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Abbott leaves Turnbull in Q&A limbo

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is unsure if he will be able to appear on Q&A, after Tony Abbott banned ministers from appearing on the program. AAP/Stefan Postles

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has continued the retribution against Q&A beyond what had seemed agreed within government last week, when it was thought enough had been done.

In the process, Abbott has publicly embarrassed the Nationals deputy leader Barnaby Joyce, who he forced to pull out on Sunday night, and left his communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who has the ABC under his portfolio responsibilities, in limbo.

Turnbull is booked to appear next week. When The Conversation asked his office on Monday morning whether he will still do so, it was referred to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Abbott’s office explains the decision on Joyce by saying: “Given the ABC is undertaking an inquiry into Q&A, it isn’t appropriate for the minister to appear tonight.”

But there is no clarity on whether Turnbull will appear. The PMO did not address a question on whether the ban on ministers appearing will extend to when the review is finished.

Last week, when Turnbull released the communication department’s summary of events surrounding the question asked by former terrorism suspect Zaky Mallah, his office indicated that the minister was not planning any further action.

Turnbull and Abbott had been in frequent communication during the week about the matter, and the PMO cleared the report going out.

The ABC board issued a statement on Wednesday announcing that the executive producer of the show, Peter McEvoy, had received a formal warning. Turnbull had had discussions with the ABC after he received the departmental report earlier in the week.

If the government bans frontbenchers from appearing on the agenda-setting and high-rating current affairs show until the completion of the ABC inquiry into the program – being done by journalist Ray Martin and former SBS managing director Shaun Brown – that will keep them off for months.

Last week, parliamentary secretary Alan Tudge pulled out at the last moment.

Joyce is said to be angry at what has happened to him. Asked on Sunday what went through his mind in deciding whether he would appear, he told ABC’s Insiders: “Look, I think the ABC is dealing properly now with the issue.

"Having Mr Mallah on that program is an absurdity, otherwise let’s put fascists on and Stalinists and every combination and permutation of people who have an abrupt view of the way the world works. But they are dealing with that issue now and I think that is proper.”

When he contacted the ABC on Sunday night to pull out he made it clear it was Abbott’s decision.

The action shows that even the most senior ministers in the Abbott government have little independence.

Meanwhile, Q&A will have another program in which it is one of the issues of the moment.

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