This Isn’t Just A Budget, It’s An Election Promise

ANALYSIS: Scott Morrison is fighting for his political life with this Budget.

After weeks and months of damaging leaks, painful re-opening of old political wounds, and embarrassing parliamentary defeats, treasurer Josh Frydenberg is expected to announce Australia’s first Budget surplus in over a decade -- no small thing for a government that leans so heavily on its economic record.

Frydenberg will likely hand down the surplus that now-Prime Minister Scott Morrison always wanted to do when he was Treasurer. The Coalition will deliver a budget that treads a fine line between grasping a surplus -- an economic arrangement that has taken on almost mythical status in recent years in Australia’s fiscally conservative political arena -- and handing out a sprinkling, whether light or heavy, of election sweeteners.

Morrison wants a big budget boost. Photo: AAP

Because just days after Frydenberg will walk to the House of Representatives to deliver his first Budget, Morrison is expected to drive to Yarralumla and ask the Governor-General to call an election sometime in mid-May.

An intricate set of plans and arrangements, long-strategised, is about to start falling into place. An early Budget in the first week of April, four weeks before it's usually held, paves the way for an election to be held next month. The timing lets Morrison talk up his government’s new plan, have a few clear days plastered across newspaper front pages and TV screens, then before his detractors get much of a chance to scrutinise or even vote on any of those measures, he dissolves the parliament and takes Australia to the polls.

Because what’s happening on Tuesday isn’t actually a Budget. Not really. It’s an election promise, a policy platform, laid out on the eve of a sure-to-be-bitter campaign, announced to a parliament who won’t get a vote on it, making commitments for a parliament that hasn’t even been decided yet.

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“It’s not an economic document, it’s a political leaflet,” Labor leader Bill Shorten teased on Monday. Harsh but fair, perhaps, considering that the parliament won’t get much chance to even look at this Budget before the campaign is expected to kick off.

The Budget/leaflet will help set the terms of the election, staking out the ground the PM wants to fight this campaign on, and throwing down the challenge for Shorten to join him on the battlefield. This may be more like a campaign launch than a traditional Budget week.

As has been remarked by many, it’s a strange Budget in more ways than one -- the timing, for starters, but also the leaks and pre-Budget taster drops to the media.

That is, there haven’t really been many.

Frydenberg will probably get to hand down the surplus Morrison always wanted to. Photo: AAP

Apart from a few of Morrison’s signature “congestion-busting” infrastructure projects, the biggest ticket item we’ve been teased with so far is a one-off payment to pensioners and struggling families, spruiked as being for power bill relief.

Never mind that the benefit comes out to little more than a dollar a week for some recipients; or that it won’t filter down to those on unemployment benefits, some of the poorest in our society; or that, had the government simply got its act together sometime in the past few years and come up with a cohesive energy policy, any policy, which would have helped avoid spiking power prices, so the payment is basically the government papering over its own mistakes.

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We haven’t seen as much pre-Budget activity as we have in recent years, the theory goes, because the government wants to announce all its exciting plans in one big spectacular fireworks explosion on Tuesday. Announcing it all at once, rather than drip-feeding in the lead up weeks, means the parliament will have less chance to scrutinise or criticise it for the rest of the week -- then all of a sudden, it’s the weekend, and we’re off to the polls.

Morrison has done this a few times before. Photo: AAP

As for what to expect? Morrison and Frydenberg have been playing their cards close to their chests, simply pointing toward a surplus and hinting around tax cuts. There has been a dusting of health projects and funding, but with an election on the horizon and cash in their pockets, the government is looking to spend.

It’s not a bad bet to look forward to more tax cuts, road projects and sporting complexes in marginal electorates as the government tries to shore up its current crop of seats.

It wouldn’t surprise if there was even some relief specifically for older voters, landlords and energy companies. The government, with a strategy straight out of the Tony Abbott “carbon tax” playbook, has been decrying Labor’s “retiree tax” (clamping down on franking credits and cash refunds for retirees who don’t pay any tax to start with), the “housing tax” (cutting negative gearing concessions) and “energy tax” (action on climate change) -- and with Labor set to fight the election on environment and wealth distribution, the government could look to lock in the support of those groups by doling out cash while the opposition is looking to claw some back.

The government is hoping Tuesday will be a good day. They’re hoping it will get them off on the right foot for a generation-defining election campaign. They’ve been setting up these dominoes for some time now, and this week, they’re about to set them off.

If it’s not the splash they’re hoping for, it could be the last significant thing Morrison does as PM.