Lock­ups and lam­ing­tons:

The Press - - In Depth - Henry Cooke henry.cooke@stuff.co.nz

Com­men­ta­tors might be call­ing it a pale-blue Bud­get, but Grant Robert­son’s stag­ing for his first Bud­get was all deep red.

Red tie. Red cover on the book­let. Red back-light­ing. Even red lam­ing­tons topped with red straw­ber­ries to feed the jour­nal­ists with – al­though in a play to coalition pol­i­tics, there were also ki­wifruit-topped green lam­ing­tons (the most pop­u­lar) and chocolate-topped black lam­ing­tons.

The Bud­get lockup is the high­light of far too many Welling­to­ni­ans’ cal­en­dars. A bat­tal­ion of jour­nal­ists, an­a­lysts, and other peo­ple who or­bit the gov­ern­ment all get locked in a room with the Bud­get doc­u­ments for 31⁄2 hours be­fore those doc­u­ments are made pub­lic.

It’s like a high school exam for peo­ple who loved high school ex­ams – ex­cept that at the end all your es­says all get pub­lished to the world, and there are Trea­sury of­fi­cials pac­ing the room to an­swer your ques­tions.

Ev­ery step of the process is rit­u­alised. First the jour­nal­ists file into the room about 10am. In pre­vi­ous years there was some­thing of an undig­ni­fied rush, but the fi­nance min­is­ter’s of­fice man­aged to al­lo­cate seat­ing this year, lead­ing to a much more som­bre pro­ces­sion into the cav­ernous and curv­ing Bee­hive Ban­quet Hall.

Robert­son had spent months telling the coun­try we needed to be som­bre about this Bud­get – with a par­tic­u­lar wink to the busi­ness com­mu­nity, which has been uneasy about the new Gov­ern­ment.

Yes, the books were in great shape – but, no, there would not be many pricey sur­prises in there.

Robert­son even con­tin­ued this ex­pec­ta­tion-set­ting on the morn­ing of the Bud­get, telling diehard Labour fans on Jacinda Ardern’s Face­book livestream ‘‘no­body will be com­pletely happy’’.

Jour­nal­ists are never even re­motely happy. As the em­bargo be­gan at 10.30am, we all du­ti­fully turned our phones to aero­plane mode, re­mem­ber­ing all too well how em­bar­rassed New­shub had been when a snip­pet of cash rate in­for­ma­tion had leaked out in a 2016 non-Bud­getary lockup.

This in­for­ma­tion – which in­cludes Trea­sury pro­jec­tions on a whole range of eco­nomic in­di­ca­tors, could be used to make a lot of money in the wrong hands. So the se­cu­rity makes sense – but it also feels very strange not be­ing able to Google key de­tails from the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies just when you need them most.

As re­porters and an­a­lysts tapped away at their lap­tops and sifted through hun­dreds of pages of doc­u­ments, cam­eras roamed the room, film­ing B-roll for their 6pm Bud­get pack­ages and even a skit for The Project.

One en­ter­pris­ing fi­nan­cial jour­nal­ist even brought in a gi­ant desk­top-sized iMac to make all of our lap­tops look ter­ri­ble, as he al­ways does.

The few spin doc­tors from the fi­nance min­is­ter’s of­fice talked to jour­nal­ists at a fu­ri­ous pace. The Trea­sury of­fi­cials – who can’t be quoted or used to make par­ti­san points, only asked for clar­ity – walked up and down the room ask­ing col­leagues par­tic­u­larly nig­gly ques­tions from re­porters. The Gov­ern­ment spends more than $80 bil­lion a year, but you’d be sur­prised how across it all some peo­ple seem.

About half­way through the lockup, Robert­son emerged to make his speech, ac­com­pa­nied by his as­so­ciate fi­nance min­is­ters (one from Labour, one from the Greens, and one from NZ First) – as well as En­ergy Min­is­ter Me­gan Woods, for some rea­son. He might have wanted a woman on stage.

De­spite all the un­der­selling,

ROBERT KITCHIN/ STUFF

The Trea­sury put on red, green, and black lam­ing­tons (rep­re­sent­ing the coalition colours) for the gath­ered me­dia and Bud­get an­a­lysts in the Bee­hive lockup.

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