A few hours before the budget is announced to the public, journalists and other interested parties get a preview in a secure room deep inside the Beehive. This year, Jess McAllen was among them.
The night before the budget is released political journalists stock up on lollies. On the day, plates of lamingtons, in red, green and brown are laid out for them. The colours represent the coalition partners (Labour, Greens, NZ First) but the real insight – like an octopus predicting soccer world cup results – comes from the lamingtons left over at the end of the day: all green.
Budget Day – also known as ‘the day breaking news alerts go bananas’ or ‘why does this chronic Facebook meme tagger suddenly think he’s a financial advisor?’ – is when the government sets out its future plans. It dictates where money will be be spent and where it will be cut (RIP the NASA teacher ambassador programme).
The budget is made public at 2pm, but journalists, economic types and analysts have access to it from 10.30am, in a locked room inside the Beehive. This gives journalists enough time to analyse the budget, ask questions and work on stories before the embargo is lifted. Because budgets contain information that can influence the financial markets, no communication is allowed with the outside world once the lockup begins.
It’s like a sleepover, with all the lollies. An exam, with all the pen and paper. A digital detox, with all the blocked internet access. A nightmare, with all those smart and opinionated people gathered together in one curving banquet hall.
There’s a digital clock above the Spinoff table (we’re sharing with Newstalk ZB; Barry Soper arrives late) and at 10.29am a man with a pen tucked behind his ear addresses the room.
We’re told that even in the event of an emergency or security situation the budget’s embargo still can’t be lifted. Presumably there are people in this room who would rather dash out a quick story on state houses and hospital rebuilds than stop, drop and hold under a trestle table.
Treasury staff, who up until now have been blending in with the walls, emerge to drop off media packs which include the budget, brief pamphlets and what must be a ream of press releases. It’s double-sided print though. The coffee cups are also eco friendly.
I see a group of men with mugs that say ‘I’m not a mug, I’m a taxpayer’.
“Are you the Taxpayers Union?” I ask.
They are, and they offer me a mug. Jordan Williams turns around and sees my name tag.
“Oh, you’re from The Spinoff,” he says, disapprovingly. “I looooooooove The Spinoff”.
I never get the mug.
There are ham wraps next to a sign that says ‘lamingtons’. Is all not as it seems? Is the sweet promise really a pig? I think about Gareth Morgan and lipstick. There are puns and metaphors everywhere – perhaps there’s something in the choice to accent the NZ First lamington with a piece of Whittaker’s chocolate, not Cadbury? I am thinking in riddles and want to call something “dramatic and devastating”, like Patrick Gower announcing a new poll. I need to get out, breathe some fresh air, fire off an Instagram picture.
It suddenly strikes me that I’m very out of place. I’m not a political journalist, nor very inclined towards economics, and am here because The Spinoff had a spare seat after their data journalist fell ill. Looking around, I see that all the other journalists are reading the pages intensely. So I do the same.
Here are a few things I found interesting, many of which haven’t had a lot of airplay:
- An $8.1 million boost to “maintain a national security guard workforce to prevent and manage security incidents at Work and Income sites”. This is set to tide staff over until long-term physical security requirements are finalised and implemented through a “Future State Physical Security Environment” project
- Free GP visits extended to 13-year-olds and cheaper visits for those with Community Service Cards.
- $4.8 million over four years towards “Bloodstock Tax Deductions – Supporting the New Zealand Racing Industry”. In a press release Winston Peters said the tax deduction “can be claimed for the costs of high-quality horses acquired with the intention to breed”.
- The only mental health outcome seems to be $10.49 million for a free counselling pilot for people aged 18-25. This is somewhat confusing as DHBs already offer free counselling, for anyone, but access is super patchy.
- Labour are reprioritising the $100 million National set aside for mental health initiatives and putting it back into other health areas. That’s not to dismiss how increased GP access will undoubtedly help many with mild to moderate mental health issues but it seems not much will change in the mental health system until at least next year. A pity, as it is an issue that brought up so many emotions for people reliving traumatic experiences when it became a major election topic last year. But perhaps not altogether surprising as the focus was largely on youth, at the expense of other at-risk age cohorts.
- Speaking of mental health, it’s interesting the inquiry is referred to as the “Mental Health Crisis Ministerial Inquiry” in the budget summary booklet
- But at least there’s $100 million in funding for the 36th America’s Cup, right?
So my food metaphor is that the budget is like the vegetarian tartlet I had for lunch: it promised to be good for me, it probably was, but it was also lukewarm. I don’t mind cold tartlets and I don’t mind hot tartlets but where do you stand with a lukewarm tartlet?
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