The education minister and conservative commentator tangled on television as Bolt refused to toe the Coalition line, denying his role was to help the government get re-elected
Christopher Pyne has rebuked colleagues for backgrounding the media about the Coalition’s current political woes – but has been rebuked in turn by the conservative commentator Andrew Bolt for implying the broadcaster and blogger was helping the Abbott government with its task of re-election.
Underscoring the scrappy end to the parliamentary year, the education minister fronted the Bolt Report on Sunday morning with an explicit appeal for party unity.
The past three weeks has been characterised by strategic missteps and by damaging internal leaks about Cabinet tensions. Pyne’s argument on Sunday morning was colleagues should hold their tongues – not fuel the media’s appetite for stories about disunity because journalists were not “trying to help the government be re-elected.”
Pyne made an honourable exception for Bolt, his host.
“What my colleagues need to understand is they are advocates for the government’s agenda, they are not background commentators for the media,” Pyne told Bolt.
“They also need to understand that – present company excepted of course – the media are not trying to help the government be re-elected, they are trying to get a story, therefore disunity is always a story.”
Bolt looked distinctly nonplussed with Pyne’s inference about his motivations.
He told his guest he was not, in fact, trying to get the government “re-elected” – he was trying to “get a better performance”.
The two tangled again during the interview, when Bolt asked his guest to shed more light on why the prime minister had despatched the trade minister Andrew Robb to oversee the foreign minister Julie Bishop at climate negotiations in Lima.
Pyne told Bolt that Robb had not been despatched by anyone but was, in fact, going to the climate change talks because he was already in the region in order to pursue negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The education minister insisted that contrary to some reports, Robb’s task in South America was not to chaperone Bishop at the climate conference and make sure that Australia didn’t overcommit on new emissions reduction commitments. He was just in the neighbourhood.
Pyne also pointed out that Bishop was actually the senior portfolio minister, so if anything, she was chaperoning Robb.
Bolt rebuked Pyne again.
“You are denying what I know is a fact,” the broadcaster declared.
“I certainly am,” Pyne replied. “Julie Bishop doesn’t need help from anyone. That’s been proven in the last 15 months.”
When he wasn’t tangling with his host, Pyne used the interview to encourage his colleagues to stay the course. He conceded the government had finished 2014 “in a slightly ragged position but we still have two years to go before an election is due”.
Pyne said many of the current political flashpoints would be gone over the next couple of years.
It was not entirely clear from his remarks whether one of the flashpoints he was consigning to the past tense was his higher education package, rejected by the Senate. “Many of the issues running now will be bedded down over the course of the next two years and I think we’ll have a very different end to next year than we’ve had to this year.”
The education minister said the Coalition just had to keep “ploughing on with our messages” and he added “forward momentum [was a] great salve”.
Bolt zeroed in on the treasurer Joe Hockey, who has been the recipient of some of the negative internal backgrounding over the past few weeks, and also the focal point of some of the negative commentary from conservative quarters outside the government.
Bolt wondered what Hockey could do to win greater confidence from his colleagues. Pyne said Hockey enjoyed his confidence, and the confidence of colleagues within the government.
The education minister also defended the contribution of another Coalition player who has been the target of negative commentary recently – Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin.
Bolt thought Credlin might need a better communications manager. Pyne thought not.
The education minister noted Credlin had done a “superb” job and his desire was that she stay and do “even better into the future”.