It may be the political set-piece of the year but it’s also the gatekeeper event of the year: the federal government locks up several hundred of the most senior journalists and commentators in the country for several hours to ensure nothing unauthorised is leaked about the budget — as opposed to the authorised leaks the government has been dribbling out for weeks beforehand.

The original idea of the lockup was to enable the media to get some in-depth access to the Budget papers but not report until the financial markets had closed and the government was good and ready. There are easier ways of doing that, of course, like having the budget on a Sunday, but ultimately the lockup is a giant exercise in media management, ensuring the government has the maximum amount of time to manipulate the media until 7.30, when the Treasurer will rise and approach the dispatch box.

At that point, the lockup doors will be opened and a great mass of hacks, hitherto pressed tightly into the confined space of the exit, will surge out to tell the world what they think.

The proceeding hours are, depending on your job, exhausting or tedious. For those hellbent on producing as much copy as possible, it’s a six hour race against the clock to process the vast mass of information and spot the interesting bits. Those on specific rounds make for the relevant piles of yellow Portfolio Budget Statements — occasionally to be given the infuriating news that those of the Department they want haven’t yet arrived from the printer.

Those lucky enough to have only a couple of pieces to do can be observed in the latter stages of the afternoon lounging around, bored to tears, awaiting release. Some of us are still frantically pounding out copy when the all clear is given.

In the interim, the Treasurer has given his in-lockup press conference, the most crowded media event of the year, with every square inch of floorspace in one of Parliament’s committee rooms taken up by journalists crammed in to find out the most pressing question of budget night: what will be the key phrases and clichés in the Government’s selling of the budget. Afterwards, Swan will circulate and yarn with senior journalists, although its his advisers and senior Treasury officials who are better value in lockups.

Much of the Government’s problems, for mine, centre around Wayne Swan. He has been a good Treasurer, and can look back on the government’s handling of the GFC as a set of decisions that have made a huge positive difference to the lives of tens of thousands of Australians (none of whom are aware of that fact). But he’s a poor salesman, more Ralph Willis than Keating or Costello, both of whom had a knack for condensing their case into one or two cut-through phrases. Both operated in easier media environments but Swan, like the rest of the government, lacks cut through and the Treasury portfolio is the one position where it’s needed more than any other.

Then again the last budgets of Peter Costello similarly lacked cut-through, with the Howard Government expecting wild applause for successive tax cuts and receiving only indifferent shrugs from voters more inclined to wonder when they were leaving.

Maybe it’s not so much the case that Swan is poor salesman, but that the rituals of budget night — which in essence haven’t changed since John Dawkins moved the budget to May instead of August —  now look like an increasingly irrelevant piece of theatre, especially when there are no tax rises or tax cuts to pique voters’ interest.

Meanwhile, the first cut of the 2011 budget has already been inflicted, with the Department of Health and Ageing’s ACT office closing last Friday.

The massive health portfolio is considered ripe for spending cuts, both in relation to the vast programs it administers and in its huge staffing – it will spend over half a billion dollars on 5000+ staff across both the Health Department itself and an array of agencies. The Department and its agencies have about 1,000 staff working in state and territory offices, including over 300 in NSW and more than 200 in Victoria.

Rumours the government was considering a $400m cut to the National Health and Medical Research Council budget prompted protests from researchers in April, amid speculation Health had been singled out by ERC after successive years of escaping hard scrutiny.

Peter Fray

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