Budget lockup: behind the scenes

First in: Reporters had a few hours to get through budget papers before it was released to the public. Photograph Stefan Bradley



REPORTERS gathered in a room at 55 Collins Place, Melbourne on Tuesday, May 23.

Treasurer Tim Pallas’ many months of work was finally available for them to see in the form of State Budget 2023/24.

From 9am to 1pm, journalists were not allowed to communicate outside of the room with their smart devices or through the internet, armed only with pens, highlighters, Microsoft Word documents, and the bulky budget papers.

Treasury officials, the Treasurer himself and even Premier Daniel Andrews were available to put it all in context.

Mr Andrews being there was a surprise for the reporters, as it’s understood he’s never made an appearance at a lockup before – where the Treasurer is usually the main star. He was very upbeat and ready to answer questions, despite prior media reports labelling these papers a ‘horror budget’.

Mr Pallas told reporters this budget, his ninth, was the hardest one he’s ever had to put together.

Is it a horror budget? As usual, it depends on who you ask.

Everyone has their main issue, whether it’s cost of living, their jobs, the environment, animal welfare, taxes, the arts, health, roads, safety, and countless others.

Of course, for Gippslanders, the big shock is the early shutdown of the native timber industry; what was six years away is now six months.

No doubt communities in towns such as Morwell, Heyfield, Yarram and Orbost are stunned, whereas those who aimed to shut it down are celebrating.

This issue will no doubt be very prominent on the pages of the Express over the next few weeks. The Treasurer indicated that the decision had weighed heavily on him as well.

“I have sympathy for forestry workers … we don’t have satisfaction in any of this,” he told reporters.

Mr Pallas said the earlier closure was in response to action in higher courts and risk of further third-party litigation.

With VicForest ordered to stop native harvesting, many workers are stuck at home doing nothing.

Mr Pallas hopes this will allow the uncertainty to stop and those affected to move forward.

“Litigation has frustrated this industry,” Mr Pallas said.

“The VicForests case is not the only one.”

Every impacted worker will be offered free re-training.

Big business and landlords will bear the brunt of paying back the COVID debt after being slugged with a 10-year levy.

The Treasurer said he didn’t want debt to be a “dead weight” on the state’s economy or have to be paid back by the next generation.

“Kids won’t need to pay for the COVID (debt) for the rest of their lives,” he said, and also acknowledged the trauma children suffered during the pandemic.

At 1pm, the budget lockup ended, as did the embargo. The news would go out as Tim Pallas delivered his speech in Parliament.

The speech returned to the theme of ‘Doing What Matters’ from last November’s state election. This budget, and the speech, focused on the government’s commitments it took to the election, such as the revival of the SEC.

What’s remarkable about this budget is the lack of major announcements before it was handed down. With much of 2023/24 dedicated to balancing the books, it seems like the government didn’t want news of the COVID debt levies to get out.

Will we return to usual big announcements and spending next year, or will it be an even tougher budget with far fewer election commitments to fund?