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With friends like Bolt and Jones, Abbott doesn't need enemies

Date

Michael Gordon

Just before Alan Jones introduced Andrew Bolt to his radio audience on Wednesday, and launched into a tag-team assault on the character and competence of the most popular figure in the Abbott government, Sydney’s talkback king offered listeners some context for the discussion.

‘‘For some weeks now, the attacks on the Prime Minister of Australia have been unbelievably personal,’’ Jones began, adding that the language critics used to describe Tony Abbott had been ‘‘almost unprecedented’’.

He didn’t explain that uncharacteristic caveat, almost, but it might just have been that, deep down, he understood that the things said about Abbott by his political foes are not in the same league of viciousness that Jones  reached when talking about another prime minister, Julia Gillard.

Here was the commentator who, soon after the death of Gillard’s father, said John Gillard had ‘‘died of shame’’ because ‘‘he had a daughter who told lies every time she stood for Parliament’’; who called her ‘‘Ju-liar’’ to her face; and who asserted she should be tied in a chaff bag, taken to sea and dumped.

Now, Jones was focusing on Malcolm Turnbull, the ‘‘supposed lawyer’’ who had displayed ‘‘appalling political judgment’’ when he was Liberal leader – and was doing the same again by getting too close to that ‘‘lunatic’’ from Queensland, Clive Palmer, the man Bolt calls the ‘‘the most dangerous politician in Parliament’’.

Bolt was on the line because he was the one who initiated the attack on Turnbull, beginning an interview with Abbott last Sunday by saying it looked like Turnbull had ‘‘his eye on your job’’, and following with a column asserting that, in wooing Palmer, Turnbull was sending ‘‘an unmistakable message to Liberal MPs: replace Abbott with Turnbull as prime minister and maybe Palmer will play ball’’.

When Turnbull replied that these propositions were ‘‘quite unhinged’’ and bordering on ‘‘demented’’, Bolt saw the response as confirmation of his proposition. The wild abuse, he wrote, ‘‘proves he is either selfish or deceitful. But either way he’s disloyal’’.

So what are the charges against Turnbull? And what is the reality?

The first charge is that he misrepresented a dinner with Palmer at Canberra’s Wild Duck restaurant the previous week, ‘‘pretending he bumped into Clive Palmer’’ when he had invited the mining magnate to what Bolt called an ‘‘ostentatious’’ dinner.

Yet there is no evidence that Turnbull misrepresented what happens in Canberra every single night that Parliament sits – pollies who have no families to go home to seek out company and make spur-of-the-moment decisions about who to dine with and where to eat.

The second charge is that he defied a prime ministerial edict that Coalition MPs coordinate any dealings with cross-bench MPs and senators through Christopher Pyne and Eric Abetz, prompting the charge of disloyalty.

Yet, as Turnbull explained to Jones on Thursday, there is no restriction on him or any other Coalition MP meeting or socialising with cross-benchers. The only requirement is that negotiations on legislation be coordinated through Pyne in the lower house and Abetz in the Senate.

The third charge is that he failed to seek out Abbott at the earliest opportunity after the dinner to explain what had been discussed. The truth is that there was no need: nothing of consequence happened. As Palmer explained it to me, one reason his dining companions did not discuss the budget, or even politics, in any depth was that they were ‘‘a little uncomfortable’’ that he was no longer part of the Coalition after an association spanning three decades.

The fourth charge against Turnbull is that he failed to condemn what Jones rightly described as Palmer’s ‘‘reprehensible’’ and ‘‘disgraceful’’ assertion that Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, stood to benefit from, and had been influential in framing, Abbott’s contentious paid parental leave scheme.

Here, Palmer confirms that Turnbull rang him to say he should apologise, but maintains that before then, he had sent Credlin a note ‘‘regretting any personal upset’’.  When Turnbull was asked by one newspaper to write a column on the issue, he said he would need to speak to Credlin first. She preferred to let it pass.

As Turnbull told Jones: ‘‘My only foremost interest has been in ensuring (a) that Palmer apologised, and I was successful in that, and (b) in minimising the pain caused for someone for whom I have considerable respect.’’

The fifth charge from Bolt was summed up by Jones on radio: ‘‘Malcolm Turnbull is spending more time cuddling up to the Liberal Party’s natural enemies than he is selling the budget.’’ It doesn’t stand scrutiny, even if you accept that the ABC is a ‘‘natural enemy’’ of the Coalition, which it is not.

The central grievance is Turnbull should have nothing to do with Palmer, but even Bolt now concedes that someone in the Coalition will have to court the Queenslander if the government is to get its budget through the Senate. Who better to start this process than someone Palmer respects and trusts?

But there is another grievance, too: that Turnbull has not totally abandoned the ambition of one day returning to the leadership, an ambition that was re-confirmed under cross-examination on the ABC’s 7.30 on Thursday.

Yet here’s the rub. Turnbull is not like most other politicians. His default position is to be candid. When he says his prospects of leading again ‘‘are somewhere between nil and very negligible’’ he is stating the truth. The same applies when he maintains he has not done anything to undermine Abbott.

The problem for the Coalition is that the attacks on Turnbull have damaged its standing, which was already at a record low for a new government, and almost certainly enhanced his, especially among small-l liberals.

There is no suggestion Bolt was acting in response to any urgings from the Prime Minister’s office, but he does claim to be reflecting concerns about Turnbull from ‘‘some of Abbott’s troops’’. This points to an emerging problem, as does the mischief-making by those ‘‘senior Liberals’’ who told the ABC that Nationals ministers were duped into supporting the reintroduction of petrol excise – a claim flatly rejected by the government.

Before the election, Abbott’s Coalition had two hallmarks: the vow that it would under-promise and over-deliver, and the tight discipline, cohesion and even esprit de corps that underpinned it. The former was weakened by a poorly sold budget that broke pre-election promises, and now the discipline is fraying.

As Turnbull would say, with friends like Bolt and Jones, Abbott doesn’t need enemies.

Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.

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