Surplus circus serves a purpose, on the surface.
Labor’s recovery plan is simple and unexciting: delivering an unlikely Budget surplus.
Yet with a primary vote languishing in the mid-to-high 20 per cent range, this rather abstract financial goal is now the whole game - the political rock around which all else will be anchored.
The strategy assumes two inter-related things: first that Ms Gillard can hang on to the leadership and second, that an election is still 16 to 18 months away.
Belief in the leader and in the timetable is fundamental. The PM’s advisers know that ensuring caucus members remain convinced of both is their first challenge. And it is no small trick, potentially facing derailment with every crisis that comes along.
Already there are reports of key backers walking away and of others preparing to do so. Her former close confidant, key number counter and current Chief Whip Joel Fitzgibbon is the latest and most symbolic departure.
There is no disputing it has been a horror-week for the Prime Minister since she returned from abroad to take control of the unravelling scandals dragging her government down.
After years of defending her besieged backbencher MP Craig Thomson against unsubstantiated claims of credit card abuse as a union official, she has finally cut him adrift. It was a belated recognition that her prime ministerial shield amounted to guilt by association.
Lancing the other boil made sense as well which is why she forced Peter Slipper’s hand.
Importantly both men get to keep their jobs which in the Speaker’s case allows him to pocket a $323,000 salary merely for kicking gravel around on the parliamentary driveway.
As another about-face it did not come cheap for Ms Gillard bringing renewed criticism of her judgment and consistency.
But it pre-empted by just days police investigations into both Mr Thomson’s former union and Mr Slipper’s Cabcharge usage.
It was a rare piece of good fortune even if the real aim was to clear the decks for this Budget.
Never has so much hinged on the naked symbolism of getting to surplus rather than falling just short. Economically the difference means little but this is a self-imposed political benchmark and not an unimportant one.
In a strange reversal of stereotypes, economists and business leaders normally as wedded to surpluses as to labour-market flexibility, have been cautioning against a rushed return to balance for fear of exacerbating the forces pressing down on growth.
From the left, the Greens and independents have also questioned the impacts of a sharp fiscal consolidation.
Yet Labor has stuck to its guns and will outline a projected surplus for 2012-13.
Already the first dividend of this approach has been paid courtesy of this week’s cash rate cut of half a percentage point. More will likely follow.
The plan is to achieve the holy grail of low interest rates, low unemployment and low inflation while running a balanced Budget.
And it could work. According to Labor’s focus group testing, voters rate the idea of a surplus.
What they do not rate so highly are unprovable claims of recessions dodged and glowing international comparisons. In other words, Labor’s entire and largely ineffective argument to now.
It is a political lesson that has been hard-won.
Having spent the accumulated billions in stimulus after coming to power, Labor is exposed to the Opposition charge that it has never delivered a surplus.
It has created a compound problem in voterland described by Ms Gillard’s insiders as “a counter-intuitive on top of a counter factual’‘.
The counter-intuitive is the Keynesian part - the idea of spending your way out of economic difficulty. That it works for economies is one thing but it is the opposite of people’s personal experience. So Labor got no ticks when it did this whatever its effectiveness.
Then came the claim that the Government had saved people from job losses which by definition they never experienced. The counter-factual.
It is a recognition that has driven a new focus on the domestic economy and the lived experience of voters.
Julia Gillard knows the path to victory is narrow, but she believes it is there. She can afford no more slips along the way.
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