Minister’s private apologies after axing Turnbull
Facing a cabinet revolt and defeat in a critical by-election, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean was on Tuesday privately apologising to colleagues for an "error of political judgment" in appointing Malcolm Turnbull to a government emissions reduction board.
The Environment Minister executed a spectacular backflip after a week of internal party criticism with a phone call to his close friend and former PM to rescind the offer to chair the state's Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board.
It can be revealed the phone call came after Mr Kean texted one senior critic - Police Minister David Elliott - on Monday night, saying he had heard the party room's concerns and was trying to find a solution.
Nationals Leader John Barilaro also privately contacted Mr Kean on Friday telling him Mr Turnbull's position was untenable after his calls for a moratorium on new coal approvals, causing a flurry of senior ministerial conversations to canvas solutions over the weekend.
Mr Turnbull immediately took to ABC radio on Tuesday blaming the sacking on a media "vendetta". But two senior government ministers - Mr Kean himself and Mr Elliott - said this was false.
Mr Kean said he believed the coal industry and coal jobs needed to be supported as the NSW government tries to reduce emissions with a cleaner energy future.
"We also need to grab new opportunities to future-proof our economy and we need to bring all sectors of the community on this journey," he said.
Rejecting Mr Turnbull's assertion he was "bullied" by News Corp into dumping him from the role, Mr Kean said: "This morning's decision is mine and has nothing to do with News Corp (publisher of The Daily Telegraph).
"I appointed Malcolm because he was extremely well qualified and someone I respect enormously … However, he can at times be seen as a divisive figure and these issues really need people who can bring the community with us. If you can't bring everyone together on this issue, you can't win."
Mr Elliott and Corrections Minister Anthony Roberts raised questions in cabinet last Monday about whether Mr Turnbull had a conflict of interest in taking on the role. They were assured he did not.
Mr Kean had privately canvassed the appointment with key cabinet ministers before taking the proposal to the cabinet meeting. It is understood Minister for Western Sydney Stuart Ayres warned Mr Kean to take care, saying the appointment could be politically difficult.
Mr Barilaro, who announced Mr Turnbull's dumping on Ray Hadley's 2GB program yesterday morning, said he regretted not speaking out sooner.
He said he had given Mr Turnbull "the benefit of the doubt" but that the ex-PM had "pulled his pants down" within 48 hours of the appointment by speaking out against coalmines in the Upper Hunter.
The final straw was when The Daily Telegraph revealed Mr Turnbull and his wife Lucy wrote personally to the NSW government last month, objecting to the expansion of the Mount Pleasant coalmine, citing their own 1100ha grazing property nearby and damage to the environment.
It is understood Mr Kean was not aware of the letter before The Telegraph made inquiries.
The Daily Telegraph's editor Ben English said he was "saddened to hear that Malcolm Turnbull has once again decided to blame others for his own misfortune". "But no matter what he thinks, the end of his short-lived chairmanship of the state's Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board is due entirely to his own actions - not, as he so colourfully put it, 'thuggery' or the 'right-wing media ecosystem'," he said.
One Nation NSW leader Mark Latham, who was set to use the letter in the Upper Hunter by-election - where his party threatens the government's chances of holding the seat - said Mr Turnbull's axing was the right decision. "This is the shortest political posting since Mal Meninga," he quipped.
COAL MINING A KEY ISSUE IN UPCOMING BY-ELECTION
Candidates adopting a "Malcolm Turnbull anti-coal position" in the heartland coal country of the Upper Hunter will get short shrift in the upcoming by-election, say locals.
The May 22 by-election, in what was once a safe National Party seat now held by the Berejiklian Government on a razor's edge of 2.6 per cent, is shaping up to be a crucial test on coal mining and the jobs it brings to the region.
Josie Swan knows its importance in the area. For 14 years she has owned and operated the Crib Break Take Away on the outskirts of Muswellbrook which serves hungry miners heading to and from work south of the town. She says any downturn in mining would force her to close the doors.
She says she's previously voted for Labor in Upper Hunter elections, but isn't sure who to vote for now.
"I don't do politics, no one who comes into the shop talks about it … (but) obviously I'm going to vote for who isn't against it (mining)," she said.
"Muswellbrook, Singleton, Newcastle - there are so many businesses in all of them dependent on those workers."
Down the road from Josie's shop is DK Heavy Plant Services, which does repairs and maintenance on heavy industry mining vehicles such as bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks and employs 110 Hunter locals.
One of them is boilermaker apprentice Drew Cassar, 21, of Muswellbrook, who said candidates' attitudes to coal would play a big part in deciding his vote. "It pretty much could cost our jobs," he said.
Muswellbrook Chamber of Commerce president Mike Kelly said "anyone that takes a Malcolm Turnbull position or a pure Green position to shut everything down - I don't think they're going to get a strong following".
Bengalla mine maintenance manager Warwick Gloster said completely ditching traditional power sources wasn't "realistic" and would devastate the local economy.
Originally published as Minister's private apologies after axing Turnbull