Budget week is a time when a lot of Australians get what they often think they want — to see a lot of political and business journalists locked up! I’ve been locked up for six hours between 1.30pm and 7.30pm in a series of huge rooms in Parliament House where we get a total preview of what the Treasurer will say at 7.30pm to the entire nation, or at least that ‘entire’ chunk of Aussies who think Budget night is important.
I actually explained to our audience at the inaugural Switzer Post-Budget Breakfast held at the Hyatt Regency in Sydney the morning after that there’s no country in the world where the media gives so much coverage to the tax and spending promises of a bunch of people (politicians), who we often say we don’t trust!
That said, I’ve seen card-carrying, committed Labor voters nearly genuflect when they’ve come face-to-face with someone like John Howard or Peter Costello.
Similarly, dyed-in-the-wool Libs have forgotten their historic disdain for Paul Keating when they were in an audience where the organisors paid $35,000 for him to tell his story!
We are a weird but likeable lot or mob, we Australians. And I also contend that our commitment to the economics of our politics is an outstanding international characteristic, which certainly needs to be the subject of an insightful PhD thesis for an aspiring academic. Who knows, it might be a paper that real people would really be keen to read. And that’s a fate that seldom happens to many would be egghead professors!
It has been a long time since I’ve been locked up in Canberra. The reason has been because I’ve been doing the PwC post-Budget breakfast in Brisbane for over a decade. This event brings out one of the quirky Canberra Budget stories that I’ve been exposed to since 1988, when I covered the Budget for the Triple M network of stations by myself!
While I didn’t miss any of the big stories of the Budget that year, I did a small change of policy where a departure tax was introduced for something like $10 when we flew overseas. I missed it because it was buried and the Hawke Government didn’t want it covered in the easy-to-read press releases.
I learnt a lesson the next day when my national news director asked why I hadn’t covered this ‘big’ hip pocket story? My answer was: “Maybe we need a few more people next year.”
That first year I saw how Treasurer Paul Keating had the wood over most of the journos in the room. Interestingly, those who knew more tended to be the commentators who didn’t do press conferences or refused to battle to get a question in. They went along to see Keating perform but saved their ‘punches’ next day on the front pages of The Australian, the AFR, the SMH and so on.
Peter Costello learnt to beat the press ‘pests’ by bringing in big charts. Over time, he started to look pretty well on top of most of his would-be media assassins.
That said, what is produced for the newspapers, websites, TV and radio programmes in six hours is extraordinary. And the fact that we are prepared and willing to consume all this economic, business, statistical, social and don’t forget, political stuff says something unique about we Aussies.
On the unforgettable Budget stories of my life, the standout explains to the uninitiated how important the Budget show-and-tell is.
It was 1989 and it was Paul Keating’s “Bring home the bacon” Budget, where he told us about his Budget Surplus. The Treasurer was proud of it and was coming to Triple M’s newsroom in the press gallery of Parliament House.
As I walked from the lock-up to the newsroom, I bumped into the legendary Fairfax journalist/editor, Max Walsh. I asked him what he thought about the Treasurer’s surplus.
“It’s a phony surplus,” Max said. “It comes from purely factoring a high economic growth number.”
Armed with that and knowing I was sometimes criticized for not being a sensationalist media guy, I welcomed Paul with: “Congratulations on your surplus Treasurer,” I said. “Thank you, I’m pretty proud of it,” Mr Keating replied.
And then I said: “Max Walsh told me that it’s a phony surplus…”
Well, that was it. All hell broke loose, with Paul letting Max (in his absence) and me have it.
“How could you say that? I mean, how could you say that? Max has never seen a surplus in all his years until I created one and he has the hide to call it a phony surplus!”
It was great radio the next day and my Triple M colleagues were full of praise. I learnt a lot about the media that day but I also learnt how important the whole media show after the Budget is for Treasurers and Prime Ministers.
My funniest memory was when a smoking ban had been imposed on the lock-up. Given in the old days a lot of high-powered journalist lived on grog and cigarettes, six hours of double turkey was a lot for some of the legends of news to cope with!
And I recounted in a comical satire that I used to do in the Doug Mulray Show on Fridays, how some of the country’s greatest scribes had spent six hours penning stories castigating the Treasurer and Government of the day for irresponsible behaviour in the Budget and they then hid in the toilets illegally puffing away, ignoring the irony of their actions!
I also learnt never to trust a friend from a rival media outlet. Ahead of Peter Costello coming to front the media inside the lock-up, Seven’s Denis Grant asked me what I thought of the Budget and I gave him my best observation, which he quickly turned into a killer question that put Peter Costello in a bit of a spot.
Denis later gave me a tip: “Never trust a friend in a lock up!”
The Budget and the lock-up and what it produces is an integral part of our great democracy and provides a window into the thinking of our leaders. It provides us via the media to approve, disapprove and to ensure great fiscal ideas are given the thumbs up and dumb ones are cast into the dustbin of political cock-ups.
The Budget is a very Aussie tradition that we should be damn well proud of, even if its products and people, from time to time, can annoy the crap out of us!
What will I remember about the 2019-20 Budget?
For the first time in my life, it was the one where the Reserve Bank actually gave a public approval for the Treasurer to give tax cuts to help the economy and to reduce the need for it (the central bank) to cut interest rates. And Josh Frydenberg duly followed the script and Bill Shorten saw Josh’s effort and trumped it, meaning this could be the year of the best tax refunds in history!
Go the Budget and all those who make it possible and bloody enjoyable.