One of the more consistent and accurate criticisms levelled by the government at the opposition has been about Tony Abbott’s negativity and lack of interest in policy, particularly in question time, which last year become a rather banal procession of muckraking, invented scare stories about the carbon price and suspension motions so frequent that betting pools were set up for the time they’d happen.

Behind that approach was Labor’s conviction that if Abbott did switch his focus to policy, his weakness would be revealed and Labor’s strength demonstrated.

Yesterday in question time there was no muckraking, no MPs using coward’s castle to call the Prime Minister a “crook” or “corrupt”, no smearing of her. Instead there was, shock horror, policy; 11 straight questions about policy — on the budget surplus, principally, but one each as well on superannuation and the NBN (from Malcolm Turnbull, a rare contributor to question time).

The result was a government that looked decidedly bereft of inspiration. The Coalition enjoyed its best question time in some time. Part of its enjoyment came from a decidedly poorly-thought through piece of political literature from Labor — newsletters dispatched to voters boasting that it had “delivered” a surplus, the sort of claim that wasn’t accurate even after last year’s budget and which of course now looks embarrassing in light of the Treasurer’s retreat from the surplus commitment in December.

The government may still produce a surplus this year, of course, but at the moment its rhetoric is that it has focused on jobs and responded to changing circumstances, rather than sticking to its commitment.

And no one in the Coalition’s ranks enjoyed the government’s discomfort more than Joe Hockey, who asked three questions and presented a giant pile of paper composed, he said, of the several hundred occasions on which Labor had committed to a surplus. Nor were the questions simple gotchas (well, not all of them); Hockey made the point that the government’s argument that revenue had collapsed more dramatically than predicted after the GFC wasn’t necessarily borne out by past budget papers.

The response from the Prime Minister and the Treasurer was an unusual level of bluster and evasion. Then again, there’s nowhere for them to go on the surplus issue: they themselves made sure of that with their endlessly repeated insistence that they’d deliver one. 

Hockey also adeptly used Bob Hawke’s presence in the chamber as grist to the surplus mill. Bob was the last Labor PM to deliver a surplus, he cheerfully observed. It was, all in all, a good day at the office for Hockey.

One wonders if, having found it more effective than either side might have expected, the Coalition will make a habit of actually focusing on policy.

One more thing: when Hawke eventually left, he observed standing orders for MPs and bowed to the Speaker — giving a slow and grave bow from near the main doors, almost unnoticed. One suspects it was a final acknowledgement from an old warrior to the arena in which he’d made his mark.