Next time the Government cops a bad break, or you think the press is being unfair to it, keep in mind just how tightly-controlled it has been in the last week.

Consider last Monday’s emissions trading announcement, a major revamp of a key policy costing billions, involving external stakeholders, even NGOs. Not a word was breathed until mid-Monday morning when the rumours began circulating. We barely had time to tweet about it before a Rudd press conference was announced, followed by an endorsement from key environmental, social policy and business organisations. The stagecraft was impressive and all kept out of sight.

In contrast, the Budget process just seems to have been full of accidents. Staffers from the offices of Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd must rue how they keep dropping key Budget documents while walking through the Press Gallery — albeit down the newspaper end, not at the TV or radio end.

The particularly twee culmination of this constant leaking was yesterday’s Mother’s Day announcement of parental leave by Swan, who responded to the invitation of Laurie Oakes (as last year, the only broadcast media journalist to get a scoop) to firstly wish his mother-in-law and wife a happy Mother’s Day, then announce the new initiative. The only thing missing was footage of Swan cradling an infant. It wasn’t a leak, but with news that good an actual announcement was compulsory.

It’s becoming more and more ritualistic: the newspapers get nearly all of the leaks (carefully apportioned so no one gets offside) and they’re carefully timed to dominate, or quickly splash and then sink into, the news cycle. Wayne Swan has plausible deniability: the public finds out there’ll be a major savings initiative in the Budget, the first wave of anger comes and goes from those affected, but the Government doesn’t have to answer any hard questions — or questions of any kind, for that matter. “I certainly can’t speculate on that,” Swan waves, as if affronted by the merest suggestion.

He might also be affronted if journalists pointed out that when they go into the Budget lock-up tomorrow they are expected — rightly — to take seriously the secrecy of the process and bureaucrats too are subject to very serious consequences if they give away the slightest hint about the content of the Budget, but ministers fail to treat it with the same seriousness.

Last year both Insiders and The 7.30 Report commented on the selective and highly self-interested leaking by the Government; yesterday Insiders again discussed it. Swan held a brief doorstop on Saturday morning in Canberra, where Seven’s Damien Smith smartly asked “after working so hard and for so long on this Budget, it must deeply disappoint you to see those lists of accurate Budget speculation in the paper, things that are meant to be kept secret until Budget night. Will you be asking the AFP to investigate these leaks?”

“Can’t we have a leak as well? Everyone else has had one. A little one,” Mike Carlton pleaded with the Treasurer this morning.

Some of this is professional envy, particularly from broadcast journalists. It’s not exactly a major revelation that this is a Government both skilled at and committed to media management — or, for that matter, that it is only going further down a path already travelled by its predecessor. But the incessant leaking wears away at the Government’s credibility. If it keeps trying to stage-manage everything, eventually not merely the Press Gallery, but voters will start to regard the whole thing as make-believe, a problem the Howard Government ended up with as well.

The Budget is in part a conspiracy between Governments and the press. Governments like to pretend they have control over what’s happening economically and can forecast what’s going to happen, so persist with that claim despite the general failure of governments and economists to predict the events of the last nine months. Budgets have been built up into the economic centrepiece of the year.

In fact, individual budgets have a limited impact, not merely because the economy is far bigger than the Government’s resources, but because even significant policy changes tend to have long-term, rather than short-term consequences. It is a series of budgets that have a significant economic impact, rather than one night’s worth of announcements.

For its part, the press is a willing co-conspirator, selling the Budget as a Major Event which the public must understand via its coverage, positioning governments as arbiters of our economic destiny to make for a simple narrative.

By constant leaking, the Government undermines the status of the Budget. Perhaps that’s a good thing. But barring major surprises, we know more about this Budget than we did about the stimulus packages released in October and February. Maybe it’s time we dropped the pretence about Budget night and had a less self-serving and stage-managed fiscal process.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey