Nuclear shift and net zero feud stir Nationals’ leadership tensions

Nuclear shift and net zero feud stir Nationals’ leadership tensions


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A nuclear policy overhaul backed by a trio of Nationals MPs and a push to ditch the Coalition-backed net zero emissions target has intensified pressure on leader David Littleproud and reignited the party’s long-standing climate feud.

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce said he wants Australia to talk about building conventional nuclear plants, days after conservative Queenslanders Keith Pitt and Matt Canavan urged Coalition MPs in a private meeting to consider the merits of the technology.

Nationals MPs Keith Pitt (left) and Barnaby Joyce in September last year.Credit: James Brickwood

Until now, debate on nuclear energy has been confined to the prospect of what are known as small modular nuclear reactors, which are supported by the Coalition. But Pitt and Canavan put the far more expensive and controversial idea of traditional plants on the agenda in Tuesday’s Coalition party room meeting, according to five MPs who spoke anonymously because the meetings are confidential.

Joyce said debate on large-scale nuclear plants was valid, and claimed Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen, who strongly rejects nuclear options, was more pro-renewables than climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has criticised the German government for reopening coal mines instead of keeping nuclear plants alive.

“You have to look at all the suites of nuclear energy. It’s absurd that you wouldn’t,” Joyce said in an interview.

The escalation in pro-nuclear advocacy comes as Joyce’s local party branch pushes to ditch the Coalition’s net zero emissions policy at Saturday’s conference of National Party delegates.

Nationals leader David Littleproud has dismissed leadership speculation. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The climate change mitigation policy is hated by right-wingers such as Pitt and Canavan. However, it is supported by Littleproud and politically important for Opposition Leader Peter Dutton to win the votes of those who worry about climate change. Dutton reaffirmed his commitment to net zero on Friday.

Joyce – who as Nationals leader cut a net zero deal in 2022 with then-prime minister Scott Morrison – said that on the available evidence, the target was untenable and would probably lead to “economic and personal catastrophe with people sent back to third world conditions”.

“[The Nationals] represent the poorest people. People in our electorates more and more cannot afford their power bill. They are literally getting cut off from power. How is that a moral good?

“Net zero by 2050, if it completely destroys our economy, is not something that should be entertained.”

Queensland senator Matt Canavan.Credit: Rhett Wyman

Former chief scientist Alan Finkel said last month said it would take decades for Australia to develop a nuclear energy industry, and he and other experts rejected the push to switch focus from renewables to nuclear energy as implausible.

The pending push at the Nationals conference, first reported by Guardian Australia, to ditch the emissions target has drawn the attention of the Liberal leadership because of its ability to cast the Coalition as climate change deniers.

It is also viewed as the latest attempt to damage Littleproud’s leadership by inflaming the climate change debate that plagued the Coalition for almost a decade while in government, but has been muted in opposition.

Joyce and Pitt are key figures in a Nationals grouping dissatisfied with Littleproud’s leadership.

Former Nationals leader Michael McCormack (left) and colleague Darren Chester.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Nationals sources, who declined to be named so they could speak frankly about internal matters, said the rebel group included about seven out of the party’s 21 MPs.

Littleproud in July downplayed and dismissed questions about his leadership in an interview in this masthead.

Sources close to Joyce, who also declined to be named, said he did not want the leadership back, though other party figures dispute this.

Pitt has been noted as a potential leader, despite saying in July, “you can rule me out”.

Victorian Darren Chester, who has previously contested the leadership, could emerge as a consensus candidate if Pitt was unable to secure enough support and conservatives accepted Chester’s more moderate political ideology.

Asked about the conference vote on net zero, Joyce said: “I’m not going to pre-empt the outcome of the federal Nationals [conference], but I will absolutely be guided by the outcome.”

Littleproud was contacted for comment.

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