Here's what happened.
Early yesterday journalists were invited to a 10.30 am press conference with the Treasurer in the Parliament House Blue Room “on the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook”.
The blue-covered MYEFO document is about 5mm thick (although the main points could be summarised on a couple of pages).
We turned up to the Blue Room to find no copies of the MYEFO document, and then the Treasurer started speaking.
As he spoke his staff handed out an unusually uninformative 1½ page press release – it included no tables and it was missing vital forecasts such as those for real growth and inflation in the out years.
This meant that with the possible exception of the Treasurer’s staff there was literally only one person in the room who would have known what the forecasts actually said – the Treasurer himself. It later transpired that even he wasn't too sure.
So instead of asking questions about the content, the journalists had to first engage in a fishing excercise asking questions designed to establish what the content was...
JOURNALIST: You said at the start in your opening comments that nominal GDP might be around 3% in 2009-10. Given inflation projections, doesn’t that suggest the economy will at least not be growing in a couple of years’ time or will not be accruing any actual real growth. Also, what does this slashing of surpluses mean for the Government’s infrastructure and aspiration tax cuts?
TREASURER: All of our forecasts are there for you to digest, Laura.
JOURNALIST: They’re not.
JOURNALIST: Sorry we haven’t got any.
JOURNALIST: We normally get the Statement at this point. Why have we not got the statement?
TREASURER: The statement is coming out and you’re going to get a briefing from Treasury, and I’m happy to make myself available.
JOURNALIST: Could you clarify for us the real GDP numbers, Treasurer? You’ve given us one for this year, but what are the out years because you’ve only given us nominal figures.
TREASURER: 2009/10: 3 per cent.
JOURNALIST: So, you’re basically forecasting a very shallow…
TREASURER: Sorry, nominal GDP 2008/09: 7¾. 2009/10: 3.
TREASURER: Real GDP: 2. 2009/10: 2¼.
And then this:
JOURNALIST: What is the outlook for inflation… in the out years?
TREASURER: That’s alright, I’ll just pull out the inflation numbers.
A VERY, VERY LONG PAUSE AS THE TREASURER ATTEMPTED TO LOOK THROUGH THE DOCUMENT
TREASURER: My charts, No it’s okay, I’ll pull it out here. The forecasts are…
A FURTHER VERY LONG PAUSE
TREASURER: CPI? Three and a quarter in the Budget, three and a half MYEFO.
JOURNALIST: In the outer years?
TREASURER: I’m just looking for those.
A VERY VERY LONG PAUSE
TREASURER: I’ll come to that in a sec. Go to the next one and I’ll give it to you.
The horror was that none of the 40 or so people in the room knew the answer, apart perhaps from some Treasury officials who weren't about to belittle Mr Swan by publicly helping him out.
Two questions later the Treasurer came up with answer.
And then, after the press conference, as we left the room the Treasurer's press secretaries handed us the copies of MYEFO from boxes. There had been more than enough to go around.
A colleague who had to leave the press conference early saw the boxes outside of the door then, so there was no obvious physical reason why the documents could not have been handed out ahead of the press conference when they were needed.
Tackled as to the reasons for behaving this way the Treasurer’s staff said that that was how it was done under the previous government - no documents were handed out until after the press conference about them was over.
Costello and Howard did act that way sometimes, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. In fact it is an ugly and cynical idea whose motivations can only be guessed at and does not befit a goverment commited to openness.
As it happens, when Costello and Howard unveilled last year’s MYEFO in the lead-up to the election they did hand it out. We used it to ask them questions during the press conference.
And they also made sure that the press release they distributed had all the relevant facts on it and that they knew them.
Here's a different way that Swan and his staff could have handled things:
1. Hand out any document they wish to release ahead of the press conference about it. Ten minutes or 30 minutes would be okay;
2. Summarise the main points of the document (with tables) on a few sheets of paper for the journalists (and for themselves);
3. Then invite questions about the content of the document rather than questions designed to elicit what it is.
Will they do it that way from here on? I reckon. What happened Wednesday was a shemozzle, a farce. It is excruciating to listen back to. Almost no-one in the room was familiar with the document they were talking about.
Australia deserves better. Swan's office can and will do better.
I am sure Wayne Swan himself would like to put Wednesday behind him.