Will this be an election budget?
That’s the question raising a buzz in the corridors of Parliament House ahead of Treasurer Joe Hockey’s second budget next Tuesday.
The Abbott government’s first budget was as popular as the plague and a ragged sales pitch almost led to the toppling of the Prime Minister in a party room meeting in February.
Tony Abbott’s personal ratings in the polls have slightly recovered in recent weeks as he promises a “dull” budget.
“This year’s budget will be responsible, measured and fair. Its focus will be jobs, growth and opportunity,” the Prime Minister said.
While focusing on repairing Labor’s debt and deficit, Mr Abbott also plans to cut costs for business, help industry take advantage of new trade deals, get more women into work, reduce taxes and roll out more infrastructure.
It’s a much less politically-charged agenda than the 2014 budget fare of university deregulation, reduced pension spending, cutting off the dole to young unemployed and imposing a Medicare co-payment.
Mr Abbott points to the creation of 4000 jobs a week on average, strong retail sales, rising housing approvals and record levels of new company registrations as evidence of an economy on track.
But the challenges are many.
The collapse in the iron ore price alone has led a wipe-out of $30 billion in revenue over four years.
The government’s latest intergenerational report paints a grim picture, if a business-as-usual approach is taken to spending.
The prospect of an early election may require Bill Shorten to lay out a more comprehensive manifesto in his budget reply than the usual bland lines from opposition leaders.
Labor will be examining the budget papers for evidence of unfairness, hits to pensioners and long-term scaling back of funding for education and health.
The Coalition’s nationwide vote remains about six points down from its position at the 2013 federal election, but recent polls have put it ahead of Labor in NSW and in a competitive position in Queensland and Western Australia.
Well-received packages for families and small business, as well as forcing the well-off to share the budget burden, may be enough to convince Liberal strategists to consider pulling the double-dissolution trigger.
There are many risks, however.
They include breaking a promise to run full term, and winning over the independents and minor parties on the Senate crossbench.