Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been dragged into the dispute between Cabinet minister Malcolm Turnbull and conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, with the matter raised in Question Time.
The Prime Minister has declared his support for his parliamentary colleague in the increasingly personal battle between Mr Turnbull and Bolt.
Mr Turnbull set tongues wagging in Canberra last week when he had dinner with Clive Palmer, who is refusing to directly deal with Mr Abbott until he is given more taxpayer-funded staff.
Today Mr Turnbull described Bolt’s latest column as “unhinged”, “crazy”, and “bordering on the demented” because it argues he is agitating for his old job by befriending Mr Abbott’s “natural predators” like Mr Palmer and supporters of the ABC.
Labor’s communications spokesman Jason Clare sought to embarrass the Prime Minister over the spat in Question Time.
“Prime Minister, who is right, your friend Andrew Bolt or your frenemy Malcolm Turnbull?” he asked.
The Government’s Leader of the House Christopher Pyne unsuccessfully tried to have the question ruled out of order.
In reply, Mr Abbott said he was pleased to be out selling the budget “shoulder to shoulder” with Mr Turnbull in Sydney on Saturday.
And he said he would always choose his colleagues over the media.
“In any dispute between a member of my frontbench and a member of the fourth estate I am firmly on the side of my frontbencher,” Mr Abbott told Parliament.
Bolt tells 7.30 Turnbull’s comments aimed at destabilising PM
In an interview on 7.30, Bolt said Mr Turnbull’s “nasty” and “amazingly abusive”, “over the top” attack on him proved he was right to question the Communications Minister’s leadership ambitions.
“This was not a story until Malcolm Turnbull chose to make it so today with his amazingly abusive attack,” Bolt told Sabra Lane in the interview.
“Malcolm Turnbull could have chosen not to say anything about my article, the fact that he did shows he wants this story to run and that just destabilises Tony Abbott.
“I think Malcolm Turnbull’s looking for an excuse to keep the story going, his reaction is so over the top he could only want the story to keep running and running.”
“I don’t expect him to side with me against Malcolm Turnbull … yet,” he added.
Bolt, who describes himself as a conservative and a friend of conservative policies, as well as “friendly” with Mr Abbott, said Mr Turnbull’s criticisms were constantly misdirected.
“Has Malcolm Turnbull ever attacked anyone who he thinks is anti-Abbott or he thinks is anti the Abbott Government with the absurd and nasty abuse that’s he levelled against me, who he claims is a government friend?” he said.
“Malcolm Turnbull is spending more time cuddling up to the Liberal Party’s natural enemies than he is selling the budget.
“Malcolm Turnbull considers me a natural enemy, that should say a lot. With Liberals like Malcolm Turnbull”, he said, “who needs the Labor party?”
Abbott reassured Turnbull that Bolt question wasn’t a set up
On Sunday, Bolt interviewed Mr Abbott on his Channel Ten talk show and began by asking the prime minister: “Why is Malcolm Turnbull wooing Clive Palmer on his own? It looks like he’s got his eye on your job.”
The ABC understands Mr Turnbull was perturbed by the question and was reassured by Tony Abbott last night that it was in no way set up by the prime minister or his office.
Bolt followed that up in a column posted late on Sunday in which he wrote that Mr Turnbull’s dinner with Mr Palmer was designed to send an “unmistakable message” to Liberal MPs – “replace Abbott with Turnbull as prime minister and maybe Palmer will play ball”.
“This is Turnbull, on the far left of the Liberal Party, charming a constituency that hates Abbott and which would back Turnbull to replace him – even if it still wouldn’t vote Liberal,” he wrote.
Turnbull: Bolt column ‘unhinged’, ‘crazy’, borderline ‘demented’
After being confronted with leadership questions and a television camera while leaving his Canberra apartment for Parliament this morning, Mr Turnbull launched a strong attack on Bolt’s theory.
“It is quite unhinged,” Mr Turnbull told reporters.
“It borders on the demented, to string together a dinner with Clive Palmer and my attending, as the Communications Minister, the launch by a cross-party group of friends of the ABC and say that that amounts to some sort of threat or challenge to the Prime Minister.
“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’d see anything as crazy as that on the ABC.
“And I just have to say to Mr Bolt, he proclaims loudly that he’s a friend of the Government – well with friends like Bolt, we don’t need any enemies.”
Bolt’s newspaper column was the first major piece of political commentary to argue that Mr Turnbull’s dinner with Mr Palmer, Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson, Liberal Party vice-president Tom Harley and his business partner John Fast may have been part of a leadership campaign.
Sources say the dinner happened by chance when Mr Turnbull and Mr Harley ran into the Treasury boss while leaving Parliament – they later invited Mr Palmer.
A former staffer to Mr Turnbull has told the ABC he and Mr Palmer have long been friends and their friendship predated Mr Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party in 2009.