tip off

Behind the scenes: the lowdown from the lock-up

By 1.20pm hundreds of hacks, like live cattle exports to the slaughter, were milling out the front of the annual budget farce as gaggles of jaundiced school kids (about to be plied with the Treasurer’s cash) and tourists from the sub-continent looked on in vague distraction.

With time of the essence, Crikey’s crack economist John Quiggin got talking with unerringly accurate macro-economic prognosticator Chris Richardson, who explained he was finally allowed in to the inner sanctum on Heather Ewart’s coattails. The quick-thinking Quiggin soon zoomed off in the direction of former prime ministerial portraits.

It’s more cliquey than a high school recess — rival outlets jostling for supremacy with carefully appointed intermediaries floating around to ensure relations stay civil.

Fortunately, the metal detector of previous years had been abandoned in yet another sign of how the terrorists had already won, and the assembled throng entered purgatory, not to exit for six hours.

For an ex-public servant the lock-up itself is a confronting reminder of the frustration seeping out of an emaciated bureaucracy subjected in this budget to a jacked-up efficiency dividend from 1.5% to 4% and the loss of 4000 jobs. Treasury-issue International Roast and Arrowroot beckoned, but first it was to the groaning handout table, where very fresh-faced public servants were dishing out the cloth-shrouded payload.

This was quickly followed by a 28-station press release pick-up table — a brazen attempt to lure lazy scribes away from the hard numbers towards easy yarns — before we finally set up shop in the entirely wrong room adjacent to ABC luminaries like Fran Kelly. This led to all sorts of tension over Crikey’s catering allocation, with Stephen Long — a noted beef rending fan — successfully snaffling a series of party pies.

With the “platform agnostic” (his phrase) Long holding court, resplendent in a blue checked shirt, Brian Toohey from The Australian Financial Review popped his head in to ask about changes to the mature age tax offset, the request from the paper’s ageless beacon of rationality having nothing to do with his own hip pocket.

Despite the lack of metal detectors, internal security was ramped up from previous years in which it seemed very easy indeed to walk in and out with the motherload of budget papers to commit a brazen act of fiscal terrorism. At one point Crikey’s own Bernard Keane copped a stern query from one wandering Treasury official demanding more information about his attached dongle, which he promptly surrendered.

Internet access was again plentiful with three unsecured networks, including “FFCam1” and “Ali’s iPhone” within easy reach (we declined to connect).

The documents themselves were scraping the bottom of the barrel, with headlines like “Commemorating the Centenary of Anzac” and “Investing in our future sporting champions” chafing badly with what a true Keynesian Labor government might do, according to Quiggin (other piecemeal measures included microbrewery support payments and the abolition of duty free ciggies).

As the clock ticked towards 7pm it was time for the pilgrimage to the men’s dunnies for the annual Piers Akerman fags-in-the-cubical surveillance effort. The scene was horrendous — piss and toilet paper everywhere shrouded in plumes of unidentified purple smoke.

And with the next day’s newspaper headlines becoming clearer (The Fin and The Australian were apparently going for an “attack on business” line and the Canberra Times the jihad on the public service) it was time to scramble for the exit and into beer’s warm embrace.

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