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For anyone interested in the nation’s leadership – and I realise that’s a shrinking fan base – Budget night in Canberra is a must-do.

For many of our clients, the Federal Budget is not about media – it’s about their clients or members, and commercial partners (e.g. last year was important for super funds, insurers and advice businesses).

For others it’s only about media and stakeholders.

So why would you attend Budget night? To open conversations, hear others’ agendas, read the political mood. And to people-spot.


As a supporter of individual politicians, and their leadership, rather than political parties, it’s been a great privilege to be at two Budget night dinners and to actually meet some of the people I admire.

On Tuesday night I brushed past a diminutive woman sheathed in blue sequins, to hear my companion point out I’d just shoulder-barged the Honourable Julie Bishop MP. She graciously accepted my apology and allowed us a fan photo moment. 

Carden Calder and Hon Julie Bishop MP

Having already had the pleasure of meeting Senator The Honourable Penny Wong while she was fundraising for the same-sex marriage campaign, I’m now deeply satisfied that my political selfie collection, while small, is high quality.

Carden Calder and Penny Wong

Conversations & relationships

Somewhat more seriously, being a spectator has been valuable for several finance sector CEOs I saw on the night. They cite a better understanding of how Canberra, and both Government and the Budget announcement work. This is useful even if they have no reason to directly engage with elected officials. One payoff for losing a day of your life in travel is a number of new relationships, the chance to open a dialogue and to start to become known as a source of expertise in your field. Politicians and policy makers need industry expertise, technical advice and the opportunity to hear feedback.

Being in Canberra for the evening is not about lobbying. It’s more about learning - meeting people, gathering information, and starting relationships – or deciding not to.

Budget night is a bit of a madhouse – possibly think of it as more like political and business speed dating and you’ll get a sense of what to expect if you choose to attend.

For the most part, superannuation, insurance and investment industry and professional bodies are well-connected in Canberra. Their CEOs, subject matter experts (aka technical or policy people) and government affairs folk are a good source of insight about the politics of the budget, the likely announcements and responses, and the policy implications. 

But there are plenty of political and policy landmines in our industry, and myriad interests at play: CEOs who invest the time and effort to fully map and understand these can better orient the business and commentary to the prevailing political winds – on budget night, and year-round. Being there in person helps with that.

The mood this year

The mood, as I read it, was less sombre than expected – almost upbeat, relaxed and slightly self-congratulatory. It felt like the final flourish of a party almost ready to leave Government. I’m not sure if there was a notable shift in focus to the younger (if late 40s qualifies…) Liberals but in some ways it felt like a changing of the guard. Some sitting members will be too old to take seats in any future Liberal government, so it would make sense, now, to promote those who might form a future conservative government.

Chatter on the floor included what a poor long-term career choice politics is, lament at the lack of women in Liberal leadership, and the role of party power-brokers. There was general acknowledgement that the ALP, thanks to measures taken many year ago, is way ahead on ‘women’.

Being even-handed

So how do you play this effectively if you want to build constructive conversations with both sides of politics? Don’t get too cute is the advice from both sides. Specifically, that means being even-handed in meetings, event attendance and donations (if that’s something you do). Do not focus only on today’s leaders – the backbenchers and Opposition are the key to future leadership. Take a very long-term view, invest for the future in relationships and create a shared understanding of the issues and policy imperatives, and have a deliberate strategy. That might run the spectrum from “we don’t engage” to “we lobby actively and often”. But it should be intentional, not accidental.

For Budget night, those attending (and thus generally paying for the privilege) should ensure their representation at Budget Reply.

Like most Australians, I'll never understand the full political machinations of an evening that looks to be part party, part bullfight. But it’s less of an insiders' game than you might think.

As a unique, concentrated, and varied knot of people brought together for a few hours it’s an invaluable opportunity to meet or reconnect with key people.

Of course if you want to make a stand in public, that’s a different story.  

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