I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to draw a “colour” piece out of a federal budget on an overcast day in Canberra, but a phlebotomist would have better luck with a chunk of igneous.

Former Crikey journo Sally Whyte last year lamented the lack of celebrity journos on her plane ride. But at least she got one: Anna Bligh.

This year, all I got was a man in plaid working frenetically on a very average-looking PowerPoint presentation.

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Come on, Canberra! When does Laurie Oakes show up? And how long do I have to wait before Christian Kerr starts some biffo with a News Corp braggart?

A few hours later, I’m walking through Parliament House security, surrounded by stoic journos, agitated lobbyists and bored high school kids — the only demographics that APH seems to attract.

In an antechamber off the main lobby, a woman at the table where they hand out the media passes asks me who I’m “with”. “I’m with Crikey!” I declare, louder than I need to, in part a self-esteem mantra to alleviate my internalised impostor syndrome. But I would also like to impress upon the Channel Nine reporter behind me that I have not, in fact, wandered beyond my station. He gives me one of those “You must be new here” looks. Independent online journalism is still journalism, mate, I think at him.

I make it to Crikey‘s parliamentary office earlier than expected. And now …? Well, the veterans weren’t kidding when they told me budget day involved a lot waiting around.

Just outside the APH staff dining room, I lose five minutes of my life pondering a sculpture by Harriet Schwarzman: blown glass tendrils twisted such that they look like letters. But what do they spell? I twist and crane my neck, coming at the sculpture from all angles.

It takes me three of those five minutes to work out they aren’t letters, and they don’t spell anything. The remaining two minutes I spend fuming at Harriet Schwarzman, whoever and wherever she is.

I sigh. Darren Chester walks past me smiling — as only a man who hasn’t been waylaid by a duplicitous artist can.

Soon enough, it’s time to enter the lock-up. We’re handed several documents and a thumb drive, all stuffed into a hefty cotton sack with “Budget 2018-19” and the coat of arms printed across the front. Once all this is over, they can take the thumb drive back, but I’m keeping the sack for my tomato trips to the market I think defiantly at a burly security guard who’s pushing through the crush of journos at one side of the lobby, checking media passes.

Crikey is ushered into the main committee room by an overwhelmed-looking lady with a clipboard. It seems there’s been a bit of confusion over seating arrangements, and, as I enter, two journalists are exchanging terse words over a tressle table in a more adult rendition of the old “I was here first” arguments you used to have with your siblings over the TV remote.

I see Leigh Sales, Peta Credlin, Barrie Cassidy, Chris Uhlmann. Celebrity journos from channels, stations, papers and websites from round the country mill about four long columns of tables in a wood-pannelled room, pulling snacks and laptops and bottles of water out of bags and dumping them on the tables.

At about 3pm, a gaggle of cameramen flock to the entrance of the main committee room. “Pens down!” comes a shout from somewhere at the front. “Treasurer must be coming,” an indifferent journo beside me mutters.

Mere seconds after ScoMo marches in with Matthias Cormann in the passenger seat, so to speak, Peta Credlin makes herself scarce. Bad memories.

After the Treasurer does the rounds, Paul Bongiorno is press-ganged by what looks to be a producer for The Project into an interview with … hang on, is that Anne Edmonds?!

I double take. God, it is. What’s “Helen Bidou” doing at the budget lock-up? Turns out the “interview” with Bongiorno is actually a skit, the humour of which is either flying over Paul’s head, or just landing flat. He suffers through this “quick” (as the producer called it) skit for at least 15 minutes.

I hear that, earlier in the arvo, Leigh Sales was also roped into a sketch with Eddo, who pretended to aggressively push past Sales in a bid for prime seating position in the lock-up.

And Eddo isn’t the only comedian here. Not three metres away from my table, SBS’ Mark Humphreys struggles with a piece-to-camera. I lose count of his takes.

It seems like a tough gig for a comic; lanyards and black suits aren’t exactly Tinder and abrasive in-laws.

When I glance over in Edmonds’ direction later, she’s got an armful of bananas and is laughing hysterically at Hugh Rimington.

At 4.30pm, ScoMo’s press conference is projected onto the big screen in the centre of the main committee room. Groans from some nearby journos, who hadn’t realised we’d be forced to listen to the presser.

But the Treasurer’s passionate defence of his work feels almost like a sideshow now. I’m far more interested in the antics of the comics.

Somewhere above me, between rows of mezzanine seating, Joe Hildebrand wails like a baby — for comedic effect, I can only assume … although maybe that’s just the flavour of the evening.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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