We hope the nation’s journalists have brought their pen licences with them into this afternoon’s budget lockup, as for the first time Treasury officials will not answer journos’ questions unless they are in writing.

A spokesman for the Treasurer yesterday confirmed there would be a change in the way Treasury dealt with journalists’ questions, but the spokesman said the process was just being “organised better”. The changes would ensure  the “right official” would speak to journos, he said.

As lockup attendees go through the reams of budget documents, many need explanation or clarification from officials who are across the economic or fiscal detail in a way that neither ministers nor their staff usually are. Journalists have traditionally been given full access to Treasury officials attending the lockup to quiz them on what’s in the documents. But Crikey understands journalists will today be required to submit questions in writing, limiting follow-ups to ensuring understanding or clarifying a point, and that Treasury officials’ responses will be able to be vetted first. The system will prevent Treasury officials from going off-script, so to speak.

It comes after it was yesterday reported that for the first time in two decades, Treasury’s highest official would not be interrogated by economists at a post-budget lunch organised by the Australian Business Economists. Treasury Secretary John Fraser declined an invitation to speak at the event, instead sending Nigel Gray, the director of the fiscal group at Treasury.

The lack of direct access to Treasury officials has the potential to further inflame tensions between the government and the press gallery, with parliamentary journalists becoming increasingly frustrated in recent months at restrictions placed upon them by new counter-terrorism measures.

Peter Fray

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