Unrest over the budget and ministers talking at odds has fed Liberal leadership speculation.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has moved to head off leadership ripples in the Liberal Party triggered by unrest over the federal budget.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a former Liberal leader, set off a fresh round of speculation after a private dinner with Senate powerbroker Clive Palmer and his comments across other portfolio areas.
The government needs the support of the three Palmer United Party senators plus three other crossbenchers to pass some of its budget measures.
Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt added fuel to the fire by suggesting to Mr Abbott in a television interview on Sunday: “It looks like he’s got his eye on your job.”
Mr Turnbull told reporters in Canberra on Monday that Mr Bolt’s suggestion was “unhinged”, attracting the response from Mr Bolt that: “If only Malcolm Turnbull spent half his charm fighting for Tony Abbott’s budget.”
Labor frontbencher Jason Clare used question time in parliament to jibe Mr Abbott about whom he preferred – his friend Mr Bolt or his “frenemy” Mr Turnbull.
The prime minister said he had attended a media event on Saturday with Mr Turnbull.
“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 said.
The first polling on the Liberal leadership is expected to be released on Tuesday.
The last Essential poll to take the temperature on the issue, published in July 2013, showed Mr Turnbull was the preferred leader with 37 per cent of voters compared with the 12 per cent who opted for Mr Abbott.
The most recent polls show the coalition trailing Labor by an average 10 points in two-party terms, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten leading as preferred prime minister.
Mr Abbott accused Mr Shorten of trying to verbal ministers as they defended the budget.
“The truth is that there is no easy way to sort out the debt and deficit disaster that members opposite left us,” he said.
“This a good budget, an honest budget, it’s the right budget for this time.”
Labor turned its budget spotlight on Mr Abbott’s election promise to index superannuation payments to veterans at the highest cost-of-living measure.
The budget papers showed that from 2017/18 the government plans to index all Centrelink pensions, including service pensions paid to more than 140,000 ex-service personnel, in line with the consumer price index only.
CPI is generally lower than other indexation rates, creating savings of $65 million from veteran’s pensions, the budget papers say.
Mr Abbott said the government had honoured its specific commitment, which was to raise the rate of indexation of payments made to former defence personnel through two old defence superannuation schemes.
“No military pensioner will receive an inferior rate of indexation to a civilian one,” he told parliament.