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How to spin a budget: leaks, drops and the age of no surprises

From the leaks to the drops to the denials, there’s little about a federal budget that isn’t planned ahead. Crikey goes inside the process to reveal how it’s done.

First the pension age was going up. And then it wasn’t. There would be a deficit levy. Then, a rise in tax rates instead. It’s all part of the intricate choreography of a budget media cycle.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott may imply journalists are making it up — as he did on 3AW yesterday —  but the sideshow is mostly planned. Through a series of drops, a few unavoidable leaks, a studied refusal to rule things in or out, until the press conferences doing exactly that as we near the second Tuesday in May, governments control and shape the narrative around their books.

The budget process gives media managers plenty of room to move. The planning starts around November, but the budget can be tinkered with until the Sunday before budget night, says governance consultant Stephen Bartos, who worked on federal budgets while he was in the public service. “I can tell you, when those changes are made, the bureaucracy goes absolutely frantic,” he said. “The danger of making a mistake is absolutely huge.”

Budgets are high-stress times all round. “It’s the grand final,” said a former government spinner who’s worked on federal budgets in the past. Jill Bottrall, who was former South Australian premier Mike Rann’s principal media adviser for 17 years until he left politics in 2011, says budgets determine a government’s overall strategic direction. “So from a media perspective, it’s incredibly important,” she told Crikey.

Bottrall says her budget media meetings began months ahead of May, and planned for coverage both in the lead-up and aftermath of a budget. Budgets affect voters, from the new roads and hospitals they can see being built to levies they have to pay. Explaining the reasoning behind the decisions is half the battle.

It’s not just ministers and spinners who face the heat on budget night. Journalists are under enormous pressure, too. Every press gallery journalist worth their salt wants to have an exclusive bit of information on the budget in the days leading up that gets validated on budget night. As editors and producers put the pressure on journalists, journalists in turn pressure staffers and ministers. For their own reasons, political operatives are often happy to deliver the goods.

The most obvious reason politicians and their staffers leak is to control the flow of information.”We spent a lot of time thinking about what we could get a better run for before budget night, or about what we could get out of the way before budget night,” our spinner said, referring to such leaks more accurately as “sanctioned drops”. “If you’ve got a shocker coming through the pipeline, if you get it out nice and early it doesn’t crowd the budget night coverage.” All budgets have a central theme; Wayne Swan’s last budget was all about “jobs and growth”. Getting the actual policies out of the way can mean you only emphasise the things that boost that theme on budget night.

The second reason to leak is to gauge public reaction in a manner that gives ministers and bureaucrats plenty of time to adjust the finer details if the blow-back is larger than expected. Our federal spinner says this is commonly done, and things like the floated rise to the aged pension, ruled out yesterday, seem to fit the mould of this strategy. But when we put the question to Bottrall, she said any politician who needs to leak something to see how it’ll play out isn’t a very good one. “Floating things to get a reaction has a nasty way of wrong-footing you,” she said.

Third, revealing the details of a budget before the big night helps maximise the coverage, according to Stephen Bartos. “If people are talking about your budget, they’re not talking about anything the opposition wants to talk about,” he told Crikey. Budgets are a lousy time for oppositions all up, as they have to fight for space with all the interest groups reporters ring to ask about the latest taxes and spending announcements. “I remember when we were in opposition, it was for eight years,” Bottrall said, recalling Rann’s long apprenticeship in the political wilderness. “We’d be lucky if we got two paragraphs in a budget story. The budget wasn’t our day. Our cake came later, with the budget estimates. In the first week after the budget, we can make up some lost ground.”

The photos of the Treasurer walking through, of him or her sitting down with the editors of the newspapers for a couple of minutes, it’s all colour.”

This ground in the days after the budget has become clearer for oppositions in recent years, Bartos observes. He says budgets used to get coverage for weeks after the night, but now, only a week or two of interest remains after the public is bombarded with news in the weeks leading up to it. “There’s a trade-off,” he said. “More coverage in advance means less coverage afterwards.”

There’s a fourth type of leak, and it’s the only one that really deserves the name. Hundreds of people know about the budget before it’s released to the public. Those people have different agendas, and sometimes will leak in an attempt to kill things they don’t want to see get up. In 1980, press gallery royalty Laurie Oakes was leaked the entire budget.

After the leaks come the press conferences. The first few will have the Prime Minister or Treasurer refusing to confirm or deny the revelations in that morning’s papers, imploring journalists to be patient and wait for the budget. A few days later, ministers will hold conferences ruling things in or out, once the decision has been made. Governments will break their own rules about these things as often as it suits them, our former spinner wryly observes.

As a result, the lock-up — where journalists from around the country fly into Canberra to sit for several hours with the budget papers under a strictly enforced embargo — has decreased in importance. But it still has purpose — it’s colour and movement. There are good public policy reasons to have the lock-up, the spinner says. For one, you don’t want the aggregate budget figures, or many of the details, to cause a spike or fall on the ASX, so announcing locking down the coverage until 7.30pm, when the markets are closed, can mean the market reaction is more measured when it does occur. And anyway, budgets are intricate and complicated, and it’s impossible for the detail to get across through the tabloid headlines in the days leading up to budget night.

Forcing journalists to sit down and digest can aid understanding. And it’s good networking, too. “The photos of the Treasurer walking through, of him or her sitting down with the editors of the newspapers for a couple of minutes, it’s all colour,” said our source. It gives the broadcasters something to air besides dour photos of old men talking.

But the lock-up isn’t what it used to be. Three decades ago, the budget would be kept, ideally, entirely secret. Governments would try to sneak in things like higher alcohol or cigarette taxes, in a bid to avoid the public bulk-buying such vices in the lead-up to B-day. These days, governments index these things years in advance. Bartos thinks it works better like that. He also says there’s nothing wrong with giving the public time to digest and react to proposed changes, and have their input going into the government’s final budget. Some aspects of this process may be opaque, but it’s hardly undemocratic.

There’s a lot to be said for not having too many surprises in the budget,” he said. “It’s good economic management. It’s something most economic bodies, like the RBA for instance, do now.”

It helps to be aware of the formula of these things. It’s all planned ahead, from the months warning of budget emergencies, to the drops and leaks in the weeks preceding, to the lock-up and the photos of the Treasurer with his books. There’s policy and there’s colour. And the ritual never changes much.

5
  • 1
    Michael
    Posted Wednesday, 30 April 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I find the whole ‘backgrounding’ of friendly journos quite strange. Is it potentially illegal? For instance the backgrounding of News Ltd jounos around the defence white paper. What did Edward Snowden do again? Oh yes, he leaked secret information about national security to a newspaper…

  • 2
    graybul
    Posted Wednesday, 30 April 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    In summary . . Budgets are for political posturing. The Media gets stage management and costume selection. Big Business gets to write content. The Electorate, “gets it” … . .

  • 3
    tim readfern
    Posted Wednesday, 30 April 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    so i suppose the leaking of the income tax increase was of type number 4? unless not even abbott himself listens to anything he says?

  • 4
    The Cleaning Lady
    Posted Thursday, 1 May 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    principle — > principal
    emphasis — > emphasise
    suites — > suits
    baulk-buying — > bulk-buying

  • 5
    Myriam Robin
    Posted Thursday, 1 May 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    @Cleaning Lady: Noted and fixed - thanks.

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