Features Australia

Forget being locked down. Try being locked up!

It’s Federal Budget time (again)

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

I’ve been rummaging through my wardrobe trying to find my orange jumpsuit. I like to wear it to my annual day of incarceration, otherwise known as the Budget lock-up

I’ve being doing this gig for quite a few years now but I’m glad to inform my excited (should that be excitable?) readers that there have been a few changes in recent years.

In 2019, the Budget was held in April rather than May because of the imminent federal election. You might think that a few weeks wouldn’t make much difference, but for anyone who is familiar with Canberra weather, we are talking quite a few degrees.

Evenings in May in Canberra are the equivalent for Australians of January in Red Square for Russians. Unless defensive action is taken, chilblains (and worse) are bound to follow, particularly after a few hours of getting on the beers (or whatever).

Needless to say, the Covid Budget lock-up was a whole new ball game, including the fact that it occurred in October rather than May. By reason of various state border closures and other restrictions, it was not possible to cram all those eager reporters, commentators, rent-seekers and assorted hangers-on into small spaces in Canberra, the main one being in the bowels of Parliament House.

The alternative was to spread us out across various cities. I went to the one in Brisbane in the basement of the Courier-Mail building. There weren’t many of us there, so we could take our pick of desks.

The young’uns seemed to have been put in charge of the catering – a strong word, I admit – but at least there were plenty of lollies and chips. The most disappointing aspect was the complete absence of any alcoholic beverages as far as I could tell. (I did scour all the fridges.)

I’ve always loved the process of being admitted to the lock-up. Junior Treasury officials are assigned this role and undertake it with all the charm of Stasi officials. You know the drill: show ID, sign here, hand over mobile phone, no jokes, no pleasantries.

They then hang around for the duration of the lock-up – release occurs at 7.30 pm – and, in theory, they can be asked questions. In my experience, this is a complete waste of time, so I generally don’t bother. But they do the spying thing rather well.

Each year, I say to myself: don’t peak too early, Judith. But given that I know my way around the Budget Papers (and most of them I simply place neatly in any nearby bin), I can bang out the required 800 or so words in no time at all and have hours to spare – hours to annoy everyone else in the lock-up; hours to hang out in the bathroom reading a novel.

Let’s be clear on one thing: the budget is not about economics. It’s essentially a massive marketing exercise in which the government spends other people’s money on all sorts of dubious programs and schemes and claims the credit. It’s the week during which the Treasurer can shine and the Prime Minister plays second fiddle. (OK, sometimes the shine is a bit smeary.)

Former Treasurer Wayne Swan hilariously described budgets as moral documents – more like immoral documents whereby government ministers make decisions to spend other people’s money in order to maximise the number of voters who might vote for the government.

Let’s be clear on another thing: apart from the figures for the coming year, pretty much everything else in the budget is a fairy story based on an enormous array of assumptions. So all those forecasts about deficits, debts, GDP growth, unemployment, inflation and wage growth are best guesses or, more correctly, politically palatable best guesses.

There has never been a Budget that has predicted a coming recession even though there have been several such periods.

It’s always intrigued me how even experienced journalists read the Budget papers as if they are full of incontrovertible truths. The Budget deficit will be $X billion in four years’ time; government net debt will be close to zero in ten years’ time; the iron ore price will be $Y next year.

All of a sudden, the captives are banging on about the ‘forwards’ – the four-year period for which the main budget figures are presented. Little did they know, until recently, that Treasury officials simply bunged in trend figures (based on long-run averages) for the third and fourth years, meaning they didn’t have a clue as to what would actually happen.

One under-reported change made in 2013 was the removal of the Australian government’s debt ceiling. We can thank – OK, deplore – then Coalition Treasurer Joe Hockey for that decision. What this has meant is that budgets no longer have to be framed within the constraint of a specific debt figure. The sky’s the limit, as they say.

To be sure, malleable senators were always likely to approve increases to the debt ceiling – virtually all parliamentarians adore spending other people’s money.But the very process of a government having to seek to increase the ceiling with some sort of debate ensuing was potentially valuable. So thanks, Joe – for nothing.

Now don’t get me wrong: there are some entertaining moments in the lockup, including the passing parade of the Treasurer and the Finance Minister, both accompanied by trailing advisers and Treasury officials. Journalists leap to their feet to ask earnest questions of the ministers, even if they aren’t really interested in the answers.

I did have a bit of fun in 2012 when I asked a genuine question of then Finance Minister, Penny Wong. That was the ‘four budget surpluses I announce tonight’ budget, surpluses that never came to pass (no surprises there). By shuffling billions of dollars into the previous financial year and billions of dollars into the year beyond the budget year, the government attempted to make the budget’s underlying cash balance look much better than it really was. It was the fiscal equivalent of the parting of the Red Sea.

Wong was incensed when I asked her to explain this contrivance. Her response was along the lines of ‘you never criticised the Coalition government for doing this’.My reply was that the Coalition had never done this – it had done lots of other crazy things – so we left it there, on poor terms. Oh, well.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments