In a reckless play to save four, maybe five, seats north of Gympie in Queensland, Barnaby Joyce has declared war on vulnerable Liberals in metropolitan seats.
The self-described former “elected deputy prime minister” says he’s “not going to throw someone under a bus in Mount Morgan (Qld) because of the views of someone in Sydney or Melbourne”.
In ultra-high dudgeon mode Mr Joyce told RN Breakfast that putting the interests of inner-city Liberals ahead of regional Nationals was “just like political serfdom, we will look after ourselves”.
The issue firing up the controversial Nationals MP is coal-fired power.
He backs the call of six rebel Nationals from Queensland who broke ranks with the government last week and demanded it underwrite a new coal plant before the election.
This sent immediate shudders through the broader Liberal Party – there are also coal champions in its midst – but the prime minister has got the message that coal has become the equivalent of political kryptonite for him.
Scott Morrison’s political opponents won’t let us forget the image of him carrying a lump of black coal into Parliament and taunting Labor that it wouldn’t hurt them.
It is certainly hurting him now.
Last week he was quick to distance himself and the government from any talk of two new coal generators in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley.
Mr Morrison said it had nothing to do with his government and it was the state government’s issue in the first instance.
Embattled Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian was no less sensitive to coal talk, saying there was absolutely nothing about the proposals before her government.
Mr Joyce is brazenly upfront about coal in contrast to the current Nationals’ leader Michael McCormack.
Mr McCormack says “any marriage [with the Liberals] is a give and take”.
Mr Joyce explains his current leader has to comply with the “cabinet line”, but as a backbencher “it’s a lot easier for me”.
He denies the coal push is a proxy for a tilt at the leadership, but he says he would feel “no guilt” if there was a spill and he put up his hand.
This could come as early as Budget week next month, though he doesn’t think it will.
At a time when Mr Morrison is doing his best to confine coalition and Liberal divisions to the “Canberra bubble”, Mr Joyce is amplifying them.
He says “we are not married to the Liberal Party … If we were going to agree with everything they said we should join the Liberal Party. We don’t”.
Mr Joyce is in a world of unreal denial: He says emissions figures are “presuppositions” and “assumptions”.
New coal-fired power would deliver “cheaper reliable power” – something the market and investors judge to be wrong and risky.
Malcolm Turnbull pointed this out in tweets last week.
And Mr Joyce is blind to the fact that in Queensland the Nationals are married to the Liberals in a party called the Liberal National Party.
Some southern Liberals are predicting a fracturing of the amalgamation because it is proving electorally damaging at the state and federal level.
In the meantime, Mr Morrison says it’s all a “distraction” he is ignoring. But he knows he cannot ignore the Joyce-created perception he is the same coal champion of old.
On Monday he hid behind the skirts of Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, saying she had “no intention of approving any such projects at all” so he intends to work “in the area of the practical”.
As one Labor strategist was quick to note, the prime minister then immediately pivoted to renewables and the projects he wants to “make happen” like Snowy 2.0 and pumped hydro in Tasmania.
This looks like throwing Energy Minister Angus Taylor and his mooted 10 coal projects under Barnaby’s bus.
Labor’s Bill Shorten says this is the “most divided government in many generations”.
Mr Shorten says after six years of not delivering “they can’t be trusted on energy and they can’t be trusted on climate change”.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics