Last May, two business students suited up, swapped their (banned) smartphones for spreadsheets and got locked in a room with foldout tables, budget papers and the media’s top political minds.
It was all part of the 2017 Federal Budget lockup – a chance for journalists to digest the details of the year’s budget before reporting on it.
For finance major James Hughes, it was “one of the biggest nights of the year; one that any business student would jump at the chance to take part in, and that I certainly wasn’t going to turn down!”
Hughes, together with economics student Luke Hannaford, were taken on by 2SER 107.3FM - a radio station co-owned by UTS and Macquarie University - to research the government’s economic plan and brief the 2SER reporting team.
“Our official role was ‘business researcher’,” says Hannaford. “We were there to answer any questions about the Budget that the 2SER reporters were unsure of.
“It was exciting being around all the familiar people you see on TV, but that feeling began to wear off once I found myself waiting in line for the bathroom behind Laurie Oakes,” he laughs.
The reality, says Hughes, was “We were inundated with hundreds of pages to read, purely to find the relevant stats and figures.”
For the duo, this one night was the culmination of five weeks of preparation. “For about a month leading into the budget we created graphs and spreadsheets of key data such as projected deficit levels,” Hannaford says.
So how did they fare? Senior Lecturer in accounting Dr David Bond says, “I was really impressed with how they handled themselves. It’s a professional environment, and a high-stress one at that.”
Bond, who supervised the two students, should know. This year was the third budget he’s covered with 2SER, and the first with business students to assist him.
“Over the previous two years I had found there were things I would have liked to have done, both in preparation for and during the lockup, but it proved just too much for one person, especially as I had to prepare a story for the live cross. Just having some extra hands was really useful.
“For economics and business students it’s a really great internship experience. The ability to communicate your ideas to a diverse and potentially non-expert audience is critical in this day and age. And you can’t get much more real than preparing material for what is the biggest economic story in the country each year.”
Hughes and Hannaford count themselves lucky. This year, they were among the only media students let in to the lockup.
“For James and Luke it’s good just to see they’re not only dealing with spreadsheets and models; they’ve got to be able to communicate the information to other people who may not have the same level of knowledge,” says Bond.
Hannaford agrees. “You learn so much by doing things with real ramifications. And the work being done in 2SER is making it real.”
So, has the experience made the pair consider a career in media? Hannaford says, “It didn’t. However, being back in the corridors of parliament in a suit surrounded by powerful people was intriguing.”
In true political style, Hughes refused to comment.