Isn’t it peculiar how economic debates shift without us noticing — or perhaps with people hoping we won’t notice.

It was as recently as March that Malcolm Turnbull was saying that the Government’s stimulus packages had failed, declaring there had been very little bang for our bucks. The poor man’s Mark Latham, Michael Costa, was still running the same line in May.

As evidence began to mount up, first in retail sales and construction, then in the unexpectedly slow rise in unemployment, and finally in GDP numbers, that the slowdown was much milder than expected, the debate switched — briefly — to attempts to find alternative explanations. It was all exports, said the Opposition, a view enthusiastically endorsed by Michael Stutchbury, The Australian’s economics editor, who back in December had actually urged people to save their stimulus payments.

Now we’ve moved on. The new issue is whether things are going well enough that the Government could actually ease off on the stimulus package. After all, the second stage of the stimulus package aimed at smaller-scale school and housing infrastructure is only just rolling out; the third — larger scale infrastructure — is yet to really get moving. Is it time to declare victory and go home? Malcolm Farr raised the issue Saturday before last. The Treasurer’s response was to “issue one polite request — let’s wait a while to see how the growth picture pans out before we start jumping to final conclusions about where we’ll finish up.”

Undaunted, Stutchbury issued a ukase: “Time to wind back the stimulus”. Joe Hockey joined in, suggesting some of the stimulus spending be “clawed back“.

The Treasurer held the line yesterday in his economic note. “To withdraw or dilute this vital support for Australian businesses and jobs now would be utterly irresponsible,” he said, using a beloved phrase. “Until we see how the global recession unfolds, it’s far too early to be making pronouncements about the future path of the Australian economy, or to be moving away from the policy settings that have served us well so far.”

Economist John Quiggin takes a different view. Today he called for a further stimulus package, aimed squarely at the unemployed, as part of an ACTU push for more direct employment creation. Quiggin’s concern — and I’m simplifying here — is that a return to employment growth will inevitably lag a return to output growth and we risk repeating the sluggish employment growth of the nineties recovery. And direct job creation is the best means of supporting the unemployed.

Regardless of its merits, a further stimulus package won’t happen, not unless there’s some new round of 2008-style economic turmoil. The Government’s story on its handling of the economic crisis has been set for a while — rapid moves to stabilise the financial system, international cooperation, much greater support for training, and a three-stage stimulus package designed to shore up the collapse in demand and then provide long-term support for jobs. The Government has been repeatedly criticised for failing to boost unemployment benefits, although, at the behest of the Greens, it loosened conditions for access to payments.

The evidence shows its approach is working. We’re well ahead of other developed economies and where we thought we would be by now. A further stimulus package would contradict the Government’s story fairly comprehensively.

It would — despite there being plenty of room to increase debt without troubling investors or ratings agencies — also send the budget further into deficit, and the Government won’t be keen to give any encouragement to Opposition’s debt campaign which, when they’re not allowing themselves to be distracted from fake emails, is the only thing Malcolm Turnbull has going for him. In fact, with unemployment increasing more slowly than expected and some commodities prices still at historic highs, the Government might be hoping against hope it can bring in a deficit this year significantly lower than the $53b forecast. A deficit with a four in front of it would, in the event we don’t go to an election before late next year, be an effective “expectations management” counter to Turnbull’s debt truck, by indicating a faster-than-expected return to surplus.

But for a Government that likes to boast of being ahead of the curve, the issue of how to manage the remaining components of the stimulus package should remain a live one, particularly if the clichéd green shoots of growth start to spread rapidly. The biggest threat might be the ongoing lack of a decent recovery in Europe and the US, which might yet drag us back into negative growth in the transition from the short-term, retail/construction stimulus impact to the longer-term infrastructure investment effects. And as Quiggin notes, the experience of the nineties shows that entrenched unemployment can be painfully difficult to fix.

But then there’s China which, for all the Australian hostages it seizes, is still proving a bonanza for our resources companies.

To curb spending while unemployment is still rising would be counter-intuitive, but the Government didn’t wait for a substantial rise in joblessness before acting to stimulate the economy. It’s another finely-balanced judgement call for Treasury, who, along with their colleagues at the Reserve Bank, have managed to make the right calls so far. But if they urge restraint, the Government may not be so willing to listen as they were last year.