When Hockey stands up at 7.30pm on Tuesday, the season will be over for another year.

When Hockey stands up at 7.30pm on Tuesday, the season will be over for another year.

On Wednesday morn, the federal cabinet gathered in Canberra for a last hurrah before the big B goes to the printers over the weekend. Around half-time, Minister for Foreign Affairs and deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop took a breather to come and launch the press gallery’s annual fundworking (fundraising-networking) mid-winter ball.

Addressing reporters in the galley’s corridor, Bishop gave such a mischievously satirical speech, one could have been forgiven for thinking that, instead of the budget, cabinet had been kicking back with margaritas and the complete works of Oscar Wilde.  

After observing that while she was the first female foreign minister, she was not the first (and possibly not even the second) to wear stockings, Bishop expressed relief that she had made it to Canberra.

“I have also been the victim of the international slave trade, AKA Qantas business class,” she lamented.  “I don't know how bad it has to get. Do you know they have now banned Pilates classes in the aisle?”

The gathered journos (including this one) guffawed. Jokes about Bob Carr really do have that added zing when made by other foreign ministers. But the bonhomie evaporated as soon as Bishop went to vamoose. The corridor became jammed and jostled as questions were lobbed about the proverbial debt levy.

The Foreign Minister took the fifth. “I’m not making any comments about what’s going on in cabinet at present – I’ve just stepped out to support the mid-winter ball and the great charities that it supports, so, on that note, I’m going.”

And on the cabinet meeting chugged, until just after 1pm, when the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister both announced public appearances at Parliament House. I know what you’re thinking (announcement!) ... but no cigarillo.

Tony Abbott had a date with Australia’s netball team for the Commonwealth Games. The Finance Minister had a press conference to “outline the budget challenge”.

In the committee wing of Parliament House, Abbott applauded the 12 women selected for the Diamonds, declaring that he was not just appearing as the Prime Minister, but as a “netball dad”.  After extolling the virtues of women’s sport and encouraging the team to beat the Kiwis, he shook the hand of each player, grinning the grin of a netball convert.

(The only person who looked more chuffed to be there was Minister for Women Michaelia Cash, who manoeuvred with all the skill and assertiveness of a star centre to make damn sure she got a picture with Abbott and the Diamonds.)

Meanwhile, downstairs in the Blue Room, Mathias Cormann was releasing a “detailed summary of Labor’s failures in government”. “[Labor] left the country with a legacy of deficits and debt as far as the eye can see,” the Finance Minister said in that solemn Euro twang.

Now, if you think the Coalition publishing a booklet on “Labor’s failures” sounds like a leftover election campaign stunt ... that’s because you are exactly right. In each of their outings, neither the PM nor Cormann addressed the snuffleupagus in the room directly, or on their own initiative.  When asked what was happening with the deficit levy, Abbott spoke of “being in this together” and Cormann said there was a need for an “immediate, special effort” to “repair” the budget.

Reading between the lines, this was code for, “the politically dreadful tax we want to bring in was not scuttled by cabinet, but we're not going to tell you". 

There was something hyper-surreal about those few hours on Wednesday. Here, we had three of the most senior Coalition MPs out talking excitedly of Bob Carr’s diary, netball and a booklet … when everyone knew very well that the finishing touches were being put on the budget.

In a way, it is typical of the farce that always dominates the pre-budget period. Speculation swirls with all the style and satisfaction of a dust storm. The government comes over all innocent and offended at the thought of revealing any details – "moi?" – and says it will save itself for budget night, while dropping snippets to the media along the way to test ideas and wear out criticism.

The journalists themselves are relentless little hamsters. Pestering for updates, analysing and re-analysing what is said for a sign of what is coming and pleading with sources to fling a crumb.

This year, speculation season is even more furious. Not only is this Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first budget, but we have the audit commission report in the mix, which means there are an extra 86 ideas to rule in or out. Think of it as two doses of spectacular speculation for the price of one.

So while many in and outside of the government are dreading the budget – nervy about what it will mean for people’s wallets and the Coalition vote – there is one thing to truly look forward to.

When Hockey stands up at 7.30pm on Tuesday, the season will be over for another year. 

Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.