Malcolm Turnbull claims the New South Wales Coalition government was influenced by a “concerted and ferocious” rightwing media campaign led by News Corp after it reversed his appointment to lead a new climate change body.
The state’s energy and environment minister, Matt Kean, issued a statement on Tuesday morning saying the former prime minister had been dropped as the chair of the Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy board.
The appointment had been approved by cabinet on Monday last week, but was publicly questioned by the deputy premier, John Barilaro, after Turnbull backed a call for a moratorium on new coalmines and mine expansions in the state.
On Tuesday, the Daily Telegraph newspaper splashed with an “exclusive” story headlined “Malcolm’s coal war” that accused Turnbull of “Nimby activism” against a proposed expansion of the Mount Pleasant coalmine in the upper Hunter Valley.
It published three stories and an editorial critical of Turnbull’s appointment to the board and his stance on coal. One included details of a submission from Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull against the Mount Pleasant expansion. The Turnbulls have a farm nearby and had been open about their opposition to the project.
Turnbull told Guardian Australia the government overturning his appointment followed a “concerted and ferocious campaign” against him by the Daily Telegraph and other rightwing media. He said News Corp had worked up its story with “none other than One Nation’s Mark Latham”, who was quoted saying Turnbull should not have the board role.
“This is essentially the Coalition continuing to be held hostage by the right wing, which is sustained and empowered and amplified by the rightwing media,” he said.
“You’ve got this sort of rightwing climate change denying echo chamber, which speaks to a lot of people who are National and Liberal party members and doesn’t really speak to a big part of the community overall. It’s a feedback loop, and it’s dragged the Liberal and National parties further to the right.”
Latham told the Daily Telegraph the Mount Pleasant coalmine expansion would create 400 ongoing and 500 construction jobs. Turnbull said this was “complete and utter rubbish” as demand for coal was declining, and any expansion would mean a loss of jobs elsewhere.
“Nobody with an understanding of the situation in or outside government doubts these facts,” he said.
Turnbull last week backed a report by the Australia Institute calling for a moratorium on coalmine proposals and approvals, describing them as “out of control” in the upper Hunter. He said he was speaking in a personal capacity, and not as the board chair.
Turnbull said mines were devastating the landscape, shortening lives by reducing air quality and, given the declining global demand for coal, potentially leaving taxpayers with a huge environmental remediation bill.
Asked about this on Tuesday, Turnbull said: “I don’t resile from anything I’ve said.”
Barilaro last week issued a statement saying Turnbull had a “damaged ego” and needed to “set aside his war on the Coalition”. But Turnbull said he had a “very cordial” and “good humoured” conversation with Barilaro after his coal moratorium call.
“This [the board] was a part-time role which I was asked to do. I didn’t seek it. I agreed because we need to move as quickly as possible to a net zero emissions economy,” Turnbull said. “Unfortunately there are vocal forces in our country, particularly the fossil fuel lobby and the Murdoch media, who are absolutely opposed to that.”
The NSW government and News Corp were approached for a response.
The decision to drop Turnbull comes as the Coalition faces a battle to hold on to the state seat of Upper Hunter triggered by the resignation of the Nationals MP Michael Johnsen.
On Sunday, federal Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon, a vocal coalmining supporter, tweeted a photo with Barilaro and Latham at an NRL “voice for mining family day” in Newcastle.
Announcing Turnbull had been dropped from the role, Kean said it was important the focus was on “facts, technology, science and economics”, not personality.
“Malcolm Turnbull, AC, has contributed much to our country and I know will contribute more into the future,” Kean said. “However, no person’s role on the board should distract from achieving results for the NSW people or from the government’s work in delivering jobs and opportunities for the people of NSW.”
Speaking at a press conference, the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said Turnbull was “a great Australian and a great contributor” but “unfortunately for everyone” his appointment was “proving to be a distraction”. She did not directly answer when asked if Turnbull would be replaced by a clean energy advocate, deferring to Kean.
The NSW opposition leader, Jodi McKay, said the decision to appoint Turnbull was “monumental failure of judgment” by Barilaro.
On Twitter, she wrote: “How on earth did it even come to this? John Barilaro backed Turnbull’s appointment in cabinet. This should never have been a political appointment and was always going to be divisive.”
Kean said a new chair would be announced “in due course”, and until then the NSW chief scientist and engineer Hugh Durrant-Whyte would act in the role.
The board has been created to help oversee the delivery of clean energy legislation that passed parliament with multiparty support in 2020 despite vocal opposition from One Nation.