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The art of the leak: how the budget is strategically doled out for maximum effect

Journalists read through the budget papers in the lock-up - but by then, many of the government’s key initiative had already been selectively leaked. AAP/Lukas Coch

Federal budget night used to be the night of great revelations, a kind of fiscal fireworks display. Now it’s a bit of a fizzer.

It’s still important, of course, but lacks much of the sparkle of surprise that sent newspaper circulations the next morning soaring tens of thousands above their usual weekday average. It was, for most newspapers, the single biggest circulation-booster of the year.

So much has changed: so many new platforms for people to get their news; such a huge decline in the hegemony of newspapers over this kind of detailed, picture-starved news.

At the same time, government media strategy on federal budgets has also changed out of recognition.

For decades, secrecy surrounded budget deliberations, and especially the final measures. It was considered politically virtuous to respect the sanctity of the process, and irresponsible to undermine it.

Partly this was to prevent people profiting in the money markets and on the stock exchange by getting inside information, but it also had a lot to do with ensuring that the government and treasurer of the day got full political bang for their buck on budget night.

When Laurie Oakes published the guts of the 1980 budget on Channel Nine two days before the then-treasurer, John Howard, stood up in the House of Representatives to deliver it, the Fraser government was deeply embarrassed. That leak is still regarded as one of the great political scoops of Australian journalistic history.

But, over time, governments came to see that there was political gain to be had by selectively leaking both the budget deliberations and some of the actual measures.

The operative word is “selective”.

It remains the case that leaks of information that might affect the markets are off-limits, but, beyond that, the selectivity is based on a range of strategic media considerations:

  • Which media outlet will give this leak a big and favourable run?

  • Which outlet best serves the target audience of this leak?

  • Which outlet is likely to be ideologically supportive of what is in the leak?

  • Which outlet is likely to be hostile?

  • Which outlet’s audience is likeliest to respond best to this leak?

  • Is there an outlet that has shown a special interest in this topic or policy?

  • Will an outlet fly this kite for us so we (the government) can see how the wind is blowing?

  • Will this leak put pressure on the opposition or crossbenchers?

  • Is there an outlet or reporter to whom we owe a favour?

  • Is there an outlet or reporter we want to punish?

Paul Keating infamously referred to journalists as being “on the drip” if they supported his policies and was always threatening to take them “off the drip” if they opposed him.

It was a powerful threat, because if you are “off the drip” you will not get a budget leak, and it might go instead to your sworn rival.

Moreover, a budget leak is still a good story – both because it is a leak, and therefore exclusive, and because it usually is about something that will affect a lot of people.

We have seen many of these strategies employed in the lead-up to the 2017 budget.

The Australian newspaper, clearly an ally of the government in prioritising so-called budget repair, has been the beneficiary of many leaks with a budget-repair focus: the mooted axing of the National Affordable Housing Agreement; possible cuts to payments for aged-care providers; work-for-the-dole to be retained – after an earlier piece of kite-flying that it might be axed.

By contrast, the ABC and Fairfax newspapers benefited from leaks with more of a social-justice focus: changes to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme designed to encourage doctors to prescribe cheaper generic brands of drugs; lower-interest loans from an Affordable Housing Finance Corporation; and an apparent softening of the government’s commitment to the proposed $50 billion business tax cuts.

The political salience of these leaks became clear on the Sunday before budget night when Treasurer Scott Morrison asserted that “fairness” would be a key test of the budget’s quality.

The ABC got a leak about a proposed A$1.45 billion investment in regional rail infrastructure, because rural and regional audiences overwhelming get their news from the ABC.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph got a leak on welfare tightening so it could do its usual number on so-called bludgers and cheats. Again on budget morning, it was given another chance to roll out the “bludger” bashing with further leaks. From a media strategist’s point of view, its ensuing front page was gratifyingly graphic.

A kite was flown about scrapping the aged pension for those whose entitlements fell below $20 a week, but this created such a public outcry that within a few hours Malcolm Turnbull killed it off in a tweet.

These strategic leaks are calculated to give the government lots of publicity for the parts of the budget it thinks will win it kudos, but also to get some controversial measures out of the way so that it has clear air to sell the positives in the post-budget selling season.

This brings risks. These have been well illustrated this time by the announcement that funding to schools is to be reviewed – again – and that a couple of dozen very wealthy schools will have their government funding cut.

This has re-opened a festering sore on the Australian body politic that never seems to heal.

The independent schools lobby has reminded everyone that a lot of independent schools are not wealthy and that even the wealthy schools have a lot of pupils whose parents make big financial sacrifices to send their children there.

Politically, this is bad enough from a section of the community that contains many conservative voters. Worse still, from the government’s point of view, is that the Catholic schools lobby, which has a very broad constituency, has come out strongly against the proposals.

Ventilating this proposal early might have had the effect of getting it out of the way before the post-budget selling season, but it has also given the protests from the non-government school lobbies plenty of exposure.

Media strategies, however clever, don’t on their own solve policy problems or turn bad solutions into good ones.

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