Malcolm Turnbull had a bad day at the office yesterday. One of his worst so far.

Having cleverly decided to use the comparative lull of the pre-Budget period to get some media space, he gave the worst speech of his leadership to the National Press Club.

His delivery was one thing. It only came to life when he became shrill or sarcastic, and the jokes fell flat even with the Liberal loyalists in the room. But that’s a minor issue; Turnbull is one of our best political orators and he can be forgiven the occasional off-day. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. The problem was the content, which seemed badly under-prepared.

A persistent problem for Turnbull — and Government sources have noticed this as well — is his inability to stick to one message for any length of time. Kevin Rudd, in contrast, talks to voters as if they were infants, endlessly repeating the same key messages. A speech to the National Press Club, given the audience, can have the sort of complexity and subtle analysis that a doorstop cannot, but ultimately it must get across one or two key points.

Instead, we got any number of issues, from Kevin Rudd’s sanctimony, how Labor were really a bunch of socialists, to how bad the budget would be, to how ready the Coalition was to take unpopular decisions. And clearly bugged by the growing sense in the electorate that he only stands for negativity, Turnbull also devoted time to enumerating all the positive things he had come up with. He got to about five things, including wanting tax cuts and infrastructure spending, but curiously failed to mention his “green carbon” initiatives from February or Brendan Nelson’s 5c-a-litre petrol excise reduction, which he presumably hopes everyone will forget about.

When pressed on details about when the Coalition would restore the budget to surplus, he declined to offer any specifics, although he did admit to Malcolm Farr that there was a need to increase the single pension rate (which presumably doesn’t count as a cash splash). Indeed, his performance during the question period, when the Turnbull charm and wit can usually be relied on to shine, was poor as well. He spent several minutes circumnavigating Mark Riley’s question about Bronwyn Bishop’s attack on him, gave a ten-second reply to Matthew Franklin’s complex question about moderate-conservative tensions, and ducked Steve Lewis’s question about blocking supply or specific budget measures.

It was, all in all, a major lost opportunity, and you again have to wonder about the quality of Turnbull’s office. Their instinct to get on the front foot before the Budget was sound, but the implementation was terrible.

Or perhaps it was Turnbull himself. His day didn’t get any better when he had an ill-tempered interview with Kerry O’Brien on The 7.30 Report. Turnbull has a habit of sniping at and arguing with journalists when he thinks they’re asking the wrong questions, but last night’s stoush with Kerry O’Brien was the worst yet, with sarcastic exchanges, Turnbull’s insistence that O’Brien hadn’t read his speech, and complaints like “you keep talking and then I’ll have a go”.

Opposition Leaders can’t fight the press. It just doesn’t work. You have to neutralise them or get them on side. Shaping up to them and abusing them might feel good, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. Alternatively, this may be Malcolm Turnbull’s preferred means of rigorous debate. He might actually enjoy, and not take at all personally, the sort of running argument he had last night. But it looks terrible, especially the sarcasm, which is a huge turn-off with voters.

It didn’t help that, as often seems to be the case lately, the Opposition’s timing was poor. Right before Turnbull rose at the Press Club to say how futile the Government’s stimulus spending had been, out came data showing it had been very efficacious indeed in propping up retail spending, one of the biggest sectors for employment. Today’s unemployment figures will further reinforce the impression that, far from getting very little bang for its buck, the Government got exactly what it was aiming for.

Turnbull brushed off the figures and suggested most of the money had been saved. The argument looked less convincing than ever. As does his leadership.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey