MALCOLM Turnbull was going with the flow.
The former Prime Minister nudged his kayak into the stream, feeling the surge of the water as it tumbled over the stony bottom of this stretch of the Hunter River just near Muswellbrook in NSW's Hunter Valley.
"It's very beautiful," he said. "There are more rapids than I expected. The water's moving more quickly than I thought it would be."
Malcolm Turnbull is an avid kayaker, often paddling on Sydney Harbour near his waterfront home. But he had never paddled the Hunter River until last weekend. He accepted my invitation to paddle a section of the river, to see this part of the world from the water and to talk about a few issues shaping the region.
For Mr Turnbull knew the river was more than an artery, carrying the lifeblood of communities and industries along the valley. It was also coursing through the heart of the crucial by-election for the NSW seat of Upper Hunter, to be held on May 22.
The issue that is impacting perhaps more than any other on the by-election, on those who live and work in the Upper Hunter, and on the river itself is coal mining.
Malcolm Turnbull believes coal mining's future is limited, arguing demand is in decline - "and, frankly, it has to be in decline. The world's got to stop burning coal".
Yet Mr Turnbull said in the face of this, the NSW government had been approving new mines and expansions, which, he believed, was eating into the Upper Hunter's future.
"At the moment, obviously the open-cut mining is not doing damage to the landscape, it's completely digging it up and destroying it," Mr Turnbull said. "The environmental price is enormously high.
"It also has an economic price, because it impacts on agriculture, it impacts on thoroughbred breeding, it impacts on tourism and wine-making. It's not as though the only thing going on in the Hunter Valley is coal. So there's a big price to pay."
As we paddled along the river, the impact of mining on the landscape was only occasionally seen. However, Mr Turnbull argued, mining's influence lay under the kayaks' hulls.
"They [mines] actually have licences to pump saline water into the river at different times," he said. "The thing that worries me most about all the mining is, firstly, what it's doing to the water table. You've got to recognise that the river is just the superficial manifestation of groundwater. So if you start messing around with groundwater, digging huge holes in the ground ... that doesn't just reduce the amount of water in the farmer's bore or his well, it has a direct impact on the river itself."
IN OTHER NEWS:
Malcolm Turnbull has called for a moratorium on new coal mine approvals in the Hunter, for environmental and economic reasons.
"The existing mines in the Hunter are producing about 100 million tonnes a year less than they're licenced to produce," he argued. "So it follows that any new mine, or any extension to an existing mine, is only going to cannibalise the demand from the existing mines.
"What we need is a proper plan for the Hunter for the future. So we need to pause, stop new approvals and extensions while we protect existing jobs, but it will also enable the government and the community ... to plan a post-coal future for the Hunter."
We climbed the river's right bank, looking across a paddock, back towards one of the more recently developed mines, Mount Pleasant. Malcolm Turnbull didn't say a word as he gazed across the field, with a coal train trundling along in the distance. But he has already spoken out about a proposal to double the Mount Pleasant mine's annual production to about 21 million tonnes and stretching its life to 2048. He and wife Lucy Turnbull wrote a submission to the NSW government, objecting to the proposal, calling for further assessments, particularly of its environmental impact.
"The existing mine, and others in the area, have already done considerable damage to the local environment with worsening air quality, depleting groundwater and rendering much of the beautiful Upper Hunter pastures a blasted lunar landscape," they wrote.
The Turnbulls wrote not as outsiders but property owners in the valley. For about forty years, they have owned a cattle and sheep farm, East Rossgole, on a plateau to the north of the Mount Pleasant operation.
"It's part of my life," Mr Turnbull said, when telling me what the property meant to him.
"It was my father's place. He's buried there."
But the NSW Deputy Premier and National Party leader, John Barilaro, doesn't see Malcolm Turnbull as having a deep connection to the Hunter's land, and he doesn't appreciate the former Prime Minister voicing his opinions about coal mining.
"Look, at the end of the day, people are sick to death of being lectured to by a millionaire from his mansion in Point Piper, telling us what's best for us in the bush," Mr Barilaro told a media conference on Monday in Singleton. "Just because he owns a farm, it doesn't make him a farmer."
John Barilaro was highly critical of Mr Turnbull involving himself in the by-election campaign, arguing it was connected to the government reversing its decision to appoint him as chair of its clean energy board.
"Malcolm's unfortunate problem is his ego is bigger than his ability," Mr Barilaro told the media conference. "He's intervening here because his ego was dented, because he was removed from the Net Zero Emissions Board, because he was dangerous to the jobs in this region."
On the river, Mr Turnbull was critical of the Deputy Premier, saying, "As far as John Barilaro is concerned, obviously anything short of unconstrained, unrestricted expansion of open-cut mining in the Hunter is heresy."
"If you believe we're going to be mining coal like this in 20 years, you're kidding," Mr Turnbull said. "The state government has been in denial about this. The state government's got a 'net zero emissions by 2050' plan. How can you reconcile that with the continued expansion of coal mining? Of course you can't."
"Kirsty O'Connell is making the environment an issue," Mr Turnbull said. "She's not a greenie, but she is making the point we've got to plan, we've got to have a balance, but, above all, we've got to plan for the transition away from coal, which is coming.
"It's not something the state government or the federal government is deciding; it's something that the world is doing. And you either manage that transition, or you just end up with a devastated landscape, no money to rehabilitate it, and a whole lot of people out of jobs and no new jobs."
John Barilaro was scathing of Mr Turnbull's support for an Independent candidate over the representative for the National Party, which has held the seat since 1932.
"Absolutely it's treacherous what he's doing," Mr Barilaro said. "It's an act of bastardry what he's doing. He's signed up to a political party, and now he's campaigning against the Coalition government."
"To the people of the Upper Hunter, a vote for Kirsty O'Connell is a vote for Malcolm Turnbull, which is a vote for the end of coal mining jobs. It's that simple."
Malcolm Turnbull said while he was in parliament he stayed away from what was a state issue, but "I'm a private citizen now, I have no political responsibilities, and I'm speaking up".
"Frankly, I think Kirsty O'Connell would be better value to Gladys Berejiklian than another Nat would be, given the way Barilaro's treated Berejiklian, which is to sort of destabilise her and threaten her at every opportunity."
The Newcastle Herald contacted NSW Minerals Council regarding the prominence of mining as an issue in the campaign, but the industry body declined to comment.
John Barilaro said the river system was "healthy" and highlighted the government's "track record", with its agencies putting in place conditions to minimise the environmental impact of mining in the Hunter.
"Mining has been here for decades, it's coexisted with other industries, it's looked after its environment, the rehab, there's an obligation on mining companies," Mr Barilaro said.
As we paddled a long reach of the river south-west of Muswellbrook, there were glimpses of rehabilitated mining country through the trees. But if you didn't look too far ahead and concentrated on the river, the view seemed almost undisturbed.
"It's just a reminder of what a great, wonderful and beautiful part of our environment that river represents," Mr Turnbull said, after we exited the water at the bridge on the road to the Bengalla mine, having paddled about eight kilometres.
"It's just a reminder of how important our local environment here is in the Hunter."