Federal Budget 2021: A political statement of priorities

By Stephen Bartos

May 11, 2021

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National security interests must be balanced against open justice, says the Law Council of Australia. (Image: Adobe/vadim_fl)

The budget is only partly an economic statement. Mostly, it is a political statement of government priorities, accompanied by a healthy dose of theatrics.

This budget is no exception.

The government has followed the script of announcing much of the budget in advance.

It does this so it can get a double bang for the one policy change – announce it once before the budget, then announce it on budget night, and get it reported as a new thing both times.

At other times of the year the media or the public does not let a minister get away with making the same announcement twice. It will either be criticised as not new, or even worse from a politician’s point of view, ignored. At the very least someone will point out that it is merely a re-announcement.

That rule does not apply at budget time.

It is quite OK for the treasurer at this time to announce the same policy at least twice – or with aged care and childcare in this budget, three or four times in a row.

There are superstitious rituals involved.

One of the most peculiar is the budget lockup. The media, and a range of other interested parties such as think tanks and a few consultants from firms like Deloitte access economics, are given advance copies of the budget statements.

This is done six hours before the budget speech. The journalists and others in the lockup have their mobile phones confiscated and promise to turn off their computers’ internet connections, so they cannot prematurely reveal the contents of the budget.

This is despite the fact that the treasurer and other ministers have already revealed most of the budget in advance in their various media interviews (see ‘double announcement strategy’ above).

The origins of the lockup date from the days when governments would decide – or not – in each budget whether to increase the excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol.

When they did, the inevitable headline in the press the next morning – younger readers may not realise this, but once upon a time news was delivered in paper form – was ‘Cigs up, Beer up!’

The theory was that if someone knew about this in advance they could go out and stock up on their favourite cigs and tipple before the actual budget announcement took effect. But they needed time to read and analyse the budget papers. The budget lockup was born.

Canny treasurers have kept it on. The lockup gives them a captive audience – they can wander around the press gallery to try to charm reporters into giving them favourable coverage.

Often it works. Surprisingly often the coverage on budget night is more positive than the more considered analysis that emerges when media has more time to think about the budget measures and discuss them with business and community groups.

Other rituals are the press club speech after the budget, the prime minister and the treasurer taking turns in doing radio and television interviews on the day after, the numerous ‘budget breakfasts’ held around the country where experts and semi-experts discuss what they think about it all, and the opposition speech in reply which by law gets only one tenth the coverage of the budget speech.  (sorry folks, there’s no law like that.  It only seems that way.)

Other parts of the theatre are the timing of the speech – 7.30 on the second Tuesday in May, in time to catch evening television coverage.

It need not be this way.  When John Kerin was treasurer he tried once to deliver the budget at a more sensible time in the afternoon – it fitted better with parliamentary business.

What that meant was that people affected by the budget had a chance to read and analyse it before the nightly news. It led – to the horror of the government – to more in-depth coverage. The experiment was abandoned.

Then there are accidental bits of theatre. When pictures were circulated of then treasurer and finance minister Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann enjoying a cigar on budget night, it confirmed a narrative that the budget that year was for fat cats, not ordinary members of the public.

So remember, what you see in the budget is shaped not just by the content, but by the atmosphere around it. A treasurer is not just a treasurer – they are an actor and a performer on the night. How well they perform will determine how well a budget is received.

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