Tony Abbott hugs Denis Napthine, and it just gets more awkward from there

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Guardian: Tony Abbott hugs Denis Napthine, and it just gets more awkward from there. Oliver Milman. Friday 31 October 2014

Despite a spat over the fuel tax, the prime minister and Victorian premier try to look chummy in the lead-up to the state election

The prime minister, Tony Abbott, and the Victorian premier, Denis Napthine, assure Melbourne media they are the best of friends. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP
Politicians hugging each other is rarely a hugely enriching spectacle, but the embrace between the prime minister and the Victorian premier on Friday was particularly awkward.

Denis Napthine has spent most of the week seething at the federal government’s decision to increase the fuel excise from 10 November. The rise will be implemented as a tariff, allowing the government to bypass opposition to the fuel price hike in the senate.

On Tuesday, Napthine said he did not like the way the fuel price rise was handled. More pertinently, increasing the price of petrol could hardly come at a worse time for the Victorian premier, given his government is facing an election on 29 November.

“This is a situation where any increase in the cost for fuel for Victorian families and Victorian business will hurt those families and businesses,” Napthine said on Tuesday.

Three days later and Napthine stood alongside Tony Abbott to announce a new crime taskforce that will look at allegations of union corruption.

Asked about his falling-out with Abbott, Napthine insisted he had a “positive relationship” with the prime minister. Abbott then put his arms around Napthine and squeezed, eliciting a nervous-sounding chuckle from the Victorian leader.

Noting the $3bn the federal government has pledged for the controversial East West Link road project, Napthine said: “We welcome the prime minister’s involvement in infrastructure, but we do have our differences.

“As premier of Victoria, I’ll put Victorian families and Victorian interests first, second and third and at times I will raise that on behalf directly with the prime minister, as I have done this week with fuel pricing.”

Abbott said he understood that Napthine’s job was to “fight for the people of Victoria” and was unperturbed by the dissent from his fellow Liberal over the fuel tax rise.

“People are citizens of our nation as well as citizens of our states, so we come together in the national interest, but on the way through there can certainly be some very vigorous discussion between the prime minister and even premiers of like mind,” Abbott said. “That’s the way our system works.”

Napthine has appeared keen to play down the prospect of Abbott campaigning for a Liberal re-election in Victoria. Labor strategists are keen for Abbott to get involved as they believe Abbott is widely unpopular in Victoria and will drive voters away from the state government.

But Abbott said he expected to be in Victoria “numerous times over the next month or so” to campaign for Napthine.

“I certainly expect to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the premier on a number of occasions between now and polling day,” Abbott said. “I think it’s absolutely critical for Victoria and Australia that the Napthine government gets returned.

“Apart from anything else, the only way to ensure the vital East West Link gets built is to re-elect a Napthine government in Spring Street and to keep a Coalition government in Canberra.

“Labor used to say that contracts are sacrosanct, now they want to tear up the contracts because they are terrified of the Greens in their marginal inner Melbourne seats. This is a sign of someone not ready to carry the heavy responsibilities of the premiership.”

With polling showing a consistent lead for Labor in Victoria, Napthine will be hoping there are no more unhelpful policy announcements – or clumsy hugs – from the prime minister in the coming month.

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