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ANALYSIS

The real Malcolm: agile or fragile?

The clock is ticking. Increasingly, people are asking where is the Turnbull government's vision.

 It was a media blitz with a twist. In the space of 24 hours, Scott Morrison was everywhere: delivering his first address to the National Press Club as Treasurer; appearing on the ABC's 7.30 and then AM; taking questions from Sunrise and Today on commercial TV; jousting with Alan Jones.

Problem was, he had nothing new to say. Absolutely nothing, from the moment he took the podium at the Press Club to the cheery sign-offs after combative interviews with David Koch on Seven and Lisa Wilkinson on Nine.

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It all began with a meandering anecdote that ran for more than 500 words about a mate from Texas named Clay, who is in sales and who opens every conversation with a client with the words: "How can I help you win today?"

This was Morrison's folksy way of saying his job was to ask the same question of the electorate. Jones, for one, was unconvinced. "What on earth was it about?" he asked of the speech on Sydney's 2GB.

Paul Keating used to call Howard government minister Peter Reith "Toltoy", after those inflatable, sand-bottomed toys that kids used to use as punching bags. "You knock 'em down and they bounce back up," he'd say.

Australian politics has a new Toltoy and his nickname is Sco-Mo. This wasn't an exercise in promoting the Coalition's economic message. It was self-flagellation, pure and simple, on multiple platforms.

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Not so long ago, when Labor was in power and he was the Coalition's immigration spokesman, Morrison relished the hard-man role of ridiculing, undermining and mocking Chris Bowen as immigration minister, even when Labor was reintroducing Coalition policies to stop the boats with the stated aim of preventing deaths at sea.

Now the positions are reversed. Morrison is a Treasurer on training wheels and Bowen, his shadow, is on a mission. Of the Press Club performance, Bowen said: "After more than two-and-a-half years in government, after more than five months as Treasurer, today we got 46 minutes of waffle, slogans and platitudes from Scott Morrison."

Then Bowen nailed it. The address and follow-up interviews would have made sense if Morrison was unveiling the promised "tax system for the 21st century", with a hike in the GST as the centrepiece. But not now.

With the GST finally off the table, this was an exercise in lowering expectations. All Morrison could say was: "The scope for tax reform is limited in this economy."

Two weeks before he was deposed, Tony Abbott was promising to take "have-a-go" income tax cuts to the election, to address the impact of bracket creep and reward hard work.

Now, after five months of new economic leadership, the best Morrison can do is talk about "modest" potential to deal with future bracket creep and hint that changes to superannuation concessions for the rich will be announced sooner rather than later.

Turnbull needs to be mindful of how quickly political capital can disappear if it is not wisely spent.

The contrast is with a Labor Party that has announced bold commitments to pare back negative gearing and capital gains tax, on top of an increased tobacco tax, tighter superannuation tax concessions and a crackdown on multinational tax avoidance.

Morrison has branded Labor's planned negative gearing changes a "unicorn", whatever that means, but the policy has drawn praise from the Grattan Institute's John Daley, among others, who told me: "It's not perfect, but it's a lot better than where we are at the moment."

To the Coalition complaint that the policy will distort the housing market, Daley says any tax change involves a transition period. "What is important is that you get to a much better position in the medium run," he says.

The policy is susceptible to Turnbull's "every home-owner has a lot to fear" scare campaign, but it is a case of Labor leader Bill Shorten having the courage to back his shadow treasurer, the architect of the policy.

In the meantime, Malcolm Turnbull and Morrison assert that they have been methodically assessing the merits of all reform options and there remains quiet confidence in the Prime Minister's inner sanctum that they will end up with something substantial for the country's best political communicator to sell.

But the impression for many in the electorate has been one of indecision and drift – and the danger is that this perception will become more entrenched in the lead-up to the May budget and be reflected in the polls.

The frustration was summed up neatly by 3AW's Neil Mitchell when the Morrison media blitz continued on Friday: "I'm looking for that bloody vision that was promised five months ago and still hasn't appeared!"

This, combined with a sense of disappointment among Turnbull supporters that he hasn't (in their eyes) shown his true colours on climate change or refugees detained on Manus Island and Nauru, explains why Turnbull has lost some of his gloss.

But not too much. This week's Fairfax Ipsos poll showed the Coalition's lead over Labor has tightened to 52-48 in two-party terms and Turnbull's net approval rating lead over Shorten had narrowed from 81 points to a still whopping 63. Remember, they were trailing Labor 44-56 before Abbott was toppled.

Pollster John Stirton says an analysis of all polls shows the government has lost 1.1 percentage points on the two-party vote and 1 point on its primary vote since November, with Turnbull's net satisfaction rating dropping about 15 points from its November highs.

"I think the polling is a reflection of hope meeting reality," says Stirton. "Hope in the community for something better versus the reality of a Prime Minister torn between where he wants to go and where his party wants him to go."

Now there is renewed speculation that Turnbull might yet call a snap July election the day after the budget, rather than risk Coalition support ebbing away until an election is held in September or October. It's implausible, not least because it will take longer than 24 hours to assess how well the budget has been received.

Turnbull's predicament was captured in the metaphor Morrison used to conclude his Press Club address, when he talked about the "long road" ahead. "This is a Test match, not Twenty20 Big Bash," he declared.

Yes, Turnbull does need to play the long game, and deploy what Morrison calls "Test match patience" and "Test match tactics". But he also needs to be mindful of how quickly political capital can disappear if it is not wisely spent.

Whether or not he succumbs to the temptation to go early, the next three months loom as a critical period in Turnbull's prime ministership, one that will reveal whether the Prime Minister is agile or fragile.

Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.

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