inside scoop on budget lock-up

Overnight temperatures in Canberra have dropped to a wintry minus 2 degrees, and trees in the manicured courtyards of Parliament House have turned from green to brilliant red. It must be federal budget time.

On Tuesday, journalists from around Australia will make a pilgrimage to the national capital to attend the budget “lock-up” at Parliament House, as we do on the second Tuesday of every May.

A festive atmosphere abounds, like having all the family in one place for Christmas; a chance to catch up with old colleagues and stretch a hand of friendship across the News Limited-Fairfax divide.

Shortly before kick-off at 1.30pm, journalists assemble before the doors to a vast suite of committee rooms to sign forms undertaking not to communicate with the outside world until 7.30pm, when the Treasurer rises on the floor of Parliament to deliver his budget speech.

Once inside, journalists are handed a hefty set of budget documents in a trendy tote bag (OK, it just has the Australian government logo and “budget” embossed on it).

Finally, after weeks of guessing, probing and outright begging for scoops, the entire contents of the budget are laid bare. But any feeling of privilege at having access to such information before the rest of the nation is quickly replaced with the sensation you’ve just agreed to resit all your year 12 exams, and this time all in a row.

Journalists quickly take their seats. A murmured silence descends, punctuated only by the occasional gasp or exclamation: “They’ve increased the efficiency dividend, those sneaky buggers!” or “Working mums the winners from a new childcare rebate!”

After a respectable hour or so, anxious political minders appear to offer a friendly “Hello, how are you?” – the subtext of which is quite clearly “So are you thugs giving us the thumbs up or thumbs down on this one?”

During the afternoon the Treasurer gives a formal press conference in a separate room, followed by a trip round all the major news organisations for a final bid to convince journalistic heavyweights of the true brilliance of the plan. The budget is a vision. A bold strategy for the future. Going forward.

At some point, platters of party pies, mini-quiches and biscuits arrive.

All the while, journalists continue flipping through pages and pages of text and numbers, looking for where the bodies are buried. By 5 or 6pm there is nothing but the sound of furious tapping at laptop keyboards.

At 7.30pm the gig’s up. Stories are emailed or transferred to publishing HQs in state capitals. Mobile phones are returned so that frantic calls for reaction can be made to the Opposition and business, welfare and lobby groups. Then it’s off to dinner at some nearby Canberra eatery to debrief and celebrate the end of yet another budget.

Sure, the Treasurer could just as easily deliver his speech at 1.30pm and spare us all the trouble. But besides saving media organisations a lot of time and money, where would be the fun in that?

THE IRVINE INDEX

6
Hours journalists will spend locked up at Parliament House on Tuesday studying the federal budget before it is made public at 7.30pm.

$314b
Estimated revenue for the federal government this financial year*.

43
Per cent of government revenue that comes from individuals paying tax.

20
Per cent is collected via the 30 per cent corporate tax rate.

15
Per cent raised via the goods and services tax and passed on immediately to state and territory governments.

$355b
Total government expenses this financial year, as estimated in last year’s budget.

32
Per cent of all government spending that goes on social welfare – by far the biggest spending item.

16
Per cent spent on health.

9
Per cent invested in education.

*Figures are for financial year 2010-11 as estimated in last year’s budget. Sources: Australian Government Budget 2010-11, published May 11, 2010.

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