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Caretaker Conventions in Australasia

Caretaker Conventions in Australasia: Minding the Shop for Government OPEN ACCESS

Anne Tiernan
Jennifer Menzies
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: ANU Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24h82w
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  • Book Info
    Caretaker Conventions in Australasia
    Book Description:

    In this monograph, Anne Tiernan and Jennifer Menzies capably chart the often hazardous terrain of the 'caretaker period' that ensues from the time an election is called until a new government is formed. This is a landscape fraught with political and administrative dangers - particularly for public servants who are required to 'mind the shop' and keep the basic machinery of government going. The conventions represent an historical accretion of custom, practice and rules, often leavened with uncertainty. In tackling their subject, Tiernan and Menzies draw upon their shared past experiences as public servants and ministerial 'staffers' as well as the highest standards of academic scholarship - this is a 'must read' for politicians, public servants and students of government.

    eISBN: 978-1-921313-50-9
    Subjects: Political Science
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  1. Foreword (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Andrew Podger

    This monograph is the first of a planned series over the next few years as a joint venture between IPAA and ANZSOG.

    ANZSOG is a unique collaboration amongst Australasian governments and higher education institutions to develop emerging leaders in the public sector and to support research on contemporary public policy and management issues. IPAA is the national association of those whose profession is public administration, promoting high standards and continuous professional development and disseminating research and practitioner experience through its journals and its seminars and conferences.

    The two organisations are natural partners. Participants in ANZSOG programs are encouraged to be...

  2. In 2004, elections were held in the Australian Commonwealth and in the state of Queensland. During the course of both campaigns, incumbent governments were accused of breaching ‘caretaker conventions’ — the principles and practices that guide the conduct of ministers and officials during an election campaign.

    Caretaker conventions have evolved as a check on executive power in circumstances where there is no parliament to which it can be held accountable. They are observed during an election period, in a situation where, for example, a government has lost the support of the legislature, or there is a delay in forming a government...

  3. Australia’s political system is founded on the principle of ‘responsible government’. Its basic tenets are that, subject to the Constitution, Parliament is supreme; the government is responsible to Parliament; ministers have to be in Parliament; regular elections will be held; and there is a professional bureaucracy that is independent but accountable to ministers. Australia, unlike the United Kingdom, has a written constitution and some of these principles are captured in that document.¹ The provisions of the Constitution comprise the formal rules of government. But formal rules are only part of the story about how a system of government operates. In...

  4. The source of a convention is frequently difficult to trace because of the lack of an authoritative text and the lack of an established authority to issue or adjudicate conventions (Sampford 1987, p. 369). Most of the conventions guiding political life in Australia and New Zealand derive from the Westminster tradition and the logic of parliamentary government (Davis et al. 2001, p. 12).

    Turning specifically to caretaker conventions, these guide the conduct of governments and the bureaucracy during election periods (until a new government is sworn in)¹ or in circumstances, for example, where a government has lost its parliamentary majority....

  5. The caretaker period begins at the time the lower house (House of Representatives or Legislative Assembly) is dissolved and continues until the election result is clear or, if there is a change of government, until the new government takes office. For the Commonwealth, Queensland, South Australian, Western Australian and Northern Territory governments the caretaker period commences with the issuing of the writs for a general election. This may be some days after a political leader indicates that an election will be called on a given date. The Queensland guidance notes that care should be exercised during the period between the...

  6. Each Australian jurisdiction has developed its own guidance to support ministerial and departmental decision-making during the caretaker period. Guidance on the observance of caretaker conventions tends to be couched as general principles rather than strict, highly specific rules (Boston et al. 1998 p. 646), although, when a well publicised breach has occurred, the tendency has been to increase the detail in prescribing behaviour. Malone (2007, p. 5) notes ‘the proper operation [of caretaker conventions] is dependent on the public servants who will make judgements on precisely what they mean and how they apply’. That is true, but they also depend...

  7. The previous chapter undertook a detailed analysis of the elements of the caretaker conventions in all Australian jurisdictions. This chapter will identify and explore the elements of the New Zealand and emerging local government approaches

    In Chapter 2 we looked at the historical factors that drove the documentation of the New Zealand caretaker conventions. Adoption of the mixed-member proportional electoral system (MMP) led to increased uncertainty and delay in the formation of new governments. The MMP system brought with it the potential for extended caretaker periods as the process of government formation could now be as lengthy as the nine...

  8. The cases and controversies highlighted in earlier chapters of this monograph have much to tell us about the pressures on the interpretation of caretaker conventions, and the sensitive issues that public officials must navigate when upholding caretaker principles during an election campaign and until the swearing in of a new government. This chapter highlights some of the dilemmas posed by the need to be responsive to government while remaining apolitical and upholding public service obligations to be professional, impartial and to comply with the law. It addresses some of the forces impinging on public service impartiality.

    Arguably, some of the...

  9. The understanding that caretaker conventions have no standing in law and, therefore, are not enforceable is gradually being tested. The characteristic of conventions is that they are not legally binding and are based on evolving practice rather than legislation. Regular updating of the guidances has been a response to the emergence of issues in the heat of election campaigns. Jurisdictions have continued to extend and refine the advice given in the light of alleged breaches and controversies. In recent years there has been a trend to a more legalistic approach through the translation of conventions into legislation with the addition...

  10. The scope and application of caretaker conventions will continue to evolve. In previous chapters we have documented the similarities and differences between the jurisdictions under consideration and looked at the implications of changing practice.

    Caretaker conventions are among the most challenged and controversial of all conventions. They apply during the most intense time of adversarial politics—when both major parties have the potential to retain or gain government. Minor slips and inexactitudes are exploited by both sides. There is intense pressure on public servants to justify their decisions regarding perceived support or partiality for the incumbent government. As outlined in...