Locked Out of a Lock-Up

7 May 2018

The second consecutive year of student media being prohibited from the federal budget media lock-up has brought incredulous disbelief from student journalists and the shadow government, as well as criticism from the mainstream media. This ultimately creates a sense of foreboding regarding the future for young Australians and their perceived worth within the Australian government.

The federal budget media lock-up occurs in the hours before the budget is announced to the public by the treasurer. Selected media representatives are locked into one room for six hours without internet or mobiles and are given a copy of the entire budget. They then have that time to dissect and scrutinise the budget pre-release, with uninhibited access to Treasury officials to discuss and explain the budget, as well as answer their questions. At 7:30pm when the doors are opened and the budget is released, the journalists are then able to inform the public on the positive and negative aspects of the budget, and how it will impact them for the coming year.

The national post-budget conversation is dominated by that evening’s coverage, and in particular the coverage from media outlets which were able to access the budget early in the lock-up. Last year, 580 media personnel were allowed into the budget lock-up. Some used this opportunity to film comedy skits and behind-the-scenes coverage of the lock-up.

Upon request to join the budget lock-up this year, all student publications were immediately rejected.

“Due to space restrictions, the lock-up is limited to professional news publications only,” read Treasury’s reply to the applications of student media.

Student media were allowed into the budget lock-up in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Farrago’s requests for further explanation on this issue have been ignored.

The 2017–2018 budget lock-up last year, when student media was first excluded, housed a budget that further hindered young Australians through university funding cuts, fee increases and a reduction in the HELP repayment threshold. The outlook for the 2018–2019 federal budget, already indicated to be “Baby-Boomer friendly”, looks to be continuing on the same detrimental path.

Shadow Assistant Treasurer Dr Andrew Leigh MP, who edited University of Sydney student publication Honi Soit in 1993, agrees with this prediction.

“This is not going to be a budget that is good for young Australians. This has been a government which has taken active decisions which have hurt young Australians at every turn,” he told Farrago.

The rationale behind student media’s exclusion instigates incredulity both inside and outside the student community—even amongst fellow journalists.

Josh Gordon, former state political editor of The Age, understands firsthand what it is like within a lock-up and finds the government’s justification weak.

“Having covered 18 federal budgets and numerous state budgets, I can, however, understand the concerns about space—up to a point. It is crowded in the lock-up. This does not, however, mean that some access for those with a track record as student journalists should not be granted, within reason.”

Likewise, Dr Alex Wake, senior journalism lecturer at RMIT, with over 30 years experience in journalism and 2011 Asia Pacific Academic Fellow for the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, cuts right to the chase when approached for comment.

“I don’t believe for one moment that it is a space issue, I believe it’s to keep out parts of the student body that they fear may be disruptive.”

Access to the budget lock-up would give student media access to scrutinise the budget on issues directly impacting students and enable them to discuss these details with treasury officials. The exclusion from this opportunity limits the analytic quality of these issues for students. It also hinders student media from bringing up contentious issues in the national debate immediately alongside other news sources.

The value of student debate contributing to the larger national conversation cannot be underestimated.

“If you look back through the big debates that have been led by students, they’ve proven to be on the right side of history… the voices of students needs to be heard. Today’s students are going to be more affected by the decisions we make in the budget than older Australians,” Leigh stated.

One of the trademarks of successful democratic debate is the equal inclusion of all parties. Gordon concurs that facilitating the engagement of young Australians can only further benefit society.

“I think it is a very positive thing if younger adults are included in the political debate. Attending the lock-up could be considered part of that inclusion.”

This poorly disguised exclusion of student media is symptomatic of a larger and more troubling fact that the government is knowingly screwing-over its younger citizens and trying to suppress the backlash for its decisions. Wake channeled this conclusion.

“It is distressing that the government doesn’t acknowledge the need for young people to have appropriate information about the budget produced for them…a government committed to a free and independent press should also be committed to the education of student journalists. The prime minister and education minister should be insisting that treasury support student journalism attending the budget lock-up,” she said.

Student media remains the megaphone through which we speak truth to power of the issues impacting our generation. Leigh agreed that being provided an equal opportunity to critique our government demonstrates a government that has faith in its own policies.

“The mark of a great government is the willingness to be criticised, so regardless of whether student media is writing positively or negatively about it, we have an obligation to broaden the democratic conversation as much as possible,” he said.

Students will build the future from the foundations created from policies today. By blatantly refusing student media any position within the budget lock-up, the government is purposely trying to silence this generation, as well as inadvertently admitting their lack of faith in the budget of their own creation.

“I think [this] is a government which knows deep down that their solutions have not been good for young Australians and is frightened of criticism,” Leigh said.

Student media is one of the oldest continuous forms of journalism in Australia, having outlived many mainstream publications over the years. It has, and always will, voice the concerns of the demographic it represents and call out those that unjustly or underhandedly try to take advantage of its generation. We, the young Australians of today, are a part of this nation and deserve the respect to have representation within the budget lock-up, as well as the respect to have our concerns on policies heard. Especially when those policies have been made by politicians long out of touch with the youth of today who cannot relate to what it means to live in this era as a student.

Furthermore, this continued attempt to silence our voice has made us louder and has demonstrated that the government is afraid to give us an equal opportunity to critique their policies impacting young Australians.

As the old saying goes: “if you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide.”

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