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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has refused to condemn two conservative commentators engaged in a bitter public dispute with one of his most senior ministers, praising the two as his personal friends.
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The Prime Minister has defended his Minister for Communications following claims Malcolm Turnbull is trying to destabilise the PM's leadership.
After a week of public insults between his Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the one hand and News Corporation commentator Andrew Bolt and Sydney shock-jock Alan Jones on the other, Mr Abbott pointedly declined to criticise the outspoken media personalities.
He said also that criticism comes with the territory for people in politics.
That, along with another observation that there had been some "over-excited chatter" made in recent days, could be seen by Mr Turnbull as a thinly disguised message to him to pull his head in.
Asked directly if he agreed with Mr Turnbull's criticism of Mr Jones as a bomb-thrower doing the Labor party's work, and the claim that Mr Jones and Mr Bolt were running a concerted campaign against Mr Turnbull, Mr Abbott replied "no".
"Alan is a friend of mine, Andrew Bolt is a friend of mine, I think that they are both very significant commentators and they've got a lot to say as you know," he said in Paris.
The comments came despite Mr Bolt accusing Mr Turnbull of destabilising Mr Abbott, and Mr Jones claiming Mr Turnbull was a bomb thrower intent on harming his prime minister in order to regain the Liberal leadership, to which Mr Turnbull responded: ''You are the bomb thrower, Alan''.
On ABC's 7.30 on Thursday night, Mr Turnbull said he did not have "any plans, any desires, any expectations to be the leader" of his party again.
"Politics is an unpredictable business so people say to me often, 'Do you think you'll be leader again?' and I say my prospects are somewhere between nil and very negligible and I think that is probably about right," Mr Turnbull said on 7.30.
However when asked directly about his leadership ambitions, he said he "didn't think there is any member of the House of Representatives who, if in the right circumstances, would not take on that responsibility".
With the stoush raging on, Mr Abbott, who is in Paris, also poured cold water on suggestions emanating from within the Coalition that it might hasten a reshuffle of the ministry.
"If you look at my record, you'll know that I don't lightly reshuffle my front bench, I made hardly any changes in 2009, we made modest changes after the 2010 election, and there were modest changes after the 2013 election because I believe that you should pick the right person for the job, and then leave them there to get on with it," he said.
Fairfax Media understands that Bolt and Jones have asked Labor for ammunition to use against Mr Turnbull, particularly in relation to his stewardship of the national broadband network.
At the same time, some of Mr Turnbull's allies are privately blaming the Prime Minister's office for intervening to stop a succession of high-profile appearances on the ABC since the budget.
Bolt and Jones have both taken aim at Mr Turnbull for allegedly not selling the budget to the public, an accusation Mr Turnbull has rejected.
In a fiery morning exchange on Thursday, Mr Turnbull accused Jones and Bolt of creating the furore around his alleged leadership aspirations, telling Jones he was the ''bomb thrower''.
Jones responded: ''There is no challenge to his leadership. They are suggesting Malcolm precisely because you have no hope ever of being the leader. You've got to get that into your head.''
Mr Turnbull replied: ''This is the most united, cohesive government we've had in this country for a long time and I think it is just very sad that you and Bolt are doing the work of the Labor Party in undermining the Abbott government.''
But questions linger over the strength of the relationship between Mr Turnbull and the Prime Minister after Fairfax Media revealed Mr Turnbull had not gone ahead with four slated appearances on the ABC.
During Mr Turnbull's appearance on 7.30, he said Bolt and Jones had undermined the Prime Minister by suggesting the government was divided.
"I will not stand by and let that falsehood be peddled because there is a risk if you don't stand up to bullies and people who peddle these lines, that they will start to become accepted,'' he said.
Some of Mr Turnbull's allies are privately blaming the Prime Minister's office, which vets all media appearances.
A Liberal Party source said possible changes to the ministry were behind the instability.
''There might be a few people trying to remind Abbott of their usefulness to him and loyalty when it counted [when he took over the Liberal leadership from Mr Turnbull],'' said a Liberal Party source.
Arthur Sinodinos is expected to be moved on from his suspended role as assistant treasurer after his bruising appearance at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, while speculation persists that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will step into the job of Defence Minister at the expense of David Johnston.
Parliamentary secretaries Josh Frydenberg and Steven Ciobo are considered to be two of the front runners to take Senator Sinodinos' job.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne has played down leadership speculation involving Mr Turnbull and rejected speculation of an imminent cabinet reshuffle.
Mr Pyne on Friday moved to play down the leadership speculation, saying Mr Turnbull was very happy being the Communications Minister.
''Malcolm has been the leader, and that has ended and he's very happy being the Communications Minister,’’ Mr Pyne told the Nine Network on Friday.
Mr Pyne stopped short of condemning Mr Bolt and Mr Jones, saying ''Andrew and Alan have to make their own decisions. They’re not members of our party room, they're independent media commentators and how they see things is a matter for them.''
Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese said there was leadership speculation and talk of a cabinet reshuffle because the Coalition had brought down a ''shocker of a budget''.
''If the budget had had any credibility, any common decency other than attacking the Australian values on education, on health support for Medicare, on pensions, then you wouldn’t have this speculation,'' Mr Albanese said.