Guidance for agencies, departments and members of parliament for the caretaker period has been refreshed ahead of this year’s election, but clarity around ministerial travel allowances is the only major change.
The new document led to a string of questions from Labor’s Katy Gallagher and independent Rex Patrick in Senate estimates this week about whether the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had considered clarifying rules around making funding announcements.
PM&C first assistant secretary John Reid said the only substantial change compared with the 2018 caretaker document was new emphasis on ministers needing to ensure travel expense claims were for parliamentary business, value for money, and aligned with relevant legislation.
The change overrides older caretaker provisions that did not allow ministers to claim travel expenses during the caretaker period.
PM&C deputy secretary Stephanie Foster said the department provided an advisory role to secretaries in responding to requests from ministers during the caretaker period.
“It’s a matter for each departmental secretary to manage that process with their minister during the caretaker process,” Foster said. “We will provide them with advice on how we believe the convention should apply.”
The Australian National Audit Office found in a 2021 report that the federal government announced funding for 70% of its controversial carpark projects as ‘election commitments’ during the 2019 election caretaker period.
The audit found dozens were decided on and authorised the day before the caretaker period and therefore should not have been classified as ‘election commitments’.
Gallagher quizzed finance minister Simon Birmingham on whether the funding observed the caretaker guidelines and would require consultation with the opposition, but Birmingham said it “would depend on the advice that was provided”.
“My practice, through a couple of election campaigns, has been that my departments have advised me, where necessary, in relation to the application of caretaker conventions,” he said.