Budget night insight, from on the ground: why being in Canberra matters, and how to use it to your advantage
I've now worked on, and observed, the federal budget from afar for 22 years. It's usually exciting. Over the years we've had plenty of strong replay for clients’ messages in media around budget night.
There’s a big difference between watching it play out on a screen and being in Canberra. Nothing beats being in Parliament House on the night to be heard, and to gain maximum leverage in post-budget media coverage.
This year I was there in person – a bit player in Australia's ritualistic political, economic and media 'night of nights'.
As The Barefoot Investor noted, “we’re the only country that goes a little ‘Hollywood’ for the budget”.
Australia has particular appetite and anticipation for this annual event that’s not seen in other countries.
Like most Australians, I'll probably never understand the full political machinations of what looks like part party, part bullfight.
I have, however, seen enough to work out that, like most news events, there's a formula for getting your story told. We’ve “newsjacked” successfully for clients through the years from all over the country. I now suggest it works best if you're on the spot in Canberra.
There's a caveat – it needs to be significant enough to your strategy and stakeholders to merit attending and losing a day or two of your life. For many of our clients, budget is only about their clients and commercial partners such as financial planners. It's not about media. But if you have i) a strong public policy goal, ii) stakeholders who are deeply affected by the budget and iii) the authority or boldness to advocate for them, then Parliament House is compulsory on the second Tuesday in May. Here's what you need to know to use that time and effort to maximum advantage.
Having the right connections, in advance, is essential. Conversations ahead of, and on, the night can save a lot of work and help avoid minefields.
It's less of an insiders' game than you might think.
For the most part, superannuation, insurance, and investment industry and professional bodies are well connected in Canberra. Their CEOs and subject matter experts (aka technical or policy people) are, for the most part, a good source of insight about the politics of the budget, the likely announcements and responses, and the policy implications.
Direct relationships with politicians can be worthwhile, when well thought out. We and our clients have typically found politicians of both major parties open to engagement if the approach delivers value and is respectful of their agenda. Basic research and a few calls to the right people help so that you're cogent in your approaches and public commentary. There are plenty of political and policy landmines in our industry, and myriad interests at play: CEOs who invest the time and effort to fully map and understand these can better orient the business and commentary to the prevailing political winds – on budget night, and year-round.
I saw again this year that everybody in Australia with a vested interest, including most major businesses, has a point of view on the budget.
But not all opinions are equal. Work out who is well informed, has deep insight, and can help you understand the announcements to form your own commentary.
Show up: in person
If securing budget media is sufficiently important to you, you care about politics, or simply want to meet some of the power elite, there's no replacement for walking the halls – for three reasons.
Firstly, the budget night media stand-up is essentially open to all comers, and is recorded by a media gaggle no matter who stands up to comment. There are a few minutes of fame waiting for you just for showing up and having something vaguely interesting to say.
Secondly, if you can get the right pass (or tag along with someone who has), you'll hear the gossip and sentiment firsthand, alongside the official responses to the budget. As a rule, people are a bit more open about what they think in person, whether about budget, the election or the Royal Commission. About half of those thoughts are likely hyperbolic, but tapping into that river of informal news comes in handy, helping to navigate currents and anticipate what’s around the next bend.
Finally, it’s a unique, concentrated, and varied knot of people brought together for a few hours – as an opportunity to meet or reconnect with key people, its exceptional.
Personally, I'm not a networker anymore. After two decades of just about making a profession of it, I gave it up about five years ago in response to a change in personal circumstances. The world, astonishingly, did not end, but I do occasionally feel the wind of missed opportunities blowing past my business.
I'm also not aligned to a political party, so I went to the Liberal Party's budget dinner expecting to know my host, a former colleague, and no one else.
I was entirely wrong. Within an hour I had caught up with representatives of three major financial services brands; CEOs from two member-based organisations; several well-known activist investors; two other former colleagues and a prominent lobbyist. I also shot the breeze with a VC.
If I spend just one hour a year meeting people en masse, this is the time and place to do it.
Coordinate and plan
There's only one way to set yourself up for a win on budget night, regardless of which way the announcements go – and that's to plan.
Clearly, if there's nothing expected that you can comment on, it's not worth the effort. If, on the other hand, there's something to say – commentary your staff, clients or financial advisers rely on that you can make interesting for the media – then plan to. Carefully.
We have a whole webinar on this , but some pointers we didn't share there include the importance of:
Some of our clients and former employers currently lobby or advise government; these can normally make an educated guess about what's coming. Others, often with our help, monitor speculation and check in with insiders or subject matter experts that may have a view or insight.
It all helps with planning your responses (more on that in our webinar and tips) . The perfect preparation is research, rationale and response: think through answers for different circumstances, have a good enough reason to be in the lock-up, and have several hours head start on the budget papers before they hit the media...
Be an early (nocturnal) bird: not worm food
…And that matters because early out wins. If you have a brand that can command some respect, then headlines, space and influence are within your grasp – but they all accrue from speed. In the early moments, there's a very real opportunity to drive the direction of commentary.
The Treasurer's budget speech starts at 7.30pm. At the same time, media who were in the "lockup" are allowed to publish, as their embargo is lifted. If you're issuing a comment or media release, the sooner after 7.30pm the better. Before 8pm is ideal. After 10pm is usually pointless for the first, and often most important, wave of news.
You can only be early if you plan.
Hear the questions: answer them
The exception to the 'early out' rule is what my team call the long tail of the budget. That's where the news frenzy has slid from news peak to mild, real-person, Google panic. We can spot it if we look the right way.
After the headlines people want to understand the real effect – usually on their hip pocket. Go looking for those queries, answer them well in various channels and... BANG.
Leads, subscribers and gratitude.
Then it's a matter of following all the usual smart ways to get information out – a clear commercial rationale, having a defined strategy , using multiple channels, and blending paid, earned and owned media.
To learn more, watch our webinar: Seven Steps to Leverage the Hell Out of Other People's News, and download our seven top tips checklist , or email me directly if you're interested in coming along next year or learning more about our next round of Canberra meetings .