Not since a desperate Julia Gillard announced the date of the 2013 election eight months in advance, has a government so brazenly telegraphed its strategy.
Scott Morrison’s announcement of an early budget on April 2 next year, followed by a rush to the polls means the federal election will be held on either May 11 or May 18.
That the government chose to surrender what element of surprise it had left by locking in the timetable, underscores the desperation of its plight.
It could have left everyone guessing for a few months longer by eschewing a budget, normally held in May, and instead releasing an economic statement at a time of its choosing and then calling the election, as Labor did in 2013. This would leave it with an option of going earlier, in March.
An economic statement is effectively a mini-budget. Like a real budget, it would provide the latest forecasts, enabling Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to boast of an early return to surplus in 2019-20, and, like the budget, it could be used to unveil a range of big spending election bribes.
But so big is its task to be re-elected, the government is relying not just on the numbers to save it, but the ceremony.
As one government source explained, the hoopla and theatre that accompanies a federal budget would ensure the last thing the voters heard before an election was called was how good the economy was going and how much they were going to get.
There are several cautionary notes here.
For starters, Malcolm Turnbull and Morrison rushed to an election in 2016 on the back of an early and untested budget. Its curbs on superannuation tax lurks backfired and plagued it for the entire arduous eight-week election campaign with no opportunity to correct course.
Secondly, by having a formal budget, Bill Shorten gets his address-in-reply two days later on the Thursday night of budget week.
He not only gets the last word, every extra dollar the government unveils in the budget will also belong to Labor should it win government. If Morrison announces extra tax cuts, Labor can match them. It can even better them, given it proposes to raise another $280 billion in taxes over 10 years.
The biggest question mark over the whole strategy unveiled Tuesday is will the government even make it to May and, if it does, what sort of shape will it be in by then.
The budget announcement was supposed get everything back on track after the Victorian election debacle went through the federal Liberals like a dose of the salts.
Julie Bishop had broken ranks on climate change – and did so again on Tuesday – and Kelly O’Dwyer had told fellow Victorians the party had an image of being “homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers” thanks to the “ideological warriors” who had hijacked the party’s positions on social issues.
Morrison was in the process of trying to draw a line under Victoria when Julia Banks, at the very moment the Prime Minister was speaking, quit the Liberal party to join the crossbench and further weakened the Coalition’s hold on power. As he boasted of an early surplus, she increased his parliamentary deficit.
Banks cited her belief that the party treated women poorly and, like other Victorians, noted the creeping influence of “the reactionary and regressive right wing who talk about and talk to themselves, rather than listening to the people”.
And then, in the Senate, just to reinforce the perception, Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan made an alleged “appalling sexist slur” against the Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young.
Morrison’s grand plan to surge to victory in May on the back of superior economic management assumes – requires – this nonsense will stop.
It shows no sign of doing so. Discipline is collapsing and nothing is breaking its way.
If this mob had a duck, it would drown.
Good economy or not, no-one will re-elect a laughing stock.