Malcolm Turnbull’s Budget reply speech was solid, without really providing the sort of cut-through that he needed. There were no compelling ideas or bold initiatives, nor even a circuit-breaking gimmick like Nelson’s petrol excise move. What we got was more of the same — well-presented, but without any particular change in approach.

Turnbull certainly spoke well enough. When Brendan Nelson finished his reply speech last year, he turned and looked at his frontbench like the kid who had just passed a big exam, with a big smile of relief. Not Turnbull, who took in the applause of his troops as his appropriate entitlement, after a strong performance at the Dispatch Box. He ditched the sarcasm, personal mockery and classical imagery of late and settled for serving it up to Labor as the perennial creators of fiscal disasters that the Coalition had to fix up. But like Nelson, he seemed to have trouble filling out his 30 minutes; the final third of Nelson’s speech drifted off into a hazy vision of the Liberals and Australia, and Turnbull had to tread water near the end when he found he’d got through his speech a bit quicker than planned.

As for the content, well, there wasn’t much. Turnbull re-announced his plan for small business tax carrybacks and re-announced proposals to change bankruptcy laws, an idea particularly favoured by Turnbull that remains vulnerable to a Government scare campaign about the impact on non-bank creditors (how will small businesses react to being told a collapsed company that owes them money is being allowed to “reconstruct itself” rather than pay them anything?). And he again spoke about cutting red tape and an online small business portal. He also proposed a rephasing of assistance to employers for apprentices.

“Modest” proposals, Turnbull called them, rightly.

He also proposed a “Commission of Sustainable Finances” after a Coalition election win which, like the business portal, is a rehash of a Howard Government idea — Peter Costello had Bob Officer conduct a National Commission of Audit in the Coalition’s first term, which produced some good and some not-so-good fiscal, governance and privatisation ideas.

The only new idea was an Australian version of a Congressional Budget Office, answering to Parliament. That’s not a bad idea at all, and I can already see the immense annoyance such a body would cause to a future Government. Imagine if Paul Keating or Peter Costello had been second-guessed, corrected and constantly scrutinised by a genuinely independent group of fiscal gurus.

And, finally, there was the binge smoking measure of the increase in tobacco excise. Cigs up, at last. While changing excise rates does not, in the Coalition’s view, change anyone’s drinking habits, clearly it feels increasing tobacco excise will help reduce smoking rates — or at the very least, replace the savings generated by the private health insurance rebate.

A bit hard on lower-income earners, who make up most smokers. And if the Coalition thinks “tobacco is the single most preventible [sic] cause of ill health and death in Australia”, perhaps it should stop taking donations from tobacco companies. Still, Turnbull was brave — courageous, perhaps — to use his Budget Reply to urge a tax rise. Bronwyn Bishop, who now seems to be publicly and unashamedly working to undermine her leader, immediately declared she didn’t support it. And Turnbull risks adding to his “Dr No” reputation by emphasising he will block the private health insurance changes. If the Coalition ends up deciding to block any of the other savings measures, they will only confirm the growing perception that all they do is oppose, ensuring more voters switch off.

But more seriously, Turnbull didn’t move the debate forward on the deficit. Half of his argument about deficit and debt is still to say he wouldn’t have got into this sort of deficit in the first place. It’s like that Irish joke about asking for directions and being told “I wouldn’t start from here.”

It’s not a position he can take to the next election or, really, one he can sustain for much longer. One of the successes of Kevin Rudd’s Opposition leadership was his realisation that not merely did he have to pick and choose where he fought the Howard Government, but once he decided to fight, he needed to bring something positive to the battle. Turnbull rightly understands that the deficit is a potentially valuable issue for him, but he has yet to offer something positive and simple on the issue. Until he does, he won’t be able to tap into Australians’ reflexive worry about debt and channel it into support.

There are some other contrasts with Nelson’s effort last year. Turnbull got a much better roll-up in the Press Gallery, but for some reason the Coalition failed to fill one of the public galleries. Worse, one bunch of Young Liberals, dressed up for the dinner afterwards, rolled in late, like they’d lingered too long over cocktails.

And while Nelson stayed to shake every hand of every colleague until the chamber was virtually empty, Turnbull accepted a few and then headed out smartly. Peter Costello left in the other direction, avoiding any possibility of giving even a pro forma pat on the back to his leader.

Oh, on an unrelated note — one final call as the 2009 Budget draws to a close (Joe Hockey’s address to the National Press Club will complete things next Wednesday). Last year I noticed Laura Tingle was one of the few Gallery journalists getting accurate pre-Budget information from outside the Government’s carefully-orchestrated leaking system. It’s been the same this year. And her commentary and analysis has been excellent. In particular, today’s “Canberra Observed” is — apart from a too-early call on the Coalition’s stance on PHI — by itself worth the $20 or whatever an issue of the Fin costs these days.

Peter Fray

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