Barnaby Joyce has declined to say whether Australia should remain within the Paris climate accord if the United States pulls out, in a departure from the official government line that Australia will stay the course.
While Australia’s energy and employment ministers have said this week Australia will honour its Paris commitments regardless of what Donald Trump decides, the Nationals leader and deputy prime minister was more guarded on Thursday.
Asked what Australia should do if Trump quit the treaty, Joyce told reporters: “Well, um, to speculate on a whole range of things is dangerous, to speculate on what Donald Trump might do is insanity.”
Pressed with a second question, Joyce said: “I’m going to watch my Twitter feed and see what happens.”
The US president confirmed on Thursday morning Australian time the formal decision of his administration about Paris was imminent.
Over this past weekend, the energy and environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, repeated previous statements by the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, that Australia was in the Paris accord for the long haul.
The employment minister, Michaelia Cash, during an appearance before Senate estimates on Wednesday, said the government had made it clear that the US staying the course with the global climate agreement was desirable and in Australia’s national interest.
She said Australia was committed to the Paris agreement and to our carbon emissions reduction target, and she said Australia’s interests were best served by the US maintaining its commitment to the Paris agreement.
Frydenberg said on Wednesday afternoon what Trump did was a matter for him but he noted the emissions intensity of the US economy was at its lowest level in 20 years. “It is moving in the right direction,” he said.
He said more than 140 countries had ratified the Paris agreement and “Australia takes our obligations to agreements we sign up to and ratify very seriously.
“Australia has commitments and we are sticking to those. I think we can meet our targets and we are making good progress in doing so.”
On Thursday, Malcolm Turnbull was asked whether history would repeat itself. Turnbull was asked whether he would follow Trump out of Paris, just as John Howard had followed George W Bush out of the Kyoto treaty.
Turnbull said Australia was staying in the agreement. “I repeat today, what I said on the 16th of November, when the treaty was ratified, when Australia makes a commitment to a global agreement, we follow through and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
“We are committed to the Paris agreement, and we’re on track to meet our targets.”
In a television interview later on Thursday, Joyce also indicated Australia would stay the course. “The whole point of having international agreements is you comply with them,” the deputy prime minister told Sky News.
Joyce said Australia would comply with the Paris agreement in a way that would have a “minimal impact” on the job prospects of Australians.
But government conservatives have been signalling for months that Australia should review its commitments if Trump quits the treaty.
The chairman of the government’s backbench committee on environment and energy, Craig Kelly, told Guardian Australia on Thursday if the US pulled out, Australia would need to consider its position.
“I think we should reconsider where the entire treaty is up to,” Kelly said.
The Sydney Liberal said Australia’s commitment under the agreement was “one of the most significant in the world” and he contrasted that commitment with undertakings from China and Russia, which he characterised as negligible.
He said the Paris treaty weakened America economically at the expense of two strategic adversaries, China and Russia. “Is that a good thing from Australia’s point of view?”
Kelly said if Trump chose to stay within the Paris framework, but scale back the US emissions reduction commitments, then Australia could follow suit.
As reports emerged from the US that Trump would likely pull out, Kelly posted on Facebook that he had “the champagne on ice”.
Kelly’s view will be shared by other conservatives. While he is yet to enter the fray on the Paris deal, Tony Abbott has been campaigning publicly against the renewable energy target he adjusted as prime minister for some months.
The assistant minister for social services and multicultural affairs, Zed Seselja, one of the government’s up-and-coming conservative figures, said last month Australia was already “doing more than our share, in my opinion”.
The frontbencher said Australia was committed to the Paris treaty as things stood, but if America withdrew, that would change the nature of the agreement. “Obviously you wouldn’t want to speculate, but if they were to pull out obviously that would change the nature of that agreement.”
Trump’s likely withdrawal from the Paris deal complicates the politics of energy policy for the Turnbull government, which next week will be handed the Finkel review of the national electricity market.
In a speech to an economic thinktank late on Wednesday, Frydenberg referenced the climate wars of the past decade, noting that energy policy had “destroyed two prime ministers and one opposition leader”.
He predicted “big battles” both within the Coalition – and potentially within Labor – and externally with stakeholders, as the government seeks to land a new policy post-Finkel.
There a widespread expectation among key industry groups that the chief scientist will use his looming report to recommend the government adopt a new low-emissions target, which would work in practice as a technology-neutral renewable energy target (RET).