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Jun 3, 2014

How Bolt is setting the Liberal agenda

Andrew Bolt's policy objectives line up neatly with the Liberal Party's.

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After a disastrous budget disastrously sold, Malcolm Turnbull is ascendant in the polls as Abbott plunges, according to today’s Essential poll. But if the former opposition leader wants to make a go for the leadership, he’ll have to get past conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, who’s made his feelings about the millionaire parliamentarian clear. After Turnbull dined with crossbench MP Clive Palmer last week, Bolt blasted the Communications Minister in his Monday column:

“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. If only Turnbull had spent half this charm fighting for Abbott’s Budget. Instead, some of Abbott’s troops complain he’s almost gone missing in action.”

By noon, Turnbull had fired back, telling journalists Bolt’s argument “borders on the demented”:

“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.”

That gave Coalition senator Cory Bernardi a chance to slap down his factional opposite on last night’s Q&A, where he described Turnbull’s response to Bolt as “unwise”, “inappropriate” and “too strident”.

Quizzed by Tony Jones on his “unwise” characterisation, Bernardi walked it back, saying media commentators would always have opinions and it was unwise to engage with them stridently on those opinions. But it’s undeniable that Andrew Bolt, “Australia’s most-read columnist“, has the ear of many within the Liberal Party. He’s particularly close to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The PM is a regular on Bolt’s Sunday morning show, The Bolt Report, and for many years the two have been friends. When Bolt lost his racial discrimination case, Abbott was there to offer moral support, dining with Bolt and his wife that night. While there, Bolt revealed in a lengthy Good Weekend profile, Abbott implored Bolt to keep writing and filming The Bolt Report to help keep the conservative cause alive.

Has this friendship brought influence? Bolt is nothing if not prolific, and Crikey combed his archives to find how much his own political preferences are matched by Liberal Party policies. On one issue — proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act — his influence is widely acknowledged. But his influence is much broader. Bolt, the moral compass of the government, would often prefer far more radical changes than those even Abbott can support. But he’s setting the direction of change. n.

Racial Discrimination Act

After two of Bolt’s columns on Aboriginal entitlements were found to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act in 2011, he has frequently called for changes to the laws, which he says silence legitimate discussions of issues of societal importance. His blog contains dozens of examples of people who could be silenced by the laws as they currently stand, and it collates support for his views on the issue. In March, Attorney-General George Brandis announced changes to the law that would amend, though not entirely remove, a certain passage of the act. Broadly speaking, speech that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates someone based on their race is a breach of the act. The proposed changes leave “intimidate” in there, but excises the other breaches.

Bolt’s response:

“The proposed changes, while welcome and brave, simply do not go far enough. I know how keen some judges are use what powers they may be persuaded to find in such legislation.”

Since then, reports in the Fairfax press suggest the proposals will be watered down further, having failed to find crossbench support in the Senate.

Verdict: On the backburner — for now

Climate Change

Climate change’s key tenets are myths and its believers are members of the “global warming religion“. Andrew Bolt is one of the country’s leading sceptics, and his views square with off-the-cuff comments from Tony Abbott in 2009, when he told Coalition supporters in the Victorian town of Beaufort that climate change was “absolute crap”.

The Abbott government has vowed to dismantle the carbon tax, which Bolt has long advocated. But the government is taking some action on climate change through its Direct Action policy. This will, Bolt believes, cost the economy less than the carbon tax all up, though both will make “no difference to the climate“. But in 2011 he said he hoped the Liberals would eventually give up “paying lip service to a false god”.

Turnbull lost his leadership on this issue, beaten by one vote by the far more Bolt-aligned Abbott.

Verdict: Partway there

Asylum seekers

In 2012, as asylum seeker numbers swelled, Bolt wrote a column on two boatloads that had recently arrived …

“What we call ‘asylum seekers’ are more often than not seeking something other than the asylum we’d gladly offer people in genuine fear of their lives. They could be after an economic opportunity, for instance. A welfare state. An immigration spot that they would not get if they asked for it by the normal, legal means, using identity papers we could check. In other words, we are seeing more people that … well, that we’re still obliged as journalists to call ‘asylum seekers’ — because the Press Council insists we should, and the Gillard government is only too anxious for an excuse to muzzle us with even tougher laws if we don’t submit.”

It’s hard to argue the Liberal Party alone began to argue that asylum seekers were opportunists – the criticism was most famously made by then Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr in 2013. But the Abbott Government has continued its punitive policy on boat arrivals – made more politically palpable by a lack of public sympathy for asylum seekers.

Verdict: Accomplished

Welfare policy

Australia’s high levels of welfare are a problem, Bolt believes, particularly when it becomes entrenched among young people and the disadvantaged. One problem is “offering welfare in towns where there’s no real work and never will be,” to quote Bolt in 2011. Another post, from earlier this year, lamented how one in five people rely on a government handout for their livelihoods. “This $70 billion a year of welfarism cannot be healthy,” Bolt wrote.

The Abbott government, broadly, agrees. Its changes to welfare contained in the budget, as well as comments by senior ministers, clearly point to dismantling welfare for all but the most needy. Bolt would approve.

But there is one type of welfare Bolt would like to see cut where the government hasn’t been so obliging. “End corporate welfare now,” Bolt’s blog in May 2013 urged. While Australia’s car industry is no longer supported, plenty of corporates still get plenty of welfare, as Crikey business editor Paddy Manning noted in his analysis of the budget.

Verdict: Accomplished

Industrial Relations

It’s here, perhaps, that we see the greatest divergence between Bolt’s preferences and Liberal Party policy. In 2012, citing a statistic from the Australian Mines and Metals Association, Bolt wrote that “the government’s absurd workplace restrictions are killing our productivity and strangling our future”.

But the Liberals haven’t campaigned on this — in fact, they’ve vowed to leave industrial relations alone until the next election. It’s earned them rebuke from Bolt at times.

Verdict: Unaccomplished

Myriam Robin — Media Reporter

Myriam Robin

Media Reporter

Myriam has been Crikey’s media reporter since 2014. Before that, she was a business journalist with sister site SmartCompany, covering economics and corporate strategy.

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