Maybe Malcolm Turnbull has realised there’s only one thing worse than losing the Opposition leadership and that’s keeping it. He asked a total of seven questions during four Question Times and looked bored and distracted throughout the week.

Maybe the endless repetition of questions about Evesham Primary School, each one met with stonewalling by Julia Gillard and a lesson on how the Government supports jobs and the Opposition doesn’t, wasn’t quite the big picture stuff that Turnbull imagined when he entered politics with such high drama five years ago.

Perhaps it’s exasperation at the Opposition tactics committee, which made some eccentric calls this week, such as spending Monday and Tuesday concentrating as much or more on Lindsay Tanner as Julia Gillard, who eventually racked up 22 questions, most on Wednesday and Thursday.

Maybe it was Joe Hockey’s series of brain explosions, including slagging off the G20 and Barack Obama, declaring he wanted to cut spending to below a maximum or emergency level of 24% of GDP, which meant he’d be looking for $40b+ in spending cuts, or telling a press conference on unemployment numbers that it was better to have low interest rates than get people into jobs.

Opposition is tough enough without giving a rampant Government ammunition like that.

Because the Press Gallery and the Opposition are still mired in the non-debate about whether it is time to withdraw the stimulus, what has been missed is that the Government is subtly repositioning itself on economics. If Malcolm Turnbull isn’t careful, he’s going to find himself outflanked on the Right by Kevin Rudd.

The working thesis of most commentators and, one suspects, the Opposition, is that the narrative the Government will take to the next election will be that its high levels of spending and debt have been a necessary response to the global recession, but that the Government has a plan for returning to surplus.

It’s a narrative the Opposition is comfortable with, because, given the circumstances, they don’t have much else and it plays to the traditional idea of the Coalition as the fiscal disciplinarians. Plucking essentially meaningless but symbolically useful images of poor state government administration of the stimulus funding complements this perfectly.

But this is a Government that doesn’t stand still for a moment. You can bet Rudd and his brains trust are already thinking about how to take advantage of the fact that the downturn has been far milder here than elsewhere. And Rudd is now emphasizing once again that he is an economic conservative a phrase that briefly dropped out of his lexicon when the global economic crisis hit and that the Government should withdraw as the private sector recovers.

Conventional wisdom is that Governments need handout budgets before elections. But that thinking is now utterly obsolete. It was obsolete when the Howard Government tried it in 2007. It’s obsolete for several reasons. Voters have wised up to being bribed with their own money. The commentariat has worked out that the idea of a polling budget bounce” doesn’t really stack up. And the media cycle is now so fast that Budgets barely last a day or two before disappearing beneath the waves of trivia and drivel that makes up most of our media coverage. By the time the Shadow Treasurer rises at the National Press Club a week after the Budget to respond, it’s a case of what budget?

The new black is austerity. Rudd encapsulated it in his campaign speech in November 2007 when he declared that reckless spending must stop. And you can bet that, once the recovery takes hold, he’ll be dead keen to get back to the same rhetoric.

That’s why he quietly changed his rhetoric about a double dissolution election last night. The new consensus, which took hold a month or two ago, is that Rudd wouldn’t go to an election over the ETS bill. Last night he subtly changed tack on the Senate’s refusal to pass the private health insurance rebate means-testing bill. He wants to serve a full term, of course, he said on The 7.30 Report, but returning the budget to surplus is a serious matter and this legislation will be back in the Senate by year’s end.”

This is just Rudd messing with Opposition minds on the idea of a double dissolution but watch the commentators start recalibrating their Will He/Won’t He matrix.

Rudd’s real goal is to paint Labor as improbably, given the stimulus package the party of fiscal discipline while the Opposition opposes spending reductions. It contradicts the whole Rudd “neo-liberal” critique but he won’t be worried about that. The private health insurance bill is the perfect weapon to this end, and Rudd will be happy to focus double-dissolution attention on it because it will help spread the message that the Opposition the party allegedly of 24% of GDP expenditure is blocking a major reduction in expenditure. Lindsay Tanner summed this message up yesterday when he said Joe Hockey’s talk of big cuts was hot air and the Liberals would be found out come the election.

Traditional political theory says trying to underspend your way to victory doesn’t work, but like the Budget bounce idea, that’s now history. And the 2010 Budget preparations for which will start in six or seven weeks time will provide an opportunity for the Government to bowl up several more expenditure cuts, almost certainly targeted at high-income earners, that the Opposition will baulk at, handing Rudd, Lindsay Tanner and Wayne Swan yet another opportunity to lament the irresponsible profligacy of the Liberals.

Turnbull might want to snap out of his funk and start thinking about ways to counter this. He’ll have to do it by himself. It doesn’t look like he’s got much intellectual support or political smarts in his party.