Public service readies for election at any possible time: former APS commissioner

By Jackson Graham

November 10, 2021

Federal politicians are resistant to the idea of a commonwealth ICAC.
Federal politicians are resistant to the idea of a commonwealth ICAC. (AAP Image/Lucas Koch)

Public servants will be preparing for a federal election any time in the next six months, a former senior bureaucrat says, despite speculation heating up as summer holidays near.

The chances of an election this year are now extremely slim, with a campaign required to run for a minimum of five weeks. January and February have also never hosted an election since federation. 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was asked this week if an April budget would occur before a possible May election, after a media report claimed public servants were being told to cut holidays short to prepare for this scenario. 

“No dates have been set for either,” Frydenberg said, adding he was unaware of any directions about holidays for public servants. 

“I can tell you that everyone in government, and indeed everyone at home, I think has earned the right for a decent break after what has been a pretty tumultuous two years.” 

A spokesperson at Treasury did not answer questions about whether the department was telling staff to prepare for an April budget, and said workforce requirements were similar in each budget process. 

Former APS commissioner and now ANU honorary professor Andrew Podger, acknowledging that only the prime minister could make a final decision on an election, said his best bet was it would be no sooner than March. 

But Podger told The Mandarin departments would be preparing for an election at any moment regardless of speculation. 

“They will be making sure things are in reasonable shape, so that should the government call an election they can quickly settle things that need to be settled before the caretaker period,” he said.

With the government required to hold an election before the end of May when the current senate term ends, Podger said the strongest argument for it occurring later was “to maximise the likelihood of a bounce back in the economy”.

The federal government in 2019 handed down its budget in early April before calling the election for mid-May, and Podger said a budget weeks before an election was “one option” that had happened on other occasions too.

But he said the budget process for most departments would already be under way.

“In the normal process in December the senior ministers meet and send out advice to all the line ministers about the broad framework for the budget, what sorts of proposals will be considered and what won’t be considered,” Podger said. 

“Public servants are usually working very hard in January in firming up their ministers’ proposals. The idea of public servants having a break for all of January hasn’t existed for a long time.” 

He said since the introduction of the Charter of Budget Honesty Act in 1998 — and Treasury and the Finance Department providing updated forward estimates on government and opposition policies early in the election process — opposition policies had come just before the election. 

“The opposition will probably hold off all details of their election proposal in terms of full costings until very late in the piece,” Podger said.


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