Fear and biscuits in the budget lock-up

The federal budget lock-up is a strange place where 'parameter variations' are king and phoneless journalists fight over warm sushi and moneyed cliches.

At 1:30pm today, the nation's top political and economics journalists will surrender themselves voluntarily to Treasury's budget lock-up in Parliament House, Canberra.

The price? Our liberty and our iPhones. The prize? An advance viewing of the 2013-14 budget documents.

Econo-nerds, finance geeks and policy wonks always ask me in wonderment what the lock-up is like. This will be my ninth budget, so I've a pretty good idea what to expect. So here it is, my blow-by-blow account of the budget lock-up, told in tweet form and somewhat approximating reality...

9:00am: I have arrived at the Big House. Parliament House security at Senate-side entrance is in meltdown. Busiest day of the year.
9:20am: Finally find pass and make it through security. Catch lift to second floor and the Press Gallery corridor which runs the entire length of the Senate side of the building.
9:25am: Head down to Aussie's Cafe on the ground floor, the nerve centre of the house. For a monopoly supplier, the quality of the coffee is surprisingly good and always served with a smile by owner Dom.
10:00am: Make it to front the of queue at Aussie's. Capacity constraints, I reflect. Order skim piccolo latte.
10:30am: Receive coffee. Sit in outside courtyard, shivering in the Canberra chill and cautiously eyeing aggressive magpies. Nah, journos aren't that bad really.
12:30pm: Pack bag for lock-up. Highlighters. Pens. Notepad. Jumbo calculator. Last years' budget paper number ‘one’ and MYEFO. Reserve Bank forecasts.
1:00pm: Surrender iPhone to office manager. Suffer immediate device separation anxiety. A bit teary.
1:10pm: Catch lift down to first floor and the central atrium of parliament off which the door is located to the suite of parliamentary committee hearing rooms where the lock-up is held.
1:15pm: Join crush of journos already jostling before trestle tables of Treasury officials. Sign a form promising not to communicate with outside world until 7:30pm or render myself liable to criminal prosecution if I do – or worse, be banned from future lock-ups.
1:25pm: Having happily signed my life away, join an even denser crush of journos herding like agitated but excited cows around the double doors to the lock-up area. 
1:30pm: And the gates are open!


1:40pm: Finally make it through door to join a snake of journalists lining up for budget documents.
1:45pm: Receive fetching blue canvas satchel containing dark blue (used to be white) Budget Papers 1 to 4, glossy Budget Overview and Treasurer’s Speech.
1:50pm: Head upstairs to the corridor off which the major newspapers have separate rooms. The SMH, Age and Fin Review in one room, The Australian has its own, the News Ltd tabloids in another. Find my assigned seat and laptop.
2:00pm: Begin reading Treasurer's Speech. A good overview of ‘the message’. I'm looking for key words/phrases to make sense of it all.
2:01pm: Interrupted by constant cries from other journos. [Insert as appropriate: “They've axed the baby bonus! There's a surplus in 2015-16! A 2 per cent efficiency dividend!] 
2:15pm: Begin scanning budget overview – the government's A4-sized highlights document (or what they want you to believe). Lots of pics of happy working families … or will they be modern families this year? Post-modern families, presumably, the next.
2:30pm: The real business begins with reading Budget Paper 1. Check underlying cash estimates, macro forecasts and my favourite graph of the entire budget revealing how much of change in the budget balance is due to ‘parameter variations’ or ‘policy decisions taken’. Highly revealing.
2:45pm: Join huddle of editors for ‘early vibe meeting’. What do we think? Is it a good budget? What measures will most affect our readers? What is the cover image? Robin Hood? Edward Scissorhands? Some wonderful mash-up of the two?
3:00pm: Government ministers start wondering through. “What do you reckon?” they ask.  “Give me more than an hour to decide,” I say.


3:30pm: Treasurer arrives. Journos huddle for small group discussions with the man of the moment. Deliver zinger question to impress my editor: Treasurer is immediately crestfallen.
4.00pm-ish: Treasurer holds press conference. I skip it. Important for political journos, but I have everything I need in the budget documents.
4:05pm: Feel slightly dizzy. Remember I forgot to have lunch. Hit the corridor to discover meat pies already cold. Sushi warm. Monte Carlo biscuit and a coffee it is then.
4:10pm: More reading and start writing any news stories.
4:20pm: Treasury officials still wafting through. Quiz them on parameter variations.
5:00pm: I don't care if the pies are cold, I'm eating them.
5pm-ish: Start writing column, having honed the perfect budget metaphor. No one's ever used Robin Hood before, right? Surely not. Am budget genius.
6pm: More Monte Carlos.
6:30pm: My chief of staff, in complete meltdown by now, asks if I'm close to filing. “Close,” I say. 
7:00pm: Smoke is coming off my fingers as I madly tap at my keyboard.
7:25pm: I file. My chief of staff whimpers a little.


7:30pm: Freedom!!! The doors are opened. We head back to the Press Gallery. Lobby groups are stalking the corridor offering opinions to anyone who will listen. There's tweets to be tweeted, videos to film ... the 24-hour instant news cycle is relentless these days.
8:00pm: Beer is opened. Where are we going for dinner?

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