There was just a hint of exasperation in the voice of Prime Minister John Howard over the last few days as he tried to ridicule Kevin Rudd’s self-description as a fiscal conservative.

Labor leaders are just not meant to behave in this way. Oppositions, according to the Howard doctrine, are meant to oppose, not damn, a government budget with faint praise. And, as for cheekily advertising that fiscal conservatism on television — well, that is quite beyond the pale.

Getting the Budget back into surplus, tax reform, industrial relations reform, the sale of Telstra, waterfront reform — all of those things the Labor Party opposed. “His party voted against all of those measures,” Howard said on television. “I mean, how on earth with that background can you now say, ‘Oh look, forget about that, I am an economic conservative’. I mean that is a bit hard to swallow.”

Perhaps the public will find it hard, but Howard did not expect to end Budget week explaining that the Labor Party had not attacked any of the spending proposals announced on Tuesday night.

“One of the most fascinating things about Mr Rudd’s speech,” said the PM, “was that he didn’t offer any criticism of the Budget. That must mean he agrees with everything in it. Well, that’s the first time in 11 years that I have seen that and that must mean it’s a pretty good Budget and it also means that all of the spending items in the Budget are not regarded as anything other than good for the country.”

Fascinating is the right word for it and further evidence that this time the Coalition has quite a different kind of opponent. Kevin Rudd is cleverly refusing to play the Howard way by taking every opportunity to avoid the economy becoming the central point of difference between Labor and the Coalition. It is a clever variation on the “small-target” tactic of previous opposition leaders.

Mr Rudd will be happy for the turn the campaign has taken towards education. Unlike the economy, this has always been a Labor issue. The Opposition Leader knows that while putting $6 billion in to a fund to pay for future capital investment by universities appeals to vice-chancellors and a few journalist commentators, it means very little to most Australian voters. There was hardly a vote in this centre-piece of the Budget, whereas the Rudd words about putting trade classes into all of the nation’s high schools will be widely understood and appreciated.