11 May 2024

The Budget lockup – a timeless tradition or pointless anachronism?

| Andrew McLaughlin
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The Treasurer’s Budget Speech is a leftover from the days of theatrical parliamentary speeches. Photo: Jim Chalmers Facebook.

My colleague at Region and I have spent several weeks organising ourselves for tomorrow’s Budget lockup at Parliament House.

We have been required to complete an IT audit detailing what devices we’ll be bringing on Budget Day. We will also be required to surrender our phones from 1 pm to 7:30 pm and disable the Wi-Fi on our laptops.

While we’ll be given the Budget documents at 1 pm so we can dissect them and write our stories, we cannot file anything until the Treasurer stands up in the House of Representatives to deliver his Budget Speech at 7:35 pm.

But why? It’s not like most of the announcements are going to be a surprise to anyone.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or travelling the past week, the news has been awash with ‘pre-budget announcements’ of measures that will appear in the actual Budget.

Even a quick glance at the first couple of pages of Riotact and PS News will show several stories we’ve written about major announcements in the past few days.

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These include but are not limited to:

  • The Defence National Strategy and Integrated Investment Plan
  • The Commonwealth Prac Payment for nurses, midwives, teachers and social workers
  • Indexation changes and relief for students with HECS/HELP debts
  • Additional fee-free TAFE and RTO spaces for aspiring construction workers
  • Further savings of $1 billion by employing more public servants and fewer contractors and consultants
  • $250 million to revamp the Australian Institute of Sport
  • Funding for Canberra’s Stage 2B Light Rail link to Woden and the new national Active Transport Fund
  • Funding for yet another study into a new stadium for Canberra
  • More security measures for Services Australia shopfronts and offices
  • That all 44 recommendations from the Services Australia Security Risk Management ‘Ashton’ Review will be implemented, and…
  • More road funding for western Sydney.

Elsewhere, the government has also announced:

  • An upgrade of the Westport container terminal precinct in WA
  • Bigger investments in mineral exploration through Geoscience Australia
  • $1.89 billion for Health Research for a Future Made in Australia package
  • More than $519 million for the Future Drought Fund
  • $492 million over three years for the Asian Development Fund
  • $166 million for reforms to money laundering and anti-terror financing laws
  • Funding for the development of an app and website to protect identity credentials
  • An expanded parental leave scheme, including superannuation payments while on leave
  • A continuation of energy bill relief after 1 July
  • Additional funding for Medicare to cover longer appointments for endometriosis and PCOS sufferers
  • The recommendations from the Universities Accord will be fully funded, and …
  • The establishment of a new National Road Safety Data Hub.

I’m sure I’ve missed some, but my point is clear – that’s already a pretty comprehensive list of announcements, and the Budget is still more than 24 hours away.

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In addition, Treasurer Jim Chalmers has already told us that the debt in the Budget will be $152 billion lower than forecast and that there will be $80 billion in interest savings over the next decade.

It’s pretty clear why governments release Budget details before the actual Budget. It spreads the announcements out so some don’t get buried or forgotten, it gives politicians an opportunity to travel to the locations affected by the announcements for the all-important doorstop interviews and photo-ops with hard hats and high-viz vests, and it gives politically-aligned state and local politicians a chance to bask in the glory of these announcements.

No doubt there will still be plenty of things to announce on Budget night, in particular the minutia and details of spending over the forward estimates and out years, while smaller but no-less-important wholly or jointly-funded infrastructure, health, education, defence and other portfolio announcements will also be made.

It’s a well-worn leftover from when Parliamentary speeches were theatrical in nature. To this day, it continues to be accompanied by numerous self-congratulatory chants of “HEAR HEAR” from the government’s side and a gloomy and brooding silence from the Opposition and most of the cross-benches.

But with the number of announcements already made and likely more to come, the idea of media lockups and embargoes to prevent the theft of the Treasurer’s thunder or to, ostensibly, not influence the stock market is outdated. And despite Jim Chalmers being one of the better speakers in recent years, it could easily be argued that the Treasurer’s Budget speech is an outdated anachronism as well.

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