Malcolm Turnbull is not ruling in or out supporting more independent candidates in forthcoming election contests, noting he has resigned from politics “but I haven’t resigned as an Australian citizen”.
With a New South Wales state byelection looming in the upper Hunter, Turnbull has urged voters to support independent candidate Kirsty O’Connell – who has been upfront about the inexorable decline of the coal industry as a consequence of climate change – rather than a National party candidate.
Given there will be a federal election this year or next, Guardian Australia asked Turnbull whether the recent endorsement was a pattern that might continue beyond the current NSW byelection contest later this month.
The former prime minister said it was premature to speculate, but he reserved his right to express views.
“As I said in my book, I resigned as prime minister, but I have not resigned as an Australian citizen,” Turnbull said.
“I wouldn’t rule anything in or out, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to be ruling things in or out at this point. It will depend on the issues and how parties and candidates deal with them at the time.”
Turnbull – who lost the Liberal party leadership first in 2009 because of his support for emissions trading, and again in 2018 amid a rancorous internal debate about a policy that would have driven emissions reductions in the electricity sector – has been accused by the state Nationals leader, John Barilaro, of engaging in conduct that is “nothing short of treachery”.
But Turnbull says this is nonsense. “Whenever I say anything which is critical or different from the government’s policy, I’m immediately accused of being bitter or seeking revenge.”
He said there was a tendency among some Australian politicians and commentators on the centre right to resort to “personal abuse” and “thuggery”, rather than reflecting on the substance of various issues or the merits of various causes. He said the reaction to his support for O’Connell was a “classic example” of that problem.
Turnbull said his intervention in the byelection contest wasn’t part of any “grand political strategy”. He said he was deeply committed to the region of the upper Hunter, being a longstanding property owner in the electorate. He noted his father was buried at the family property.
He said he was entitled to express his views as a citizen without having the interventions interpreted through a prism of whether he was “threatening [Scott] Morrison’s leadership” or being disloyal to Coalition colleagues in the state legislature.
Turnbull has publicly backed calls for a moratorium on new coalmine approvals in NSW, warning they are devastating the landscape, shortening lives by reducing air quality and – given declining global coal demand – potentially leaving taxpayers with a huge remediation bill.
The former prime minister was appointed earlier this year by the Berejiklian government as the chair of the Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board.
But that appointment was later revoked following his comments.
Turnbull’s appointment had been approved by the Berejiklian cabinet, but it was publicly questioned by Barilaro after Turnbull backed the moratorium on new coalmines and mine expansions in the state, triggering negative coverage in news outlets owned by News Corp.
Barilaro declared: “Under the NSW government there will be no moratorium on coal in the upper Hunter or anywhere else in the state.”
If O’Connell wins the byelection on 22 May, rather than the National party candidate, the Gladys Berejiklian-led Coalition government will be forced to govern in minority.
Addressing that point in a post on Facebook, Turnbull said: “Gladys Berejiklian is a great friend and, most importantly, a great premier. I know that Kirsty O’Connell also admires our premier.
“But Kirsty O’Connell knows, as we all do, that Gladys Berejiklian does not have a free hand on coal mining policy. Barilaro is calling the shots.
“The truth is that Kirsty O’Connell would be a much more reliable supporter of the Berejiklian government on matters of supply and confidence than Barilaro.
Last year, the Nationals leader threatened to end the Coalition during an internal brawl over koala protections imposed in the state.