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