tip off

The lock-up: when 500 journalists get trapped with Kochie and Hockey

The veteran stars of the press gallery shine brightly on budget night. Michelle Grattan is dapper, Mathias Cormann may have been hitting the pies a bit hard, and even Clive Palmer is holding court.

Treasurer Joe Hockey, sweating slightly, is holding an impromptu presser for News Corporation journos in the bowels of Parliament House. Columnist Miranda Devine is concerned about the sacking of 16,500 bureaucrats. “Sixteen-thousand, 500 public servants, do you think that’s enough?” she asks urgently, as Piers Akerman, resplendent in a colourful shirt, nods along. Sadly, Hockey’s answer doesn’t appease La Devine’s bloodlust for Canberra redundancies.

We’re trapped in the traditional budget lock-up for journalists. For six hours, 500 of us are locked in windowless rooms, banned — gasp! — from the internet and mobile phones. We pore over the budget papers, panic and whisper. Everyone wants to sum up the budget perfectly at 7.30pm. Everyone wants to find the shocking secret hidden in a line item somewhere. Reputations are on the line.

And everyone is here. Age ed Andrew Holden cruised into Canberra airport, causing confusion as he chatted with his Fairfax doppelganger (another tall, lean, bald man). They complain gently about Canberra airport’s confusing taxi system. Australian Financial Review ed Michael Stutchbury is less relaxed, bustling into Parliament House weighed down by a Sydneysider’s paranoia about the Canberra cold. Stuch groans under a suit jacket, overcoat and scarf, although it’s a lovely blue-sky day outside. Clive Palmer’s holding court in a courtyard, watched by the resident magpies. Henry Ergas lurks in the lift.

And there’s Gratts, of course; there’s always Gratts. While newbies crush into the lock-up at 1.30pm, The Conversation’s Michelle Grattan sails in once that’s died down, bypasses the queue for the media releases, and marches towards her allocated room. I notice her purple jacket is exactly the same shade as the budget showbag she’s clasping. Did Gratts know something the rest of us didn’t?

Gratts’ roommates tell me they’re pleased she’s not dictating her copy aloud, as she did last year. But elsewhere there’s trouble at the mill. Fairfax journos have to bring their own laptops, unlike previous times when the formerly cashed-up company laid on work machines. Now everyone’s wondering what will happen to their photographers. Fairfax’s budget emergency is way more serious than Hockey’s.

But things can’t be too bad; after a few hours, there’s still no telltale trace of ciggie smoke in the ladies’ toilets, as there has been in previous years as desperate journalists get their fix.

Heads dart up when Hockey does the customary walk-through the lock-up for the TV cameras, picking out favoured journos for a coveted — if entirely superficial — chat. He looks sauve (although if Hockey has lost weight, his shadow, aka Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, has borrowed it with interest).

One curious feature of the budget is the cabal of ancient male journalists who emerge from some secret cavern underneath Canberra.”

Hockey zeroes in on respected Sky News anchor David Speers before hitting up Kochie (aka David Koch from Seven’s Sunrise). Against a backdrop of Kochie’s Pringles collection, the pair catch up like a couple of old mates (who want to get on the TV news that night). Kochie claps Hockey on the shoulder thrice. Mark Riley squeezes in a quick chat then Hockey goes to leave the room — until SBS’ Karen Middleton calls out “what about the ABC and Nine?”. Hockey nods and does what she says. Middleton is respected and liked in the press gallery.

As the camera circus huddles around Hockey talking to 7.30’s Sabra Lane, Chris Uhlmann walks away from the ABC table ruefully. “I’m going to come back when they’re gone,” he says. A cameraman lounges, watching Hockey but not filming. He tells me he’s instructed to only film Hockey talking to the star of the cameraman’s own network. “It’s all theatre isn’t it,” he tells me. Dead right.

Meanwhile, the poor old West Australian crew have to make do with the scraps; a long talk with Cormann, known to Coalition folk as “The Cormannator” for his Belgian accent. He sports an aggressive haircut, a la 1990s flat-top. Savvy ex-assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos would never had made that mistake for budget day — but then he’s benched, as well as bald.

The Abbott government reckons this budget is all about equality of opportunity, but the budget lock-up food certainly isn’t. Fairfax, News and Crikey luxuriate in top-notch catered sausage rolls, beef skewers, mini-burgers and fruit platters; The Australian loved their pizzas. But the new kids in town —  The Guardian  — have to make do with a few sambos from a cafe and barbecue shapes (fair enough; their parent company is losing serious money). Then redemption: The Guardian’s pizzas roll in at 4pm. AAP wins the day with a cake baked in the shape of an ambulance (to signify a budget emergency). Thing is, there ain’t no emergency action in these budget papers. That was all empty pre-budget messaging.

One curious feature of the budget is the cabal of ancient male journalists who emerge from some secret cavern underneath Canberra; a hibernating species that comes to life briefly each May to gather media releases, eat sandwiches and sit on the budget couches. Does anyone know who they are?

Another enjoyable sight is media tart Chris Richardson being made up for a TV appearance. Dressed in a stylish black cape, the white-haired everyman’s economist resembles a lump of coal with a snowy peak.

Treasury officials, most of them the age of Wyatt Roy MP (i.e. 14), hover about the lock-up, no match for the seasoned hacks they’re supposed to police. Some panic whether journos should be using iPads set to flight mode (duh). Treasury honcho Martin Parkinson floats around too. What a ride he’s had; Labor’s climate warrior, then hired/fired by Abbott’s crew, now he’s here again. Who knows what the future holds for Parky.

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