Caretaker government of Australia
In Australian political and constitutional terminology, a caretaker government is a government of Australia during a period that starts when the parliament is dissolved by the Governor-General prior to a general election, and continues for a period after the election, until the next ministry is appointed. A caretaker government is expected to conduct itself in accordance with a series of well-defined conventions that are administered by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, although there is no law compelling the caretaker government to do so.
Under normal circumstances, there is no separate appointment of a caretaker government. The existing government simply assumes "caretaker mode". During the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, appointed a new government headed by Malcolm Fraser, subject to Fraser's agreement that he would immediately advise a general election, and his government would operate on a caretaker basis in the meantime. This was a unique set of circumstances, leading to a unique solution.
The practice or convention in Australia is for a government to continue in office even after parliament has been dissolved, during the election period and then into the next parliament only until the next government can be formed. The prime minister can however resign office and advise the Governor-General or Governor at any time to appoint a new government. The operation of the Australian political system ensures that a Cabinet is always maintained and that caretaker governments abide by the conventions. Any flouting of the conventions by a caretaker government would immediately come to light, and could go against them in the election campaign. There are occasions when major appointments or decisions cannot wait until after the election, and the opposition would normally be consulted about them, ensuring a bipartisan approach.
A document entitled "Guidance on Caretaker Conventions" is administered by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Section 1.2 of the Caretaker Conventions states that a caretaker government operates until the election result clearly indicates that either the incumbent party has retained power, or in the case where there is to be a change of government, until the new government is appointed by the Governor-General. Section 1.6 indicates that these conventions are not legally binding, and do not constitute "hard and fast rules."
Caretaker government conduct
The Caretaker provisions explicitly recognise that, after the dissolution of parliament, the business of government must continue and that "ordinary matters of administration" must be addressed. Hence the provisions allow for the normal operations of all government departments. However, the caretaker conventions impose some restrictions on the conduct of the caretaker government. The conventions broadly include the following:
- Major policy decisions. The Government will cease taking major policy decisions except on urgent matters and then only after formal consultation with the Opposition. The conventions apply to the making of decisions, not to their announcement. Accordingly, the conventions are not infringed where decisions made before dissolution are announced during the caretaker period. However, where possible, decisions would normally be announced ahead of dissolution.
- Significant appointments. The Government will cease making major appointments of public officials, but may make acting or short-term appointments.
- Major contracts or undertakings. The Government will avoid entering major contracts or undertakings during the caretaker period. If it is not possible to defer the commitment until after the caretaker period, for legal, commercial or other reasons, a minister could consult the Opposition, or agencies could deal with the contractor and ensure that contracts include clauses providing for termination in the event of an incoming government not wishing to proceed. Similar provisions cover tendering.
- International negotiations and visits. The Government ordinarily seeks to defer such major international negotiations, or adopts observer status, until the end of the caretaker period.
- Avoiding APS involvement in election activities. The Australian Public Service adopts a neutral stance while continuing to advise the Government. There are several cases, notably the pricing of Opposition election promises, in which the APS conducts an investigation and report for the benefit of the electorate at large.
Change of government
When an opposition party or coalition wins enough seats at a general election to be able to command a majority in the House of Representatives, the incumbent Prime Minister formally advises the Governor-General that they should invite the Leader of the Opposition to form a government. The Governor-General then requests the incumbent Prime Minister and his or her Ministers to remain in government in caretaker capacity until a new government is sworn in. The Governor-General then contacts the Leader of the Opposition and invites them to form a government. The Leader of the Opposition accepts the invitation, and undertakes to inform the Governor-General when the new Ministry is in a position to be sworn in. This can be delayed by the counting of votes in closely contested seats, or by the processes by which ministers are chosen under the relevant party's rules. In the meantime, the caretaker government continues in office.
The 1901 caretaker government
The first Australian federal government, headed by Prime Minister Edmund Barton, was sworn in on 1 January 1901, the day on which the Federation of Australia took effect, whereby the six colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania became States of the Commonwealth of Australia. The first election for the new Parliament of Australia was not held until 29 and 30 March 1901. In the meantime, Barton's government operated in a caretaker capacity but, due to the need to quickly establish administrative processes and make important appointments, they were not as inhibited by the caretaker conventions as later governments were.
- "Guidance on caretaker conventions" (PDF). Department Of The Prime Minister And Cabinet. Retrieved 30 January 2013.
- "Federation Fact Sheet 2 - First Commonwealth Parliament 1901". Australian Electoral Commission. 24 March 2011. Retrieved 30 January 2013.