It was a taste of what may be in store if Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan are out of Australia at the same time.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy faced his first question time as the government's leader in the Senate on Tuesday.

He fills the shoes of Senator Chris Evans, who has resigned from the position and from the Labor ministry ahead of his retirement from politics at this year's election.

Coalition Senate leader Eric Abetz complimented Senator Evans, saying his good nature would save the Labor back bench from resembling the balcony shared by the old hecklers Statler and Waldorf on The Muppet Show.

The opposition congratulated Senator Conroy and Finance Minister Penny Wong, who becomes deputy Senate leader.

But Liberal frontbencher George Brandis pointed out that Senator Conroy, as the third most senior member of the government, was now within cooee of being acting prime minister.

"I'm sure on behalf of all senators, expressing the profound hope between now and September 14, (that) Ms Gillard and Mr Swan don't find themselves overseas at the same time," Senator Brandis said to laughter around the chamber.

Senator Conroy, a Collingwood Magpies supporter who once butchered his team's victory song on national television, said he was sure the whole country felt the same way.

He fielded the first three questions of Senate question time, including a Dorothy Dixer from his own side.

Gesturing wildly at times, Senator Conroy defended Mr Swan's decision to ditch the 2012/13 budget surplus.

A Labor question about the government's school kids' bonus saw him consulting notes on his laptop.

"If we turn off the computer his mind will go blank," Liberal senator Bill Heffernan quipped.

In the wake of his promotion Senator Conroy homed in on Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos, who is Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's parliamentary secretary.

"They can't find a place on their front bench for the one person ... who actually knows something about economic matters, Senator Sinodinos," Senator Conroy said.

But after Senator Conroy called Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce a "charlatan" for asking a question about the gross national debt, the glow faded.

Opposition senators interjected, telling Senator Conroy to start "acting like a leader".