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Liberal senator Cory Bernardi says his ministerial colleague Malcolm Turnbull was "too strident" in his blistering attack on conservative commentator Andrew Bolt.
I thought it was inappropriate, it was unwise to do, and I think it's just kicked the whole thing along
Mr Turnbull took News Corp commentator Bolt to task on Monday, arguing the columnist's leadership speculation "bordered on the demented" and was ''quite unhinged"
Not impressed ... Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull blasted conservative columnist Andrew Bolt's leadership speculation as 'quite unhinged'. Photo: Rob Homer
In his column on Monday, Mr Bolt accused Mr Turnbull of aiding the Coalition's enemies by dining with millionaire politician Clive Palmer in Canberra last week and by launching a Parliamentary Friends of the ABC group.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has dismissed the furore, saying he was ''not interested in who has meals with who''.
Mr Abbott also on Tuesday denied that Mr Turnbull defied a request to co-ordinate meetings with crossbenchers through the house leaders.
Andrew Bolt blasted Malcolm Turnbull in his column on Monday for coming to the defence of the ABC and for having lunch with Clive Palmer. Photo: Joe Armao
But he kept mum on whether his minister briefed him after his meeting.
''I'm not interested in who has meals with whom,'' Mr Abbott told ABC radio.
The Prime Minister said he was focused on selling the budget to the public and ''genial relations'' with the crossbench was part of that.
Senator Cory Bernardi has come to the defence of columnist Andrew Bolt, calling him 'a very principled man'. Photo: Andrew Meares
''If that needs an occasional meal with the crossbench, then so be it.''
Mr Turnbull on Monday said on Bolt's views: "It is quite unhinged. 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 would see anything as crazy as that on the ABC.
"I just have to say to Mr Bolt, he proclaims loudly that he is a friend of the government. Well with friends like Bolt, we don't need any enemies."
Illustration: Matt Golding.
On the ABC's Q&A program on Monday night Senator Bernardi, an outspoken conservative who moved to the backbench in 2012 after linking acceptance of same-sex marriage with acceptance of bestiality, said everyone was entitled to their opinion but "I thought that Malcolm's response was too strident".
"I thought it was inappropriate, it was unwise to do, and I think it's just kicked the whole thing along,'' he said.
"Andrew is entitled to his opinions. I think he is a very principled man. Malcolm, I just think went a bit too heavy today."
Former Sydney Lord Mayor and businesswoman Lucy Turnbull, who is also Mr Turnbull's wife, said Mr Bolt's comments were "completely wrong, completely blown out of all proportion, there was no proportionalty in what he was saying".
She played down the significance of Mr Turnbull's dinner with Mr Palmer last week and said there had been no "pre-meditated conspiracy to have dinner with Clive Palmer".
Mr Turnbull's meeting with the Palmer United Party Leader had been completely random, she said, and had come about after he had decided to go out for a spicy soup to combat the flu.
Senator Bernardi, a critic of the ABC, also said he would have preferred to cut funding from the broadcaster in the budget, rather than the CSIRO.
Mr Turnbull's attack, which Labor seized on during question time, stunned colleagues, who felt that after three tumultuous week following the budget, the government had started to get its budget message back on track.
One Coalition frontbencher said: "Many people are wondering what he's up to."
"Why did Malcolm decide to add this to the news cycle? If he hadn't done this the story was dead, finished . . . Andrew has a lot of friends on our side of politics."
A second minister dismissed suggestions that Mr Turnbull could re-kindle his leadership ambitions and criticised the intervention. "You would normally just flick this, leave it. But Malcolm doesn't flick stuff and he doesn't let things go. If you go after him [Turnbull], he will kick you back, it's the petulance of the left."
A Liberal senator said: "People are just wondering why he is kicking the story along. They don't like each other, that goes back to the leadership contest [with Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey in December 2009]".
Mr Abbott was pressed in question time by Labor if he supported his friend Bolt or his "frenemy", Mr Turnbull, in the spat.
"Madam Speaker, in any dispute between a member of my frontbench and a member of the fourth estate, I'm firmly on the side of my frontbencher," Mr Abbott said.
In an interview on the ABC's 7.30, Bolt said Mr Turnbull's "nasty" and "amazingly abusive", "over the top" attack on him proved he was right to question his leadership ambitions.
Mr Turnbull declined to comment further on Monday.