Minding the shop for government

As the ‘caretaker period’ comes into play and public servants take the reins in the lead up to the federal election, two Griffith University academics argue responsibility should remain with Ministers.

Centre for Governance and Public Policy researchers Dr Anne Tiernan and Jennifer Menzies have explored the hazardous terrain of the ‘caretaker period’ in their monograph, ‘Caretaker Conventions in Australasia: Minding the Shop for Government’.

Dr Tiernan said the ‘caretaker period’ (between the dissolution of the House and when election results become clear) was fraught with political and administrative dangers — particularly for public servants required to ‘mind the shop’ and keep the basic machinery of government going.

“During this period there is intense pressure on public servants to justify and account for their decisions,” Dr Tiernan said.

“Public servants have to balance their obligation to be responsive to the government of the day which remains the government during the caretaker period and their obligation to be impartial because of the possibility of a change of government.”

Dr Tiernan said the controversy during the 2004 Queensland state election, where Department of Main Roads staff notified affected residents in person prior to the announcement of the Tugun Bypass Motorway made two days before polling day, demonstrated the balance of responsibility for observing the conventions had shifted from Ministers to public servants.

“That was never intended. Since ‘caretakers’ cannot control or significantly influence the behaviour of politicians, it is a very good reason why responsibility needs to return to the politicians.”

After the last federal election in 2004 complaints of caretaker convention breaches included the failure of the government to consult the Opposition Leader over a decision to deploy a ‘contingency team’ to a hostage situation in Iraq.

Others included announcements made by ministers and government MPs of grants and new facilities in marginal seats, government advertising such as ‘Help Protect Australia from Terrorism’ campaign and a Centrelink mail-out on the government’s $600 family tax benefit.

Dr Tiernan said although complaints rarely gained much popular traction, they posed significant difficulties for public servants.

In the monograph Dr Tiernan and Ms Menzies draw upon their past experiences as public servants and ministerial staffers to address issues of practical concern for public administration.

Caretaker Conventions in Australasia: Minding the Shop for Government compares and analyses caretaker arrangements in Australian and New Zealand jurisdictions as well as the challenges and dilemmas of the caretaker period.

This monograph is the most recent title in the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) Monograph Series to be formally launched in Canberra on 29 October and can be downloaded for free at http://epress.anu.edu.au/caretaker_citation.html