The federal parliament has been dissolved following the election announcement, so the Australian Public Service is now in caretaker mode.
Australians will go to the polls on May 18, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Thursday morning.
Shortly after the date was revealed, a representative of the Governor-General read out the proclamation dissolving the parliament. And with that, the Australian Public Service has entered caretaker mode.
Caretaker period continues until the election result is clear or, if there is a change of government, until the new government is appointed.
Caretaker mode aims to ensure that while the ordinary business of government continues and matters of administration can be addressed, actions do not bind an incoming government and limit its freedom of action. Caretaker conventions also aim to prevent controversies about the role of the public service that might distract attention from the substantive issues in the election campaign. The conventions are that the government avoids:
- Making major policy decisions that are likely to commit an incoming government;
- Making significant appointments; and
- Entering major contracts or undertakings;
International negotiations or visits should be deferred.
Relevant considerations include not only the significance of the decision in terms of policy and cost, but also whether the decision is a matter of contention between the government and opposition in the election campaign.
Public servants need to be careful about requests for information from ministers’ offices.
“Ministers may continue to request factual material from agencies during the caretaker period and material relating to the day-to-day business of government is supplied to ministers in the usual way. The purpose to which such material is put is for ministers to determine,” say the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s caretaker guidelines.
“However, to avoid controversy in the election period about claimed breaches of the apolitical and impartial values of the APS, it may be appropriate to decline a request for assistance if it required the use of significant resources and was clearly for use in the election campaign. If in doubt, agencies should discuss with the minister or his/her senior staff the purpose for which the material is to be used.
“In most instances, agencies should also decline requests for policy advice during the caretaker period.”
There are established practices to protect the apolitical nature of the public service and avoid the use of Commonwealth resources to advantage a particular party. For example, the Department of Finance and PM&C review all advertising campaigns at the beginning of the caretaker period and recommend to the government whether those campaigns should continue or be deferred, with bipartisan agreement sought for campaigns that are to continue.
Agency websites “may retain material placed on the website before the commencement of the caretaker period in most cases. Exceptions might be recent ministerial statements that criticise the opposition in strong terms,” the guidelines state.
The guidelines also acknowledge there might be grey areas.
“The conventions are neither legally binding nor hard and fast rules. Their application in individual cases requires judgment and common sense,” they state.
PM&C “is able to provide information and advice to agencies, but responsibility for observing the conventions ultimately rests with agency heads or, in cases where they are involved, with the prime minister and ministers.”
While agencies should have appointed their own officers to handle caretaker questions, if further advice is required, agencies should contact the government division in PM&C on (02) 6271 5399 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The government hasn’t let the spectre of an approaching caretaker mode stop it making major decisions, however. It has announced 49 appointments since the budget was handed down last week, plus around 100 in the weeks before, reports the ABC. Labor has said it will consider removing some of those appointees if it wins.