If Malcolm Turnbull fully supports his Deputy and Shadow Treasurer, he had an odd way of showing it yesterday in Parliament. For a long time Julie Bishop didn’t rise to the Dispatch Box. Turnbull kicked off as always, then Christopher Pyne and Bruce Billson came and went. Turnbull had another go. The minutes ticked by. When was she going to get a turn? Finally, at 3.09pm, she rose to ask Wayne Swan about the budget deficit.

Strangely enough, she copped plenty from the Government side as she did so. Government MPs were rewarded with an expression that, if looks could kill, would see her up on mass murder charges.

The Opposition was concentrating on the Government finally admitting over the weekend that its school PCs program was badly undercosted due to the need for supporting infrastructure. The deficit was a long way down its list of priorities. Turnbull even asked Rudd about broadband before they got onto the deficit. And there was only one question about it before they turned to other matters of moment, such as people smuggling and the ETS.

Funny, given the deficit is supposedly a key indicator of the Government’s lack of economic credibility.

And funny, because on radio yesterday morning, quizzed by Chris Uhlman — who may not be Turnbull’s favourite interlocutor given the grief he gives him — Turnbull appeared to shift on the whole deficit issue, referring to “the quality of the spending”. The annoying phrase du jour, “leavepass”, keeps getting used but with less and less enthusiasm.

Not to mention that Saturday saw another massive “raid on the surplus”, to use the Government’s phrase from earlier, happier times. Amid the itemising of the handouts at COAG on Saturday, it was overlooked that the Government had blown another $3b of the surplus for this year. David Crowe at the AFR spotted it. Between that and the infrastructure giveaway to councils a couple of weeks back, the surplus has dropped from $5.4b to not much more than $1b, which is the tiniest of parameter adjustments away from deficit. There can now be no possible doubt that we’ll be in the red in the new year.

Then again, on the deficit, the Opposition is looking a lot like the sea captain in Blackadder, who, asked whether it was common practice to have a crew on a ship, declared “opinion is divided on the subject… All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.” There’s virtually no one outside Coalition ranks who objects to a deficit and in fact the majority opinion amongst economists and (less relevantly) the commentariat is that a deficit is economically necessary. This includes the most senior Liberal politician in the country, Colin Barnett, who like Rudd inherited a budget surplus and has admitted the possibility of going into deficit.

In fact, there’s now fewer deficit denialists than greenhouse denialists.

Possibly the Opposition has realised that it has let itself be painted into a corner on this budget business. Again. Back in May, the Government gulled Malcolm Turnbull with its rhetoric about the need for fiscal hairychestedness in the Budget. When the rhetoric turned out to be just that, Turnbull was wrongfooted and had to unsubtly change his tack in criticising the Budget. It wasn’t a good look for the ‘Man Most Likely’.

The same thing may be happening again on the deficit, only this time it has been the Government’s lack of rhetoric on it that has tripped up Turnbull. Perhaps it’s a deliberate strategy on the part of the Government, although that might be imputing a bit too much cleverness to the Prime Minister’s Office.

With the Government riding a financial crisis-induced high in the polls, the Coalition’s stubborn refusal to countenance a deficit might be starting to seem like a bad idea. In which case, Julie Bishop has been stuck with the responsibility of organising a tactical withdrawal on the issue, her leader having talked tough on it as late as last week.

Life’s tricky enough for Bishop at the moment without having to clean up her colleagues’ mess.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey