Malcolm Turnbull needs to give a stirring performance tonight in his Budget Reply. Not particularly for the sake of his leadership, although that could do with some bolstering, but more for the sake of the Opposition as a whole. It won’t be easy. Already the Budget is dropping out of the media cycle, with no particular positives or negatives for the Government. Turnbull will have to compete with rugby league’s penchant for group sex for attention.

But, if we want to stick with the sporting thing for a moment, this is about converting pressure into points. The Liberals have slowly become a one-issue party economically: it’s been all about debt and deficits for months. There’s no turning back on that and one suspects the highly self-assured Turnbull doesn’t do Damascene conversions very well.

The ALP’s polling momentum seems to have peaked — although that peak has been called half a dozen times since December 2006 — and maybe voters are starting to worry about the sheer size of the numbers being thrown around by the Government. Tonight needs to be about finding a way of crystallizing that concern — even if only in a pithy phrase — but avoiding the Government’s trap of appearing to contribute to the deficit by opposing savings measures. Turnbull also needs to throw off the mantle of Dr No and offer some positives.

Then there’s the problem of the Liberals’ support base. Big business is fleeing, convinced the Government understands its needs better than the natural party of the corporate sector, even if they resent the Government’s IR changes. Pensioners are being wooed away by Labor’s pension increases. Only small business remains onside, although the Government threw some more tax relief their way on Tuesday. Expect Turnbull to announce more for what he’ll call job-generating machine of the economy.

His broader task, though, is for relevance. The Liberals keep finding ways to sideline themselves from crucial debates. When you don’t believe the Government should be spending anything, it’s hard to argue with how it is spending. And the constant naysaying means voters tune out. Turnbull needs to get back in the spotlight and re-engage voters’ attention.

Last year Brendan Nelson did it with his petrol excise proposal, a remarkably bad policy — as Turnbull himself made clear — that nevertheless shifted the debate away from where the Government was comfortable. Turnbull needs a similar approach this year to get some attention, to get people thinking of him as the alternative Prime Minister, not just the leader of the Opposition.

At least Turnbull is well-equipped for the task. One of the weaknesses of the Budget is the complexity of the messages it offered and Turnbull is better-equipped than anyone else in his party to dissect that complexity and with a cutting phrase or three — inevitably cheered on by a Public Gallery packed with Liberal supporters — show its flaws. With an even a little substance, Turnbull can provide the style, and he gets half an hour to do it. If nothing else, at least Turnbull is about the only MP who can make a long speech entertaining.

Still, the signs aren’t promising. Yesterday’s Question Time was singularly lacking in bite.

If the Coalition had the courage of its ideological convictions, it should have been greeting a $53b deficit with howls of fury about the betrayal of future generations. $53.1b is the correct accrual deficit, by the way, not the misleading $57.6b cash figure, although if you want the biggest possible figure, you can use the “headline cash balance” figure of $59.8b, which would have yielded a nice “Sixty Billion Dollar Man” cartoon instead of Wolverine and Frankenstein’s monster (too obscure? Too seventies? Maybe).

Where was the outrage from the Opposition?

The debt truck — that “fully-imported lorry of lies” from the early nineties — should have been hauled from the junkyard and revved up again. Small children should have been ushered in front of cameras to lament being given thousands of dollars of debt for nothing. But instead, yesterday, we had the usual Question Time: Prime Ministerial droning, albeit enlivened by an elaborate WW1 metaphor, Lindsay Tanner mocking Helen “FBI” Coonan and Anthony Albanese unveiling the new website of the Member for Higgins.

On the Coalition side, Wilson Tuckey made lots of points of order. Someone should be employed specifically to keep Tuckey in the Member’s Dining Room with a good bottle of WA red after lunch is finished and make sure he never gets to Question Time.

Peter Fray

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