It didn’t take long for Tony Abbott to back away from his statement
earlier this week - after Malcolm Turnbull took on conservative
commentator Andrew Bolt - that in any dispute between one of his
frontbenchers and a member of the fourth estate, “I am firmly on the
side of my frontbencher”.
Asked, after Turnbull’s Thursday attack on Alan Jones, if he thought
that Jones was a bomb thrower (Turnbull’s accusation) and that he and
Bolt were running a concerted campaign against the Communications
Minister, Abbott leapt to their defence.
“No. Alan is a friend of mine. Andrew Bolt is a friend of mine. I
think they are both very significant commentators and they’ve got a lot
to say as you know – both of them have a lot to say. I often agree with
it. Occasionally I don’t agree with it,” he told his news conference in
He went on to say that Jones was a formidable interlocutor. “Whether
he’s for you or against you he’s always someone who’s going to put on a
very lively discussion and that’s the way with me, that’s the way with
Malcolm, that’s the way with everyone who goes on his show.”
To cast Jones' haranguing and insults in his encounter with Turnbull as a “lively discussion” is more than a stretch.
And for Abbott to go out of his way to stress his friendship with Jones and Bolt is revealing.
It’s one indication of the influence they (and others of similar
voice) have with the Prime Minister and his government. That influence
has helped to position the government well away from what Abbott termed
(in a particular context) the “sensible centre” on various issues.
The Bolt friendship has driven the vexed attempt to amend the Racial
Discrimination Act, which has alienated most ethic communities and
brought the government considerable grief.
A prime minister should be careful of who he publicly designates (or
indeed privately cultivates) as “friends”. It sends signals to
colleagues, about who they too should cultivate. And it says something
to swinging voters, many of whom would find these friends over the top.
Like anyone else, PMs are known by the company they keep. The
revelations in the wake of the British phone hacking scandal contain
some useful lessons on politician-media friendships, as David Cameron
It is alarming if the Bolts and Joneses have too much of the prime
ministerial ear. In the end, it will be bad for the government, which
needs to win back the middle ground that it has already alienated.
In the case of Jones in particular, there is also an element of fear
involved. Politicians are well aware of what impact Jones on the
rampage, against someone, or about an issue, can have.
Abbott’s message to Turnbull seemed to be that he should toughen up.
Lots of people in public life were subject to criticism, he said, and
“occasionally people try to make mischief … Occasionally all sorts of
things that have no foundation whatsoever get bandied around”.
Both Abbott and Turnbull hope matters will cool. Turnbull’s 7.30
interview, leaving open the slightest crack of leadership ambition,
might have been one appearance too many. Predictably, Bolt asked him on
his show this Sunday; Turnbull declined. The ball is in the Bolt-Jones
The Turnbull affair hasn’t been the only distraction for Abbott this
week. He’s also having to dampen unwelcome reshuffle talk. This chatter
reflects the fact a vacancy is expected; the thought of a shuffle lights
People around the government believe it very unlikely that Arthur
Sinodinos, who stood aside as assistant treasurer because he was
appearing at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, will return
to his post.
That would leave a spot in the ministry and probably in the ranks of
the parliamentary secretaries (assuming the new minister came from among
them). Candidates mentioned for possible promotion to the ministry
include Josh Frydenberg and Steven Ciobo, both parliamentary
But the timing could be a long way off. Abbott has indicated he will
wait for the ICAC findings, and the reports of the two inquiries
involving Sinodinos are not expected until towards the end of the year.
Abbott has no pressing cause to act earlier, which could be seen as
unfair to Sinodinos. The present situation, with Finance Minister
Mathias Cormann picking up Sinodinos’s area, is operating well enough
(Cormann seems to have an infinite capacity for work). The Sinodinos
staff are working to Cormann (although some have bailed out already).
The one thing that would bring forward the need for a replacement
would be if Sinodinos himself decided to pull the pin for one reason or
If and when he needs to appoint a new minister, Abbott will be faced
with the tricky choice of minimal change, or something wider.