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 Paris.
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 can attest.
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 court.
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 ambitions.
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 secretaries.
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 another.
If and when he needs to appoint a new minister, Abbott will be faced with the tricky choice of minimal change or something wider.