John Barilaro attacks Turnbull over 'war on Coalition' and says NSW 'firmly committed' to coal

By Adam Morton

The New South Wales deputy premier, John Barilaro, has rejected Malcolm Turnbull’s call for a moratorium on new coalmines in the state and demanded the former prime minister “set aside his war on the Coalition”.

Turnbull said on Wednesday he believed coalmine proposals and approvals in the state’s upper Hunter Valley were “out of control”.

The former Liberal prime minister said he supported a ban because mines were devastating the landscape, shortening lives by reducing air quality and – given the declining global demand for coal – potentially leaving taxpayers with a huge environmental remediation bill.

Barilaro subsequently attacked Turnbull, stating he had misjudged his new role as the inaugural chair of the NSW Net-Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board. Barilaro, the state Nationals leader, said the NSW government was “firmly committed” to the coal industry and Turnbull himself expressed support for coal as recently as 2017.

“He needs to set aside his war on the Coalition, because of his damaged ego after being rejected as leader and prime minister, like I’ve set aside my own past grievances on this issue,” Barilaro said in a statement on Wednesday evening.

“I was willing to give Mr Turnbull the benefit of the doubt, but by day two of his appointment, he has misjudged his role by calling for a moratorium on mining. The NSW government is committed to its future of coal statement which provides greater certainty to explorers, investors, industry stakeholders and communities about the future of coalmining in NSW.

“Under the NSW government there will be no moratorium on coal in the Upper Hunter or anywhere else in the state.”

Turnbull had earlier backed a report by the Australia Institute that called for a plan for the region beyond coalmining.

He forecast the industry would be gone within 30 years as the world moved to address the climate crisis and said the focus should be on industries that could have a long-term future in the Hunter such as clean energy, agriculture, tourism, thoroughbred racing and wine-making.

“If we want to look after the future of the people in the Hunter as opposed to a few coalminers – coalmining companies – we’ve got to carefully plan it,” Turnbull told ABC radio.

His criticisms included that the companies proposing new mines or mine expansions were largely “second tier”, there was no evidence they had the financial capability to remediate the land and there was no transparency about bonds lodged in case they did not fulfil their obligations.

Turnbull said mines were approved individually with a focus on royalties rather than their cumulative impact – and without taking into account the state’s net zero emissions target and the need “to maintain a healthy environment and protect the health of people”.

Turnbull stressed he was talking in a personal capacity and not in his new role leading the clean economy board which will help oversee the delivery of clean energy legislation that passed parliament with multiparty support in 2020.

The appointment had been a point of debate within the Coalition but was approved by state cabinet on Monday after being recommended by the energy and environment minister, Matt Kean.

Barilaro has been a long-term critic of Turnbull and called on him to resign as prime minister in late 2017. For his part, Turnbull has been a regular critic of the Morrison government and its policies, particularly on climate change and the response to allegations of rape and mistreatment of women.

Turnbull declined to respond to Barilaro other than to say he and the deputy premier had a “very cordial” discussion on Wednesday evening.

The Australia Institute report said there were 23 new coalmines and mine extensions proposed across NSW. It suggested those in the Upper Hunter alone had the capacity to produce the equivalent of 10 times the coal that would come out of Adani’s controversial Carmichael coalmine proposal each year and called for an immediate moratorium.