Latika Bourke and Mark Simkin 2 June 2014
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been dragged into the dispute between Cabinet minister Malcolm Turnbull and conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, with the matter raised in Question Time. The Prime Minister declared his support for his parliamentary colleague in the increasingly personal battle between Mr Turnbull and Bolt. Mr Turnbull set tongues wagging in Canberra last week when he had dinner with Clive Palmer, who is refusing to directly deal with Mr Abbott until he is given more taxpayer-funded staff.
Mr Turnbull has described Bolt’s latest column as “unhinged” and “crazy” because it argues he is agitating for his old job by befriending Mr Abbott’s “natural predators” like Mr Palmer and supporters of the ABC. Bolt wrote that Mr Turnbull’s dinner with Mr Palmer was designed to send an “unmistakable message” to Liberal MPs – “replace Abbott with Turnbull as prime minister and maybe Palmer will play ball”.
“This is Turnbull, on the far left of the Liberal Party, charming a constituency that hates Abbott and which would back Turnbull to replace him – even if it still wouldn’t vote Liberal.” On Sunday, Bolt interviewed Mr Abbott on his Channel Ten talk show and began by asking the prime minister: “Why is Malcolm Turnbull wooing Clive Palmer on his own? It looks like he’s got his eye on your job.”
The ABC understands Mr Turnbull was perturbed by the question and was reassured by Tony Abbott last night that it was in no way set up by the prime minister or his office. Bolt’s newspaper column was the first major piece of political commentary to argue that Mr Turnbull’s dinner with Mr Palmer, Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson, Liberal Party vice-president Tom Harley and his business partner John Fast may have been part of a leadership campaign.
Sources say the dinner happened by chance when Mr Turnbull and Mr Harley ran into the Treasury boss while leaving Parliament – they later invited Mr Palmer. A former staffer to Mr Turnbull has told the ABC he and Mr Palmer have long been friends and their friendship predated Mr Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party in 2009. After being confronted with leadership questions and a television camera while leaving his Canberra apartment for Parliament this morning, Mr Turnbull launched a strong attack on Bolt’s theory.
“It is quite unhinged,” Mr Turnbull told reporters. “It borders on the demented, to string together a dinner with Clive Palmer and my attending, as the Communications Minister, the launch by a cross-party group of friends of the ABC and say that that amounts to some sort of threat or challenge to the Prime Minister. “Now, Mr Bolt is fond of attacking what he regards as the Government’s enemies in the media, principal amongst whom of course he numbers the ABC.
“I don’t think you’d see anything as crazy as that on the ABC. “And I just have to say to Mr Bolt, he proclaims loudly that he’s a friend of the Government – well with friends like Bolt, we don’t need any enemies.” Labor’s communications spokesman Jason Clare has sought to embarrass the Prime Minister over the spat in Question Time. “Prime Minister, who is right, your friend Andrew Bolt or your enemy Malcolm Turnbull?” Leader of Government Christopher Pyne unsuccessfully tried to have the question ruled out of order.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he was pleased to be out selling the budget “shoulder to shoulder” with Mr Turnbull in Sydney on Saturday. And he said he would always choose his colleagues over the media. “In any dispute between a member of my frontbench and a member of the fourth estate I am firmly on the side of my frontbencher,” Mr Abbott told parliament. In a response to the ABC, Bolt said: “What a shame Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t attack the Government’s media enemies with the same vigour that he attacks what he calls the Government’s media friends – it just fits the pattern.”