The Federal budget media circus

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The budget is too important and too technical to be understood and reported on based on a six-hour lockdown by political journalists, almost all of whom have no practical understanding of economics or finance, says managing editor and long-time accountant and finance analyst David Donovan. All we are getting at this stage, he says, is Government and Opposition spin, with a small amount of largely uninformed, and rather worthless, amateur analysis.

The Canberra lockdown: where political journalists pretend to understand economics.

As a former accountant and finance analyst, I look forward to budget night with feverish, trembling, anticipation. With calculator poised and laptop fired up and with Microsoft Excel already open, I exultantly digest every one of Wayne Swan’s weary nervous-sounding words with the trembling excitement normally reserved for a jolly-good royal wedding…

…I’m so sorry, I can’t go on. I’m making myself feel a little ill.

I must confess, I didn’t watch the budget.

In fact, I never watch the budget.

Yes, I am a qualified financial professional, and I worked as one for the better part of two decades in many parts of the world for some of the world’s biggest banks and commercial operations, which just means I have done enough soul-sapping budgets, forecasts, tax plans and financial reporting to know that all the detailed and useful information is not going to be read out in the Treasurer's speech — which is really just a long-winded PR blurb.

The real nitty-gritty will come out through patient analysis of the detail – much of which will probably not have been released in the budget papers – over weeks and months and almost certainly won’t be stumbled upon in departmental press releases in a 6-hour lockdown at Parliament House by political journalists (AKA Arts graduates). Mind you, that’s not to say financial journalists would do any better; they usually have no practical finance or business experience, but make a career out of parroting what other “experts” may have said — such is the echo-chamber that makes up Australia’s mass media landscape.

All we are getting, at this stage, is Government and Opposition spin, with a small amount of largely uninformed, and rather worthless, amateur analysis.

(Incidentally, why is it that journalists regard 6 hours without their mobile phones as being worse than 6 years in Guantanamo Bay — poor delicate flowers.)

Yes, the Australian media hype budget night like it is going to be more exciting than the Rio Carnivale. Intrinsically, a budget is extremely dull and it is always going to be extremely dull for the vast majority of people. Maybe when the Howard Government was in power and many watched to see what juicy middle-class voter bribes he was going to buy them with that year things were a little different, but these days – where the Government has already announced all the goodies they’ll be doling out in the weeks leading up to the budget – it is truly pathetically dull for most people. Especially with a more austere budget, such as the one just announced.

The point is, most of the initiatives in the budget don’t come into effect immediately, and so whatever was announced won’t usually impact the average voter for several weeks or months, or even years, until the day they get their tax refund back. Therefore, it seems to me that the mass media in this country react to the budget in a manner that is so entirely over-the-top that, in practical terms, that it is not particularly useful to anyone. They do it in this way because most of the journalists reporting on the budget are political journalists, and most of them can’t see beyond the end of their nose, or at least the next Newspoll, let alone the big picture.

Is there really a need for a lockdown? Couldn’t the budget be read out and we could all find out about it sometime the following day or week? Does it really need to be reported in full in tomorrow’s newspapers? Is it absolutely essential we have breathless commentary online within moments of the end of, or even during, Swan’s speech?

For people on average incomes, for whom most policy initiatives probably won’t affect them substantially, it is enough for them to find out about any budget changes in the days and weeks after it is announced. There is no need for this race to report, this hype — the information is simply not that time sensitive or sensational.

I have a couple of working theories about the media hype, but they are just theories, no more.

Beyond the fact it is reported on by the political journo crowd, the budget is reported with such enthusiasm by the media because it is of incredible interest to the rich and powerful —which naturally includes media proprietors. Moguls stand to make, or maybe lose, big money as a result of changes to tax laws and other budget initiatives. And they think all people are as avariciously concerned about these matters as they are, hence they urge and ensure their publications and outlets report on the budget with the frantic and frenetic diligence of little worker bees.

Of course, the mass media also simply love to report a staged event. Editors undoubtedly think it’s wonderful when they can plan, get reporters to turn up at a fixed place at a certain time, be given reams of information and then keep two thirds of page one, most of page 2 and then page 4-13 devoted exclusively to a set event. Refer also to the royal wedding.

But, let’s not kid ourselves — the budget is important. Too important, in fact, to be reported in the way it is — with hasty speculation and hype. It determines the spending and revenue raising measures by the Federal Government over the coming year and beyond. For comfortable middle Australia, the budget may be of not great interest, most of the time – but for those on the margins – the poor, the disadvantaged, the people in care, the homeless, the sick and the disabled – a federal budget can be a make or break.

So, to the MSM, I urge you to relax, read the paper properly. Maybe even ask a few people – people with skills like myself, for example – who actually understand economics and finance to analyse the papers over the course of a week or two and then come out with all your considered responses. As it is, the Canberra lockdown is just a circus.

(Follow David Donovan on Twitter at @davrosz.)

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