Recent interventions in the internal politics of the Liberal party by News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt and 2GB radio host Alan Jones, both involving the minister for communications, Malcolm Turnbull, are a threat to the Abbott government – and Coalition members would be wise to look to the United States and see the sorts of problems the Republican party has faced as a result of its cozy relationship with conservative media figures.
In the US, it has been suggested that leadership of the Republicans has effectively been outsourced to a number of outspoken conservative pundits, especially at Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel. The most prominent of these are Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Fox News president Roger Ailes has been described by his biographer, Gabriel Sherman, as "in a sense, the head of the Republican party".
The Fox News formula of furious and relentless political commentary has been astonishingly successful at attracting mass audiences, and likely contributed to the election victories of George W Bush. But in the Obama era, as its commentators have become ever more rabid, it has looked increasingly marginalised. Preaching to a choir of old, angry white men who always vote Republican, it turns out, does not necessarily translate into political success.
Similarly, Bolt and Jones have built significant audiences here in Australia and no doubt made plenty of money for their employers. They have also, most probably, helped to deliver votes to the Coalition, and the prime minister likes to remind us that both are friends of his. But this influence might be short-lived, especially if they continue to blur the lines between being commentators and players, as was the case most extraordinarily this week.
On Sunday morning, Abbott was a guest on The Bolt Report. Bolt began the interview by seeking to goad the PM into slapping down Malcolm Turnbull for his apparent disloyalty, asserting, "it looks like he's got his eye on your job." Despite Bolt's badgering, Abbott did his best to deflect the line of questioning and talk about the budget.
Bolt followed up on Monday with a columnrepeating his attacks on Turnbull. It appears that at this point Turnbull had had enough. He responded with a calm yet devastating statement to the media, describing Bolt as "demented", "unhinged" and "crazy".
In Question Time that day, Labor's communications spokesman Jason Clare tried to make hay of the fracas, asking Abbott to choose between his friend, Bolt, and his "frenemy", Turnbull. Wisely, Abbott opted for the latter: "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."
Questioned about this on the ABC's 7.30 program, Bolt tried to be playful. "Of course he'd say that. I don't expect him to side with me against Malcolm Turnbull… yet," he said, followed by an excruciating smirk and raise of the eyebrows. He then continued his attack in a column on Tuesday, stating that "Turnbull's wild abuse of me proves he is either selfish or deceitful. But either way he's disloyal."
The fact that Bolt sees himself as such a Liberal party player that criticism of him is evidence of disloyalty to the party is quite extraordinary, and should be disturbing to every member of the government. It also reveals his rather illiberal approach to party politics. Either you agree with him (and Abbott), or you're not welcome.
Then of course we have the curious case of Alan Jones. On Thursday Jones interviewed Turnbull on his radio program. In his most hectoring tone, Jones began by asking Turnbull to repeat after him: "As a senior member of the Abbott government I want to say here I am totally supportive of the Abbott-Hockey strategy for budget repair." Turnbull's response to such breathtaking arrogance was at once curt and effective: "Alan, I am not going to take dictation from you."
Later in the interview, Jones quite explicitly tried to put Turnbull back in his place, saying that he needed to get it into his head that he would never return to the Liberal leadership. Turnbull, again demonstrating admirable patience and composure, turned the tables back on Jones, accusing he and Bolt of "doing the Labor party's work" by throwing bombs while pretending to be friends of the government.
While Bolt and Jones see in Turnbull's behaviour a desire to destabilise the party and prepare the ground for a leadership challenge, it is possible to see another motive. Turnbull would like to see his colleagues paying less attention to the right-wing fantasies and bombast of the likes of Bolt and Jones, and get on with being, as the mantra goes, an adult government.
Perhaps Turnbull, a previous critic of Tea party-style extremism, is paying attention to what many in the US are saying: the undue influence of far-right commentators is damaging the Republican party by turning off moderate voters, without whose support they are doomed to failure in presidential elections.
Both Bolt and Jones have long abandoned any pretence of being objective journalists, and have used their significant media profiles to openly campaign on behalf of the Coalition. No doubt the Coalition has benefitted from this. But to insert themselves so brazenly into internal party matters, and view their own roles as enforcers of party discipline, is beyond the pale. Senior Liberals should heed Turnbull's message and "stand up to bullies" such as Bolt and Jones.
This article was originally published on The Guardian on 6 June 2014.