In Brief | Caretaker Conventions

Following the calling of the Commonwealth election, it’s a great time to re-familiarise ourselves with the Caretaker Conventions. The following resources may help you understand this important aspect of public administration!

During the caretaker period (generally the period between the dissolution of the House of Representatives and the election result), the business of government continues and ordinary matters of administration still need to be addressed. However, successive governments have agreed to follow a series of practices, known as the ‘Caretaker Conventions’, which aim to ensure their actions do not bind an incoming government and limit its freedom of action. Read the Guidance on Caretaker Conventions from PM&C.

Antony Green, widely considered one of the leading election experts in the country, writes the Antony Green Election Blog. His blog entry The Operation of Caretaker Conventions provides a good overview of how the Conventions operate and some recent examples of their application in Australia.

Looking internationally, there are different approaches. Canada only recently made its Caretaker Conventions open through a public document, whereas Australia has had a transparent written approach to the Caretaker Conventions since the time of the Menzies Government, which you can view here.

The Caretaker Conventions have been tested at times, most recently during the long transition between the 2010 election and the forming of the Gillard government. During that period, the three key Independents asked to be briefed by Treasury, leaving officials contemplating their obligations under the Conventions.

There is often interest in contracts that are entered into directly before a caretaker period commencing, where the decision is not covered by the Conventions. For example, there are two occasions where contracts were entered into with Papua New Guinea on the eve the calling of elections, as reported here and here.

In Australia, we’ve had a relatively calm ride in relation to the Caretaker Conventions, unlike New Zealand, who faced a major crisis in 1984 when the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, refused to devalue the New Zealand dollar on the advice of the Reserve Bank immediately post the election he had just lost.

If you want to know more, consider the ANZSOG book Caretaker Conventions in Australasia from ANU Press:

"In the second revised edition of this monograph, Jennifer Menzies and Anne Tiernan 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 basically machinery of government going."

This is a pilot edition of the IPAA In Brief series. Is it useful? Feedback welcome here!