Joe Hockey is less turgid, less nervous and less robotic than his predecessor Wayne Swan. There’s just one thing missing when he faces the traditional Treasurer’s budget press conference: a grand message to sell about the future of Australia. A big-talking new government may be in town, but its first budget is more of a whimper than a bang. And doesn’t Hockey know it.

This press conference is one of the most important of his career. It happens during the budget lock-up, and the cream of the country’s journalists herd in — in the third row, Tony Wright, David Speers and Laurie Oakes sit cheek-by-jowl (Michelle Grattan arrives too late to join them and has to pass by in search of a seat). This is freshman Hockey’s opportunity to sell his budget.

Hockey, framed by four Australian flags with a calming blue background, is at ease, almost casual. Instead of the long sales pitch and the boring slides, he gives an express summary with bits of slang: this is a “contribute and build” budget, Australians have been asked to “pay it forward” to get the budget back in the black. But what Hockey knows, and what all the media knows, is that this is not the harsh emergency budget we were threatened with. Yes, it has some tough measures, but it’s a bit of a fizzer. It does not slash spending.

“Yes, we could have gone harder,” Hockey almost apologises; he says with the economy growing below trend, deeper cuts would have hurt growth (that’s not something the Coalition had explained to voters before). “This is the first word, this is not the last word on budget repair,” he says.

There may be dozens of cameras here and it’s standing room only, but the press conference feels flat, as if the journalists aren’t sure what matters or what happened to the slash-and-burn rhetoric. Old hand Phil Coorey from The Australian Financial Review gets in first with a counter-intuitive question about why corporates have got off so lightly (if the Fin’s saying that, it must be true). It’s the corporates that employ people, Hockey replies.

As Oakes takes beautiful notes in longhand in a notebook (not for this gallery elder the laptops and iPads flickering around him), The Australian’s David Crowe asks when promised tax cuts are coming. Hockey goes for the easiest answer in his book: wait for the tax white paper. Crowe tries for a cheeky second question, but he’s pipped by gum-chewing larrikin Andrew “Probes” Probyn from The West Australian, who wants to know about cuts to schools funding. Probes needles Hockey but gets little back.

AAP’s Paul Osborne has fire in his belly, shooting off a question about how royal commissions help the economy. Good question, Paul! Good governance helps the economy, is Hockey’s feeble response. Points to AAP.

Lenore Taylor from The Guardian comes out with a cracker: why should people pay $7 to visit the GP to pay for medical cures? Hockey does his neo-liberal spiel: we must learn to take some responsibility for our own healthcare, and apparently we’re all so into “cure and discovery”. Tell that to the low-income people in the GP’s waiting room, Joe.

Hockey bats aside a question from Denis Atkinson on pensions  — “no, Denis, that’s wrong” — before facing a good one. What about these promises you’re breaking on things like “no new taxes”? Hockey’s tried all sorts of contortions on this question. Today’s version is that his government is taxing less than Labor. The question is asked again, by Tim Lester, who gets a telling-off for interrupting. “Let me answer the question,” Hockey raps out, before not answering the question (we were elected mainly to fix the budget, etc, etc).

News Corp’s Sam Maiden has been waving for a question for a while, and finally gets it — on the $7 GP fee — then it’s the turn of the ABC’s bespectacled Tim Iggulden, which Hockey handles by droning on about Labor.

Age veteran Tony Wright fires up with a typically astute question about Australians being “lifters, not leaners”; the unemployed will be left with nothing to lean on, Wright points out. Hockey deflects it by citing a model family that would not be hard hit by his draconian dole changes, then wheels out his old fave — we must address the “culture of entitlement”.

“Last question!” barks Hockey’s staffer, an ex-Sky presenter lurking by the door. Tom Burton from Crikey’s sister publication The Mandarin nabs the prize in an impressive effort from the back row, asking how much the Commission of Audit affected this budget. Oakes doesn’t care about the answer; he’s up and off, as Hockey’s staffer places a cordial hand of farewell on his shoulder (as if that will make a lick of difference to Laurie). Hockey relies on the old argument that the CoA was “one input”, adding that some of it was “unimplementable” (take that, Tony Shepherd).

And with that, Hockey strides off, and the press pack, rather underwhelmed and longing for a drink, race back to file.