Treasurer Wayne Swan hands down the long anticipated 2009 Federal Budget in parliament tomorrow night. Part of the ritual of the budget is the ritual of advance “leaks” usually by direct authority of the government to either soften the blow of cutbacks or provide good news on an otherwise slow part of the news cycle. And so despite Swan’s constant mantra about “not speculating” on specific budget measures, he chose Mother’s Day to announce 18 weeks parental leave would be introduced from January 2011 for those earning less that $150,000 a year. Meanwhile there have been a litany of advance warnings that items such as health insurance, health rebates, family payments and superannuation are all set for brutal cuts due to “the revenue hole”.
Apart from the stage-management of leaks, the other strange ritual is the infamous budget lock-up. For six hours tomorrow, the country’s finest journalistic minds will have the umbilical link to their mobile phones cut off so they can be holed up in a parliamentary chamber alongside opposition parliamentarians where they will be forced to read the mountains of budget materials cover to cover. While most journalists describe the lock-up as an expensive waste of time, no self-respecting member of the Canberra Press Gallery will be anywhere else tomorrow. And fringe outlets such as Crikey fought long and hard before finally gaining admittance to the lock-up last year.
In order to be involved in the lock-up, media organisations had to submit the names and positions of those requiring access to the Treasury by Friday 1 May. Treasury directions were that space was limited and media should restrict their own numbers “to a minimum” and they were also required to bear their own costs of participation and attendance. Whether News Ltd is adhering to the numbers is a moot point, as they are sending 90 people inside.
Access to the lock-up area begins tomorrow morning when media organisations are allowed to set up their equipment until 11.30am. An hour later, the journalists are allowed in. Every attendee must provide proof of employment and has signed the sinister sounding Form of Undertaking which is witnessed by a Treasury official. They will then pass through metal detectors to check for mobile telephones, pagers, handsets, computers and personal data assistants (PDAs) which must all be deposited outside the room. The doors are then hammered shut at 1.30pm and the journalists are kept inside for the next six hours.
No one is allowed to contact anyone on the outside until the start of the Treasurer's Budget Speech which doesn’t begin until 7.30pm (although a security guard will apparently escort people to the toilet if needed). The reporters have six hours to make sense of tonnes of budget books, press releases and analytics. No budgetary information is allowed to be made publicly available until it is publicly announced in the speech. Inside the lockup, the temporary prisoners are given access to the entire set of budget information in hard copy and the data is then loaded online at 7.30pm.
Because 7.30pm is late notice for the following morning’s newspapers, Treasury also has the concept of the secure sub-lock-up which applies to the print organisations only. Sub-editors can establish and use secure encrypted landlines located within their own headquarters for sub-editorial purposes. Here production staff, subs, layout designers and editors all re-engineer their Canberra reporters’ copy for the front pages under the watchful eyes of Treasury officials. Curiously, “journalists are not permitted” inside the sub-lock-ups though the edict does not take into account that most sub-editors and editors are also journalists.
Of course none of this expensive secrecy is at all necessary. The primary purpose is to enable the Government gain control of the initial news cycle. Writing in today’s media section of The Australian, Michael Wilkins says it is time to call a halt to the lock-up charade. He calls it an expensive, archaic practice that costs media organisations in excess of a million dollars for little reward. But Wilkins’ call is unlikely to be heeded any time soon. As he himself notes, “The Government rarely has [this] chance to hold the nation's journalistic leaders hostage within its walls, an opportunity during which officials can ply their take on the numbers to a captive audience searching for answers.” And for a government as obsessed as this one is with staying on message, that opportunity is too good to turn down.
Btw, Australia is not alone with this nonsense. Check out this story of the Canadian budget lock-up from January this year.