Barnaby Joyce has signalled the Nationals may abandon their support for net zero emissions after the Coalition’s election defeat, revealing he will consult his colleagues on whether to change course.
On Monday the leader of the Nationals also refused to rule out a Coalition split but said his “preference” was to continue the partnership with the Liberals, amid widening recriminations over responsibility for the loss of government after nine years.
The Victorian Nationals MP Darren Chester warned on Monday that “lurching further to the political right is a recipe for irrelevance” after the “more extreme views of some colleagues undoubtedly [hurt] the chances of our city cousins”.
When asked on Monday whether the Nationals’ policy continued to be to support net zero by 2050, Joyce said: “I know that we have a target, but I’m going to let the Nationals have their say in their party room in the next fortnight.”
“In all things after an election, on all policy, there is a discussion, right, and that’s not saying that you are going to drop it, or you’re going to stick with it,” he told reporters in Canberra.
“It says that we allow people in the dignity of our room to reflect back on what was pertinent in their electorates, and I’ll be letting them have that discussion rather than speaking from a pulpit about what they should say.”
Last year, the Nationals signed up to Scott Morrison’s net zero by 2050 target in return for billions of dollars in infrastructure spending and an extra cabinet position. But they vetoed any chance of formally upgrading the Tony Abbott-era 2030 target.
Despite Saturday’s big wins for teal independents and Greens on a platform of greater action on climate change, some conservative members of the Nationals and Liberals have argued the Coalition should tack to the right and back away from climate action.
Matt Canavan, the Queensland Nationals senator who is close to Joyce, said the election sent a clear message to the Coalition that “when we go left, we lose”, arguing its “leftist agenda” on climate wasn’t a credible platform.
But the former Nationals leader Michael McCormack told Guardian Australia “unnecessary” mixed messages on net zero emissions, such as Canavan’s declaration during the campaign that the mid-century target was “dead”, “didn’t help” in inner-city seats.
McCormack, who has not ruled out another tilt at the Nationals leadership after the election, pointedly said there were “no campaigns against my name and my reputation in inner-city seats”.
During the election campaign, independents and the Greens promoted the message that a vote for self-professed Liberal moderates was a “vote for Barnaby Joyce”, as they tended to vote the same way in parliament.
Joyce denied any responsibility for the Liberal party’s likely loss of six inner-city seats to independents, insisting that the Nationals “have done an incredibly good job when the tide was running strong against us”.
Senior moderate figures, including the former finance minister Simon Birmingham and the NSW treasurer, Matt Kean, believe the Liberals must adopt a stronger climate policy to help win back disaffected voters who would not tolerate inaction.
Birmingham told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday he hoped the two Coalition parties “can continue to work together”, but urged the Nationals to “look at where the Liberal party has felt this pain”.
Birmingham encouraged the Nationals to “reflect upon how it is that we together can manage to form majority government in the future and what will be necessary for us to do so”.
When asked about Birmingham’s comment about the need for reflection, Joyce said the Nationals would instead “reflect on the fact that we won every seat that we held” despite three retirements and “picked up another Senate colleague”.
Joyce said the Coalition agreement “always finishes at the end of any term” and he said the possibility of a split would be “a decision for both parties”.
“My preference is I think that a coalition works best – a coalition between two business partners,” he said.
Joyce did not accept that the Coalition had a problem appealing to women in light of the teal independents’ victories.
Earlier, Chester urged the Nationals to take heed of the fact “many female voters didn’t like the Coalition’s leadership team and didn’t believe they were taken seriously on issues that mattered to them”.
In a blistering Facebook post, the Nationals MP for Gippsland said his party also needed to reflect on the “brutal” message that voters had sent.
“When the wealth-belt is prepared to toss out a moderate, experienced and capable treasurer, for an unproven activist, you need to listen to the message, regardless of how unpalatable it is,” Chester said.
“It was simple and devastatingly effective to say a vote for those moderate Liberals was a vote for the ‘dinosaurs’ in the Nationals who didn’t believe in climate change.”