There’s no bigger shattering of journalistic hubris than the annual scrum outside the budget lock-up as the stars of the nation’s sheets and screens lump together in a slow train to five-and-a-half hours of Wayne Swan-inflicted purgatory.
Security this year was scaled way back from the excesses of earlier years, when Crikey was either banned or viewed with gnawing suspicion by Treasury staff used to the geniality of doyens like Laurie Oakes preparing their nuanced take on the nation’s books.
First Dog on the Moon’s historic heavy metal-themed “Deep Cuts” t-shirt got nary a nod from the queue-dwellers that included a fresh-faced Peter van Onselen telling Chris Mitchell about how he just sent James Jeffrey an aviation-themed item for Strewth, and a radiant Kieran Gilbert from Sky News scanning queue-jumping opportunities.
Following the debacle in 2008 when Stephen Mayne had to surrender most of his dignity on entry, prospective budget thieves could take whatever they pleased into the inner-sanctum with disinterested officials taking our word for it that we were legit as we approached the front doors.
The prospect of a disguised Julian Assange walking in, stealing the budget papers 1 thru 4 and leaving without a yelp was a very real one.
Moving into the work zone, the Sydney Morning Herald were seen already showing off proofs of tomorrow’s paper with an “Australia: get back to work” mock-up adorned with one of those weird full-page Budget cartoons depicting Julia Gillard in chain gang garb.
As the paper’s Tim Colebatch and Jessica Irvine edged their way closer, Michelle Grattan haggled with Treasury staff over precisely which hulking 30kg budget pack she’d require for that night’s analysis.
(The bags this year were workmanlike black calico in stark contrast to the designer totes of 2010.)
And what a joy they were, with the documents themselves accompanied by shiny glossies called Delivering better hospitals, mental health and health services, Investing in Australia’s regions and Building Australia’s Future Workforce. In terms of scariness, Workforce’s bold pronouncement the government was going to “skill” as much of the population as possible veered close to Scream 4 territory.
After an extended search for Crikey‘s off-Broadway bunker it was down to work with most of the Private Media/Business Spectator crew choosing to read Swan’s speech as an entree to the thousands of pages of raw numbers from which someone from The Australian would inevitably discover a $20 billion black hole.
As Alan Kohler dashed off autographs for friendly Treasury officials (the evil ones stalked menacingly on the lookout for communication devices) the paragraphs began to pour out on every conceivable sectional interest. But, in an echo of the last two years, there were barely any surprises, with only the real standout being the actual size of the skills package.
By 5.45pm, with smoke pouring out of the male cubicles, Kim Carr prowling and the sandwiches scoffed, the whole setup was begging for mercy. Any cute Treasury line on “sharing the benefits of the boom” or “removing impediments to infrastructure financing” would be gratefully parroted if only Crikey could be released back in the direction of Bernard’s beer fridge. Which, in the shoddy panopticon of Budget lock-up, is precisely the point.