As leadership speculation erupts once again in his party, the Nationals leader Michael McCormack says he is going about his business in an orderly fashion “but if other people have agendas, that’s a matter for them”.
The junior Coalition partner has convulsed this week about climate change policy, with McCormack and the resources minister, Keith Pitt, publicly warning prime minister Scott Morrison against pushing forward with any concrete commitment on net zero emissions by 2050.
McCormack has been acting prime minister while Morrison attending the G7 summit in the United Kingdom.
A number of Nationals MPs think their leader’s public performances are serially underwhelming, and he attracts sustained internal criticism for being too pliant with Morrison.
The party’s former leader, Barnaby Joyce, has long harboured an ambition to return the top job. But thus far he has lacked the numbers because he is a divisive figure with colleagues. He has acolytes and allies, but other colleagues are hostile to the idea of his return as leader.
The Australian Financial Review reported on Saturday that Joyce had the numbers to see off McCormack, and was poised to strike again, possibly as soon as Monday when parliament returns.
At the beginning of last year, McCormack fended off a leadership challenge from Joyce in a party room spill – but narrowly.
Although the Nationals are perennially dissatisfied and have been since Joyce’s leadership collapsed in 2018, and although there is near constant jockeying and back-biting, Guardian Australia is aware that more active leadership talk has resumed inside the Nationals over the past couple of weeks.
One Nationals MP who believes Joyce either has the numbers, or is very close to having them, told Guardian Australia on Saturday the coming parliamentary sitting week was effectively the last opportunity to switch leaders before the election season made that impossible.
While Morrison has said he will not go to the polls until next year, some inside the government think it is highly likely an election will happen in the last quarter of this year.
McCormack told Guardian Australia on Saturday fresh intrigue may be afoot but he was focused on business: “I’m concentrating on doing my job – that’s what I’m concentrating on.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic. If other people have other agendas, that is a matter for them.”
The member for Mallee, Nationals MP Anne Webster, warned voters in her electorate just wanted the Nationals to get on with the job: “We don’t need the instability. People in my electorate want me to work to protect their interests.”
The focal point of discontent this week has been climate policy. The issue was discussed at length during the Nationals party room meeting on Monday, with some MPs raising concerns that climate action would hurt the economic interests of people in their regional heartland.
There is also resentment that Morrison has telegraphed a pivot on climate policy without first seeking explicit permission from the Nationals. On Thursday resources minister Keith Pitt fired a warning shot at Morrison, declaring he cannot adopt a policy of net zero emissions by 2050 without the Nationals’ backing.
On a podcast with the Conversation this week, McCormack declared his party would not be embracing a 2050 target as a firm commitment in the run-up to Glasgow.
Joyce has adopted a stridently pro-coal position since his return to the backbench. Many Liberals would dread a return of Joyce to the party leadership. The Nationals’ hostility to climate action is a persistent source of angst with a number of Liberal party MPs who want Morrison to champion more assertive action.
Morrison is also under pressure from his global peers to unveil more ambitious climate policy commitments ahead of the COP26 in Glasgow in November.