How to work with media ahead of the Australian Federal Budget 2021

Ahead of the Australian Federal Budget being handed down on Tuesday, 11th May, Telum Media spoke with some of the leading Federal Political Reporters about what PRs and journalists should know about the Budget process, from a media perspective, and the logistics for the infamous "lockup".

Angus Livingston, Federal Bureau Chief, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age
What will budget day look like for your team?
We'll be working out of our Canberra press gallery office and communicating with the rest of our team in Sydney. Everything is planned ahead of time, so all the reporters and editors know which stories are being done, their length, and where they'll go on the page. It's a busy time but being organised helps.

What should people know about the lockup process if they've not been through it before?
There is an overwhelming amount of detail so know what you're looking for going in. Also make sure you have food and snacks because it's long.

When / how should organisations impacted and experts who can comment get in touch with your bureau?
Get in touch straight away but be prepared to have to make the same points again the next day and day after. There's only so much space on the night, so reactions will form more of the follow-up.

Clare Armstrong, National Political Reporter, The Daily Telegraph

What will the day in budget lockup look like for you?
Much like last year, this year's lockup does not take place in the one central room with lots of journalists, but instead will be in the individual press gallery offices. So may day will start as a fairly normal one until shortly before 1.30pm when a Treasury official will come into the room and oversee us putting all our phones into a box. Meanwhile our IT team will disconnect our computers from the internet so we can only use them for typing. Then the Treasury officials will hand out physical copies of the budget papers, along with a USB containing all the PDFs. Each of my colleagues and I will be pre-assigned certain topics and areas to cover, but I'll also keep an eye out for anything new we hadn't anticipated. About half way through the six-hour lockup we will be escorted into the Main Committee room in Parliament where the Treasurer and Finance Minister will hold a press conference. Then it's back to my desk to keep writing and have stories ready to go online by the time the Treasurer starts speaking at 7.30pm, which is when we start chasing third parties for reaction and commentary to add in. 

What are your lockup survival tips?
I try to take in as much material as I can from previous announcements as one of the questions I am often yelling across the room to no one in particular is "is this announcement/money/modelling new?!". So it helps to have on hand what we already knew was coming either from lead up announcements or last year's Budget to avoid getting excited about something that had already existed. Otherwise my other actual tip is there are no dumb questions. I try to make the most of the Treasury officials available to answer any and all queries because you'll save yourself a lot of confusion, plus you may discover something you weren't expecting. 

Walk us through your strategy for the day
I don't have a particular strategy. It's really just about making the most of the six hours to get your head around the important stuff and try not to miss any of the "catches" in certain policies or announcements like a delayed start date for a funding program, or assumptions built into the Budget around things like COVID-19 recovery, border reopening, migration.

When should people get in touch with you if they're pitching a budget-related story?
I much prefer it when people reach out in the days leading up to offer contact information for experts in various fields and industries able to give reaction on the night. That way if I come out of lockup needing commentary on a particular issue I already have an idea of who I can go to who I know will answer the phone even though it's 8pm at night. If people have good case studies for certain issues it's also handy to get in contact the week before so we can photograph them prior to Budget day.

Denham Sadler, Senior Reporter, InnovationAus
What will the day in lockup look like for you? 
It’s always a pretty hectic and stressful day, but really enjoyable to be a part of it all. I usually fly into Canberra the night before, so can have a fairly leisurely morning and head into Parliament for lunch before handing over my phone and heading into the lockup in the early arvo. From there it’s flat out until the Treasurer steps up at 7.30pm and we rush to publish our stories, with little room for breaks in the middle.

What are your lockup survival tips?
Snacks! Us smaller publications don’t get any food supplied so bringing in a weeks’ worth of rations is the most important part to keep the typing going throughout the afternoon. It’s also important to not get caught up in the stress of the day and work at your own pace, and try not to psych yourself out that you’re missing the biggest story hidden in the budget.

What's your strategy for the day? 
I think it’s really important to have niche, specialised reporters and publications in the lockup, so I’m on the lookout for the big stories in the tech policy space that may not be covered by the bigger companies. There is always an enormous amount of tech spending buried in the budget, so it’s my job to dig that up and decipher what’s going on with it all. The mountain of press releases are a good place to start to see what the government wants us to be looking at, but pouring over the actual papers, looking into the forward estimates and talking with the department officials is where the real stories are.
When should people should get in touch with budget-related stories? 

I’m not really fussed about what time, with a big news story like the budget I’ll be reading all the emails anyway. But the next day on Wednesday is when we’re looking at reactions, follow-ups and more in-depth reporting on the budget, so first thing on that day is probably best.

Josh Butler, Political Editor, The New Daily:

What will the day in the budget lockup look like for you?
A long day! Some people call it ‘nerd Christmas’ and I actually find it a fun day with lots of people around as the place is buzzing. Get into work early, hear the final words from the government and others, then fill in the hours until lockup starts. Lockup last year and this year is different, as we’re ‘locked’ in our press gallery offices instead of the big committee rooms (thanks COVID). Last year felt almost like a normal day of work, not the novelty of cramming into the busy committee rooms and sharing desks with other journos.

Walk us through your strategy for the day.
I skim through the pile of papers looking for big ticket numbers first (deficit, debt) and then pore over each book (highlighters and sticky flags, essentials!) to find the interesting and important bits. I’m writing 3-4 stories, so looking for common themes, how policies link, and what they mean politically. It’s a mix of madly reading through the papers, then wandering around to chat with other journos and compare notes. It’s always a mad sprint to finish by 7.30pm.
What do you usually do after you're let out of lockup?

Post-lockup is just as busy, getting reactions from politicians and interest groups, to see whether the budget is shot down quickly or welcomed. Hopefully at some point, you manage to inhale a beer and a slice of pizza. 

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Joshua Butler

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Angus Livingston

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Clare Armstrong

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