Gladys Berejiklian gives NSW Nationals deadline to reverse threat to sit on crossbench

NSW premier tells deputy he cannot sit on crossbench and remain in cabinet after dispute sparked by koala protection

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has given her deputy, John Barilaro, until Friday morning to reverse his threat to have the Nationals sit on the crossbenches or he and his fellow Nationals ministers will be stripped of their portfolios.

The crisis in the coalition has been prompted by National party demands over koala policy which passed through cabinet and became law earlier this year but which the Nationals now want to be changed.

“It is my strong preference that existing Coalition arrangements stay in place,” Berejiklian said on Thursday afternoon.

“However, I have just made it clear to the deputy premier that he and his Nationals colleagues who are members of the NSW cabinet have until 9am Friday 11 September to indicate to me whether they wish to remain in my cabinet or else sit on the crossbench. They cannot do both.

“If required, I will attend Government House tomorrow and swear in a new ministry.”

National party members have until Friday morning to either support her government and its policies or resign from her ministry.

Barilaro had earlier announced his 13 MPs would move to the crossbenches but would continue to serve as ministers and attend cabinet. He said the Nationals would abstain from voting but would not vote against supply.

Liberals would need “to earn their votes” on legislation, rather than having guaranteed support, he said.

Barilaro said his party would be abstaining from voting on government legislation except when it is legislation that affects the regions or which the Nationals deem important.

“We will not green-light just anything the government puts up,” Barilaro said on Thursday.

In the most serious crisis of her political career, the premier is now facing the prospect of minority government and an end to the Coalition.

The Liberals have 35 MPs in the Lower house, the Nationals 13, and Labor 36. There are also three Greens, three Shooters Fishers and Farmers and three independents.

“I am and always have been a strong Coalitionist and deeply respect the National party and all it stands for,” Berejiklian said. “It is my strong preference that existing Coalition arrangements stay in place.”

On the issue of the koala protections, which became law in March after a lengthy process and passage through cabinet, the premier said: “I have already made clear to the deputy premier that his policy concerns are listed for discussion at an upcoming cabinet meeting and will be considered by the joint party room.”

Barilaro had earlier said his ministers would continue to attend cabinet and expenditure review committee but would no longer automatically support the Liberals.

“We are equal partners, we are not a junior partner, and we will fight for the regions,” Barilaro said. The Nationals reaction to the latest development has not yet emerged.

The Nationals had said they were going to introduce legislation to repeal the koala protections.

Barilaro has accused the Liberals of foisting their guilt about koalas, whose habitats had already been destroyed by cities, onto the shoulders of farmers, whose property rights were now being attacked.

The Nationals insist they have not pulled out of the Coalition and its MPs remain on the frontbench. Barilaro has ruled out voting with Labor to bring down the government or block supply.

The new koala environmental planning policy expands the number of tree species that trigger the scheme and includes maps of land considered koala habitat.

If a person’s land is affected they must either seek an exemption by hiring experts to show it is not koala habitat, or they must show the development will not adversely affect koala habitat, before it will be approved.

The new planning policy, which has been championed by the planning minister, Rob Stokes, has outraged Nationals, who claim it is an attack on farmers.

While the new policy is unlikely to affect daily farming activities, it will particularly hit developers who want to develop rural land around regional towns, particularly on the north coast; developers on the fringes of Sydney; and farmers in the north-west who want to clear land.

The new policy was introduced after scientists and environmental groups warned the koala could be extinct in NSW by 2050. Many groups say the new laws do not go far enough in protecting koalas.

The breakdown in the Coalition – at least at a working level – is the most serious crisis to hit Berejiklian’s government, at a time when she is grappling to keep the coronavirus pandemic under control in the state.

The Liberal upper house member, Catherine Cusack, who is based in northern NSW, said Barilaro’s position was “just bewildering”. “There’s no exit strategy for either of us,” she said.

She said that communities on the north coast were highly supportive of the new koala protections, as were a number of the local councils, because it gave more certainty.

“This is the moment. Do we want koalas to go extinct?”

The chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council, Chris Gambian, said the departure of Barilaro from the government benches could only be good news for nature.

“Wanting to retain the right to kill koalas is an extraordinary hill for the Nationals to want to die on, but here we are,” Gambian said.

Gambian said the Nationals had dictated environmental policy to the Liberal party for the past decade.

“The koala policy is one small measure to ensure koalas don’t become extinct in NSW by 2050,” he said.

“People who have lived on the land for generations love the bush and share our goal of ensuring koalas survive and thrive into the future.”

The NSW Labor leader, Jodi McKay, called on Berejiklian to front the media to explain whether she still had a functioning government.

“We have 300,000 people in NSW without a job, and we are in the middle of a pandemic,” she said on Thursday.

“We have seen the deputy premier blow up the government. We want to know from the premier what is the status of her government. I don’t understand how you can walk into cabinet and be bound by cabinet solidarity and then walk into parliament and vote against government legislation.”