Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce is side-stepping his federal colleagues and lobbying Mike Baird to stop the controversial $1 billion Shenhua coal mine.
Mr Joyce was facing pressure to resign on Thursday amid a backlash from farmers angry at his government’s decision to grant the go-ahead for the mine near prime agricultural land in his NSW electorate.
A day after declaring the “world had gone mad” over the decision, the Nationals deputy leader toned down his language, saying he was “bitterly disappointed”.
But it was not the final step, he said. “I’ll been contacting the premier today, I have made sure … I do everything in my power to stop the mine,” he told reporters in Mackay on Thursday.
“It’s an absurd place for a mine.” However, the prime minister didn’t agree, saying it was possible for high-quality agriculture and mining to coexist.
“It’s a mine in the hill country, it’s not a mine that is on prime agricultural land,” he said, while adding he understood locals’ concern.
Mr Abbott was left to hose down a cabinet rift over his agriculture minister’s comments. He excused the outburst as merely Mr Joyce wearing his local member hat and giving voice to the many disappointed constituents in his electorate.
“We’re all local members first,” the prime minister told reporters in Grafton on Thursday.
Former independent MP Tony Windsor said he would consider a tilt at winning his seat of New England back from Mr Joyce.
Labor’s agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said Mr Joyce should reconsider his position, accusing him of deliberately misleading his electorate over the mine’s approval.
The minister created the impression the government had changed its mind on the project earlier this year.
“He’s in an untenable situation now,” Mr Fitzgibbon told ABC radio on Thursday.
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie joined in the calls for Mr Joyce’s head, urging him to quit the frontbench and return to being the “old (blue) heeler” who crossed the Senate floor on contentious issues.
“Stop being the Liberals’ lap dog, the bring back the old Nationals attack dog,” she said in an online video message.
The NSW Farmers Association urged Mr Joyce to lobby federal cabinet to stop the mine. Its members were devastated by the lack of political will to protect the area, president Fiona Simson said.
Mr Abbott told reporters in January 2010, when he was opposition leader, that locals “don’t want to destroy this agricultural bread basket with mining”.
“There is no way there should be any mining in this very important agricultural region,” he said at the time.