit to taxpayer support for a new coal-fired power station, dismissing concerns the plan would harm the government by noting the Nationals are “not married” to the Liberal party.
The member for New England also intensified his campaign against the Nationals leader, Michael McCormack, by provocatively observing that he was “elected deputy prime minister” at the last election.
An insurgent group of Queensland Nationals MPs has demanded McCormack muscle up to the Liberals on power generation, a politically difficult demand for the government, which is trying to bolster its credibility on tackling climate change for fear of losing support in inner-city liberal constituencies in Sydney and Melbourne.
Morrison told reporters in Sydney the government was “working through” proposals for the Coalition’s electricity underwriting scheme, which included 10 coal projects among 60 bids.
“For such a project to proceed, it would require the approval of a Queensland state government,” Morrison said. “The Queensland state government has no intention of approving any such projects. At all.”
Morrison said his focus was on “things that actually will happen” and “not in hypothetical debates”.
“I tend to work in the area of the practical, the things that actually can happen, and what actually can happen is the investments that we are making in renewable projects,” he said, citing the Tasmanian “battery of the nation” and Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project.
Last week Morrison also rejected Nationals’ calls to revive the “big stick” legislation to break up power companies.
Earlier, Joyce told the Australian that Morrison should promise a new coal-fired power station would be built if the Coalition won the next election, with support provided either through direct subsidies or a promise to underwrite it by purchasing power.
“I am not a fanatic for any form of power except the one that is proven cheapest,” he was quoted as saying.
On Monday the Australian Conservation Foundation released modelling commissioned from the Australian National University showing the Nationals represent five of the six federal electorates with the highest projected rise in average maximum temperatures due to climate change.
The project compared climate model projections on temperature rises, seasonal changes, rainfall and heat extremes for the year 2050 with historic baseline data from 1960-1990.
The data was then mapped for Australia’s 151 federal electorates and more than 4,000 locations across the country. It showed that National party-held seats in Queensland and New South Wales were at particular risk.
Joyce’s own seat of New England was ranked the third hardest hit seat with a projected average maximum temperature increase of 4.51C. McCormack’s seat of Riverina was ranked ninth.
The seat of Maranoa, held by the Nationals MP and agriculture and water minister, David Littleproud, was named the second hardest hit.
Other ministers whose seats ranked in the top 20 worst affected were the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton (16th), the environment minister, Melissa Price (19th), and the energy minister, Angus Taylor (20th).
“It is disappointing that many of the federal electorates found to have the highest projected increases in average maximum temperatures are represented by MPs who do little to champion climate action, or worse, deny the established science,” said the ACF’s chief executive, Kelly O’Shanassy.
“Deputy prime minister Michael McCormack and former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce in particular would do well to stop dismissing established climate science and get on with better representing their communities by championing pollution cuts and programs to help them adapt to changes already in the system.”
In response to the internal insurgency, McCormack has sharpened his rhetoric against renewable energy, claiming on Sunday that Labor’s emissions reduction targets would eliminate night sport.
But McCormack’s support for a coal-fired power station is still qualified, suggesting the government should “look at it, if the business case stacks up”.
The energy market operator has said the future of power generation will be renewables with storage, and gas, with those technologies able to replace the power currently supplied by coal generators at least cost.
Joyce told Radio National that a coal-fired power station “does stack up”.
“I have the right – because I’m a backbencher – [to say] I want us to build one.”
Asked about the Coalition’s prospects in southern states, Joyce said the Nationals were “not married to the Liberal party” and could pursue policies in their own right.
Joyce said he was “not going to call a spill” and was “not looking for numbers” to oust McCormack.
“If there was a spill and the position’s vacant, I am the elected deputy prime minister of Australia, so I’d have no guilt at all in standing, but I don’t see that happening.”
Joyce was the Nationals leader at the 2016 election when he received the most votes in New England, although the high court later ruled he was ineligible to be elected due to his dual New Zealand citizenship, forcing him to recontest the seat at a byelection.
A sense of despair has gripped the National party, with MPs critical of McCormack’s performance as leader, but the party remains divided about dumping him this side of the election.
Joyce has rusted-on support in the Nationals party room, with estimates he commands between six and seven fixed votes in a party room of 22, although some MPs vehemently oppose him returning to the leadership after he resigned in February 2018 following a sexual harassment complaint.
It is possible the Nationals could force the issue in the remaining parliamentary sitting, which is budget week, but some predict McCormack will ride out the insurrection until after the election.
Morrison dismissed speculation the Nationals could change leader as “nonsense”, vowing not to be distracted by it.
“We have a fantastic leader of the National party in Michael McCormack and there will be no change to that,” he said.