A Bolt From The Blue Sends The Govt Off Message


An unpopular prime minister, languishing in the polls. A charismatic former leader, who appears to be encouraging speculation about his intentions. A government distracted from the task of running the country by ongoing battles with the media.

Labor in 2013? Welcome to the Coalition’s post-budget blues.

If it feels like we’ve seen this one before, perhaps it’s because we only have to cast our minds back a year or so, to remember what a government adrift looks like.

Drift seems to be the new paradigm for the Coalition, behind in the polls and apparently unable to shift voter perceptions of an unfair, overtly ideological and punitive budget. The warning bells should be ringing loud and clear in Peta Credlin’s war room.

Many of the tropes of dysfunction that bedeviled Labor are starting to manifest themselves in a Coalition government that is not even a year old. For instance: party discipline, so strong in opposition, is starting to fray. Last week, we saw a public attack on the budget from a Coalition backbencher, Dennis Jensen, who is horrified at what he calls “incoherent” cuts to the CSIRO and other government science agencies.

As happened so often during Labor’s tumultuous reign, leadership speculation is again off and running. Amazingly for such a fresh opposition leader, Bill Shorten is polling better than Tony Abbott in the preferred prime minister stakes. This has fuelled the usual media thought bubbles about whether Malcolm Turnbull is positioning himself for a future tilt at the leadership.

Perhaps most alarmingly of all, from a Coalition perspective, open warfare has broken out between Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Bolt. To say this is a distraction is something of an understatement.

The rumble began over the weekend, during an appearance by Prime Minister Abbott on Bolt’s television show.

“Now, why is Malcolm Turnbull wooing Clive Palmer on his own?” Bolt asked at the beginning of the interview. “It looks like he's got his eye on your job.”

Bolt was referring to a recent dinner date in Canberra, shared by the Communications Minister and the mercurial Queenslander. Palmer and Turnbull both claim it was entirely routine and innocent: the sort of thing that happens all the time in a company town.

But Bolt made it news by going big in his Monday newspaper column. He claimed Turnbull had issued the invitation as a way of signalling to Coalition MPs that he knew how to handle the Palmer United Party, whose Senate votes the government needs to pass legislation.

“This sent an unmistakable message to Liberal MPs — replace Abbott with Turnbull as prime minister and maybe Palmer will play ball,” Bolt wrote.

“In fact, Turnbull has lavished a lot of charm lately on Abbott’s natural predators,” Bolt continued, arguing that Turnbull was cosying up to Palmer and the ABC.

If leadership speculation was simmering beforehand, Bolt’s column turned up the temperature several notches.

It’s a measure of Bolt’s prominence as Australia’s pre-eminent conservative media star that he can launch a full-frontal attack on a government front-bencher and be greeted, not with hostility, but with sympathy and even support.

Bolt is as close to a sitting prime minister as any newspaper journalist in a generation; the two meet regularly and Abbott is said to frequently ask Bolt for political advice. Whatever his protestations of independence, columns from Bolt are thought to closely reflect Tony Abbott’s personal views.

So when Bolt took on Turnbull, Turnbull understandably took notice. Perhaps this explains the ferocity of Turnbull’s reaction yesterday. In a vintage display of political disparagement, the former barrister labeled the conservative shock jock “unhinged”, “deranged” and “bordering on the demented.”

“I just have to say to Mr Bolt, he proclaims loudly that he is a friend of the government. Well with friends like Bolt, we don't need any enemies.”

Needless to say, the media lapped up Turnbull’s denunciations, reporting them widely. For his part, Bolt relished the opportunity to score some retaliatory points of his own. “Malcolm Turnbull’s wild abuse of me proves he is either selfish or deceitful,” he wrote this morning. “But either way he’s disloyal.”

For his part, Palmer proved once again what an adroit political operator he is, by throwing some extra fuel on the fire. “Malcolm Turnbull was a great leader of the Liberal Party,” he told Michelle Grattan yesterday, in a carefully timed intervention.

“He’s a very popular person. He represents a part of the Liberal Party that doesn’t seem to have much influence in policy making [now].”

To top it all off, the reliably outrageous Cory Bernardi then got involved, in an attempt to defend Andrew Bolt.

Liberal backbencher and Senator Cory Bernadi... he appeared on Q&A last night to defend the Prime Minister and Andrew Bolt.

The outbreak of conservative infighting could not have come at a worse time for a government already in trouble after the budget. In politics, disunity is nearly always destructive. It’s a maxim the Coalition should know well, after observing the damage Labor inflicted on itself through the Rudd-Gillard wars.

Indeed, it could be argued that Abbott is particularly vulnerable to accusations of chaos and disorganisation, after making so much hay from Labor’s civil war.

While most of the anger towards the government is a result of the unpopularity of its policies, such as hiking up university fees and imposing a $7 co-payment for doctor’s visits, public displays of disunity can’t help.

Clearly, this is the point at which all the Coalition’s energies should be focused on explaining why the budget nasties are necessary, not in pointless public feuds with internal foes.

Indeed, you could say that there seems to be a pattern emerging. Once again, the government has lost control of the political narrative. Once again, the key messages attacking Labor and spruiking the government’s own policies have been obscured.

The discipline that proved so effective in opposition has again deserted Tony Abbott’s government. So has the political initiative. As Labor knows all too well, once that happens, it can be difficult to regain.


Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.