In some important ways, this is the budget Wayne Swan might well have delivered last year - or perhaps even the year before that.

But the politics are awful. This budget feels more like one you hand down in the first year of a term than a year-three effort.  

It certainly is no traditional election budget replete with generous tax cuts, increased family payments and rosy forecasts of good times ahead.

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Dignity in the numbers: Hartcher

The government has resisted the urge for a cash splash ahead of the September election, showing dignity in the face of continued poor polling says political editor Perter Hartcher.

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To the extent that it recognises the looming electoral judgment, which is now precisely four months away, it is in the deferral of immediate loss and the amortisation of what pain there will be over future years, and, perhaps, stronger economic fundamentals.

There's a bit there too for big infrastructure projects in key political battlegrounds such as Melbourne and Sydney.

But the politics are awful. This budget feels more like one you hand down in the first year of a term than a year-three effort.

Wayne Swan.

Wayne Swan. Photo: Andrew Meares

Economically, it makes the right calls for the nation and even displays a certain deftness in places.

Take the decision to dump the highly controversial baby bonus on March 1, 2014. It means nobody who is pregnant now will lose out, assuming current eligibility - unless they manage a 9½ month gestation, that is.

Other savings measures were already known, such as planned carbon tax-related compensation tax cuts in 2015, when the price is supposed to float.

Or in the case of a promised boost to Family Tax Benefit (A), which was to flow from July 1 this year, the amounts are both relatively small, at up to $300 for families with one child and up to $600 for those with more, and yet to happen.

As Julia Gillard pointed out, the decision merely took away something people did not yet have.

The actual savings, which the budget papers total up to a staggering $43 billion over five years, do not really kick in before the election.

Indeed, an analysis of the impact of policy decisions on the budget shows the net benefit of all policy decisions over the forward estimates is $28.4 billion by 2016-17. The upward savings trajectory, however, does not begin its ascent until 2014-15.

In 2013-14, the net impact of policy decisions is, in fact, a shortfall of $286 million - that is, the ''saves'' as Treasury would have it are not initially enough to cover the ''spend'' .

But that said, the real tragedy of this budget is that it might be like Bill Hayden's corrective effort in 1975, in that it might be looked at rather more favourably when the government has been consigned to history than in any contemporaneous sense. And worse, some of its more logical decisions might be overturned for reasons of shallow political advantage.

By winding down middle-class welfare, through ending the baby bonus and limiting ongoing income eligibility through constant indexation of criteria, one of the two main parties has finally shown the grit to begin addressing a fiscally debilitating problem.

Joe Hockey rails against the age of entitlement, but his party has been worse than Labor on extending the financial dependence of households on the state - albeit, while also booking up huge surpluses. The Liberal Party spruiks the values of the individual, the principle that governments should only ever do for people what they are unable to do for themselves. Yet for the merest political edge, this principle is routinely ignored.

The debate in the shadow cabinet party-room promises to be an interesting one. Tony Abbott and his team face a choice between adopting the savings Labor has outlined, a position presumably Mr Hockey at least backs, or playing the voters off against the ALP.

Here we see the attempted wedge. Abbott's generous $150,000 a year cut-off for eligibility to his proposed paid parental leave scheme also happens to mirror the cut-off for the baby bonus, so he may have trouble supporting one and not the other.

As the last big set piece before the election, Labor MPs will be hoping this budget kick-starts a revival of sorts - if not towards total recovery, then at least in restoring the party's competitiveness.

Its other task is to obliterate public memories of the overly categorical commitment to a surplus made at this time in 2012.

Swan bristles at the suggestion that he should have known better.

He argues that no serious or credible economists picked the collapse in revenue sparked by the high dollar and the consequent dive of nominal GDP - where company profits have slumped and thus company tax receipts tumbled, too.

But this misses the point.

That the circumstances changed for the worse is beyond argument.

That they might have changed for the worse was always a possibility and one which Swan should have at least built in to his economic story.

Yet precisely because he had not delivered a surplus of his own due to the GFC, Swan fetishised the surplus idea, elevating it to the definitive marker of his own success or failure.

Swan's judgment now, having endured his year of living embarrassingly, and having lectured all and sundry on what actually happened and why - and why it was not his fault - seems to be to go with substance.

His calculation now is the only one left to him: do what you must and take your beatings as you go.

Labor's only hope of snaring that most elusive of phenomena, the ''budget bounce'', given the depths of the Commonwealth deficit, is to earn marks from voters for courage.

And make no mistake: taking money off voters just months before an election certainly takes that.

Swan's consolation is that this budget may come to be seen as one of his most mature, sober efforts, tailored well to suit the times.

Economically at least.