“If there’s anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now.” — Zaphod Beeblebrox, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

So normality, of a kind, the sort of absurd normality we got used to before the Budget, has been restored. Malcolm Turnbull yesterday got the Liberal Party’s Budget response back on track, mostly, after four days of mayhem. The Opposition can now move forward again. But there’s still the basic problem — Turnbull thinks he’s in the wrong job. And lots of people — including most of the Press Gallery — agree with him.

Turnbull gave an excellent performance yesterday. The hacks crammed into the Press Club, eager to exploit his lapses of this week and the last, anxious to prise open the rift between Turnbull and his leader. Turnbull, facing his first serious test as shadow Treasurer, had visibly failed after being wrong-footed by the much-maligned Wayne Swan. Had we let ourselves overestimate him?

He responded to the pressure with an effort that was eloquent, charismatic, smart and, more importantly, coherent. He effectively linked Liberal Party principles with a critique of the Government’s Budget and with the measures proposed in Nelson’s Budget reply. Never had the cheap tart of populism been so well dressed up as the elegant consort of high principle. Compared to Nelson’s own Press Club address, and his Budget Reply last Thursday — especially the end of the latter, which veered off into meaningless rhetoric — Turnbull was superior in every way.

Turnbull’s ego, however, remains at large, unstoppable and, probably, untameable. Even after the disaster of the leaked email, Turnbull was determined to show the press and economists — including his own hired gun, Henry Ergas, who was in attendance — that he didn’t think the 5c a litre excise reduction was good policy. As everyone immediately noticed, he declined to commit to taking it to the next election.

Even so, while political journalists might play up the distinction — Laura Tingle, for example, gave Turnbull a real serve over it in today’s AFR — it’s only really one for the political cognoscenti. The punters won’t care too much about what Malcolm Turnbull will or won’t commit to at the next election. Let’s be blunt — if you think cutting excise is a good idea, you’re unlikely to even be aware that Turnbull has private reservations about it.

So that, more or less, is that. Nelson and Turnbull are at peace, mostly. The Opposition has a relatively consistent, thoroughly populist position to stick to. Now, as a senior Liberal senator noted, they can start moving forward again and start running their lines against the Government. It beats having a go at each other.

And Turnbull, after doing himself no favours with his pre-Budget and Budget reply efforts, has taken a big stride toward getting back into the good books of much of the Press Gallery with a strong performance. While he was wowing journalists at the Press Club, his leader was tripping around Traralgon Shopping Centre pretending the Liberals could win Gippsland and stumbling over whether he was confident he’d lead the party to the next election.

The contrast is emblematic of the two men. Nelson makes a virtue of his ordinariness, the fact that he is innately a decent, regular bloke who really wants to make a difference. Turnbull’s anything but ordinary and makes sure you know it. Arthur Dent and Zaphod Beeblebrox. Take your pick.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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