Liberal leader Jeremy Hanson has always seemed surprisingly confident about his party's chances of forming government at the October election, believing that the scandals and missteps increasingly besetting a 15-year-old Labor government have taken a sufficient toll to turn voters his way.
But he has been outfoxed by Labor Leader Andrew Barr this week, in a telling warning if he needed it that government will not be his without the toughest of fights, in which Barr will harness the most cynical of political weapons to cement his hold.
In appointing a key member of the Liberal team, Brendan Smyth, to his newly created "Commissioner for International Engagement" job, Barr shows he will do what it takes to neutralise his opponents. For voters lulled into a belief that elections are about choosing between opposing policy positions, it's also a timely reminder - a reminder that politics is about winning, it's about tricks and oneupmanship, it's as cynical game as you can play.
An observer could be forgiven for wondering whether Barr created the taxpayer-funded commissioner role for the purpose of taking out a political opponent. He announced the position on Tuesday. Smyth says he was called and invited to apply the same day. By Thursday he had been appointed.
Barr would reject this as an outrageous slur.
But the sight of Hanson standing up in the courtyard of the ACT parliament on Friday defending an indefensible process and welcoming something that in another context he would condemn, said it all. Hanson was backed into a corner by Barr and by his own Treasury spokesman. Yes, Smyth is entitled to pursue an alternative career and a desirable job. Who would say no? But he has left his team in a terrible pickle.
There is no-one even to fill his seat, other than the 81-year-old Val Jeffrey, whose first reaction on Friday was a definite no, he was too old. Jeffrey was quickly reconsidering, as he must. The Liberals have no choice other than to strongarm him to stand. If they don't, Smyth's vacancy will be filled by a Green or a Labor candidate, or one of the minor parties or independents. A Labor result would see Labor govern for its final months with a majority.
That is only one of the headaches now facing Hanson, despite the surely faux warmth with which he greeted Smyth's bombshell on Friday. Hanson must also find another candidate to stand for the election. He wasn't inundated with wannabe candidates at pre-selection time in April, getting just the number he needed. One pulled out only two weeks later, and now a second.
The Liberals are also left without the only one of their team who has ever been in government, and their Treasury spokesman, whose knowledge of that portfolio outstrips most of his colleagues by some distance.
To rub salt into the Liberals' wounds, Smyth didn't fess up when this newspaper asked about the imminent appointment on Thursday. When Hanson's office put the question to Smyth, he denied it categorically, leaving his leader to discover the news an hour before it was announced on Friday.
That Hanson can defend the denial, defend the appointment and defend the process speaks volumes about the relegation of reality in politics. It's an affair that also shows Canberrans much about the audacity and troubling dexterity of Barr.