Budget Lockup 2020 – A report from the inside

A special report from Kiwiblog analyst :

Today I attended my first ever Lockup in the Beehive’s awkwardly shaped Banquet Hall. I could see the screens and the speaker’s podium which is good sign. Famously, if you are seated somewhere where you cannot it is a clear message you are not considered important.

In a normal year, I would probably be in one of those seats of shame. However, this year’s lockup was different. For starters it was the smallest in modern times with only Parliamentary Press Gallery and 25 independent analysts allowed in. The analysts were only allowed in at the last minute and only if the country dropped to level 2 COVID-19 alert. It did so 10 hours and 47 minutes ago and here I am, the only member of the briefing wearing sneakers.

Social distancing is not very social in real life. Having been confined to home or the supermarket for six weeks, it was unusual and honestly unnerving to be out and about with other people. It was interesting to watch journalists, economists and commentators waiting to get in trying to power mingle on the Beehive’s semi-circular balcony while maintaining correct social distancing.

At 11am the lock down starts as the first document is distributed and the race is on. The first impression is that is a lot of information – media releases, Wellbeing Budget report, and additional information on a USB stick. In addition, you can ask a Treasury officer to see three more documents with long technical names, or beg for another USB stick (if numbers permit).

All Governments release a lot of information in the lockup – it is a long-standing political strategy to control the message as much as possible. Governments want media and analysts to use their language and their numbers. They have branded it the “Wellbeing Budget 2020: Rebuilding Together” but others here will be searching for other, possibly less kind, names. Accordingly, the official messages are nicely packaged up into press releases which can be cut and pasted. Of course, those in the lockup want to find the real message, their own angle, test the maths and consider the actual impact on the economy or their industry.

Unlike many of the trade organisations here, Kiwiblog covers the entire gambit of politics, economics, and trolling. This of course means I cannot just go to the section on my sector. Having read and analysed budgets for many years, I can confirm that being able to do that makes it a lot more manageable. Here, I will take a broad view and note my views do not represent Kiwiblog.

However, the document distributors are hovering, and my three hours are about to begin.

The Government is promising 8000 more public houses to be delivered. We have heard plenty of promises about building houses and planting trees before. This time, Hon Megan Wood gets a chance to address the Government’s poor record on delivery.

It is a big-spending budget as was to be expected. There is a $50b COVID-19 package though much of the money has already been spent. Health also receives a substantial boost as was to be expected in the situation. There are no new taxes so the funding will be covered by debt which has to be repaid sometime.

One of the hardest things about reading a Budget is that the same money can be counted multiple times. For example, there is a press release on $900m to support Maori. There is a $911m Maori package, but it is spread across nine portfolios and is announced and counted in other releases many times. For example, $136m extra for Whanau Ora is announced and counted under social support as well..

Defence gets $1.77b which may surprise many. Most of that (898m) is contingent capital funding for C-130J Super Hercules airplanes – but Cabinet is yet to approve a business case. Ron Mark said “progressing the procurement of the C-130J Super Hercules continues to be my highest priority as Minister of Defence.”

Grant Robertson said “This strong fiscal position, built on the work of Bill English and Michael Cullen, now means we are much better placed than many other countries.” We certainly did not hear this praise of Mr English’s financial management on the campaign trail or in the House before COVID-19.

If you want to play a Budget Day drinking game (responsibly) at home, drink every time a speech or press release  today mentions New Zealand going hard and early”, “a team of five million” or “cushioning the blow”. You may be surprised at the results!

For the record there was nothing to drink at the Budget lockup, not even water. I really could have done with a cold beer by 2pm… However, the biggest tragedy of the lockup was the food. In the sense that there was not any. My whole life had been building towards trying one of the famous Budget sausage rolls, and this was the first year they did not appear. I now hate COVID-19 even more than before. Disclaimer: I really like sausage rolls. The Minister of Finance went out of his way to stress the decision was made the Speaker, not him.

Neil Miller is a former National Party staffer, now a policy analyst, writer and radio commentator. He has known and worked with Mr David Farrar for a long time. How long? At their first meeting Mr Farrar was sporting a fine mullet (“the calm before the storm”) but it sadly did not last long and tragically was in the days before Facebook. He is currently eating a sausage roll.

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