Why are we still locking up our journalists in Canberra in 2021 – and for that matter, why do even have a federal budget event at all?
At 7.30pm EST all eyes will be on Canberra for Federal Budget Night, our economic night of nights when the brightest fiscal stars come out to shine! It’s our annual celebration of the excitement of numbers, delivered with flair and pizazz by a stilted bloke in a suit reading from a piece of paper.
It’s not exactly an entertainment tour de force, but the Budget is basically Government Christmas – both in the sense that it’s when they let everyone in Australia know who they think have been good and who have been bad, and in that everyone unconsciously agrees to not have a big fight about what they’re saying and just try to have a nice time for once.
Among the weirdest rituals of the day, however, is the Budget Lock Up.
The budget papers get handed to journalists at 1pm so they have time to digest it before reporting on it in the following day’s newspaper editions – which made perfect sense when Prime Minister Ben Chifley instituted it in the 1940s and seems downright anachronistic now in an era when media is an intrusive digital poltergeist that haunts our every waking moment.
Giving sealed papers to journos also required said journos to be prevented from speaking to other human beings because budget arrangements would impact money markets and Chifley had already lived through one Great Depression, thanks.
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And thus did the lockup begin, originally all over the country and more latterly in Canberra, when all the top print, radio, online and TV journalists have their phones removed and internet shut off while they spend six hours sequestered in Parliament House frantically trying to digest multiple volumes of narrowly-spaced text out of which they must decipher a coherent story. And that has a certain summer camp appeal for those invited along.
“It’s like being on Insiders,” says comedian Mark Humphries, who has covered the lockup for SBS and the ABC. “But good Insiders, where Gerard Henderson isn’t on it.”
It’s also incredibly hectic. “There are people writing, people doing audio, people filming pieces to camera, so it’s utterly chaotic,” says former political staffer turned journalist and author Jamila Rizvi. “And then there’s politicians and staffers in there too. It’s so strange to be completely shut away from everything; six hours without my Blackberry, as it was then, felt like I’d had my arm cut off.”
The Treasurer also appears about mid-way through the afternoon to chat about the numbers. This was an invention of Paul Keating who was apparently the first to realise that having a room of literally captive journalists might be in some way useful for getting one’s message across.
“Well, Keating had a reputation for just turning up in the bureaus of the Financial Review and other economics writers, and just sit his arse on the desk and talk to them,” laughs Paul Bongiorno, economics journalist and columnist for the Saturday Paper and the New Daily.
It’s basically an open-book exam. Trying to compare the new information against previous budgets or checking the status of programs is something of a challenge for a journalist armed only with memory and whatever papers they could carry in.
It’s basically an open-book exam. Trying to compare the new information against previous budgets or checking the status of programs is something of a challenge for a journalist armed only with memory and whatever papers they could carry in. “In the lock-up, you don’t have access to the tools you normally use,” Rizvi says. “I probably use Google somewhere between two and a hundred times in any piece I’m writing, just to fact check, and you can’t do that with this.”
To capitalise on this, the government helpfully gives crib notes. “Besides giving you the budget papers they also give you this thing that’s sort of the Budget For Mugs, the government’s summary of the budget and the hard numbers around it,” Bongiorno explains. “And that saves people who are just only looking for the headline from having to look very hard, and for non-trained economics writers it’s very helpful – and in so doing Treasury is counting on the laziness of journalists that they’ll present the budget through the lens that the Treasurer wants it to be seen.”
There were doubts about whether the lock-up could even occur and remain covid-safe, which means that last year and this year media were divided up into different rooms. Humphries thinks it might have been a plus. “It was very territorial, in that every media outlet has their own unofficial area. And I’ve seen people sit in the wrong spot, and it gets tense. It’s like if someone backed into your car spot when you were waiting for it, it’s that sort of level.”
But when it comes to the value of continuing with this bit of political jazzhandery, Rizvi is blunt. “I don’t think it’s necessary. It made sense when it was about getting a story ready for the news bulletins and the daily papers, but now everything’s digital and we’re in a 24 hours news cycle.”
“All budgets are a bit of theatre, based on best guestimates which more often than not don’t last more than three to six months,” Bongiorno points out. “Situations change, often rapidly. The biggest assumption of all was Frydenberg’s first budget, the Back In The Black one – wasn’t that a ripper! But these things are all about framing the public’s response.”
“Also, governments don’t waste the opportunity to capitalise on the attention the budget gets, so all the big announcements are leaked well in advance,” Rizvi adds.” That gives them days of positive coverage before anyone has a chance to look at the actual numbers.”
Humphries, however, sees a huge upside to the lockup. “Those six and a half hours when there are no journalists online,” he sighs. “It must be paradise on Twitter.”