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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

caretaker mode « Previous | |Next »
October 11, 2007

Ever wondered what the rules are during the caretaker period between the calling of an election and the outcome? There aren't any really. There are conventions and guidelines and a fair bit of uncertainty. There are gentlemen's agreements like the ones Monopoly players make over what happens when you land on Free Parking, but no specific rules about whether it's ok to nick another player's cash or move their iron, boot, car or whatever while they're not looking.

None that could lose you your job anyway.

The running of the state, or country, is nominally handed over to the public service for the duration and if anything important comes up, both sides are supposed to be in on the decision making process since neither is technically running things. There is no parliamentary oversight and so the impartial advice of the public service crucial.

This monograph from Anne Tiernan and Jennifer Menzies via ANU E Press looks at the sorts of trickery public servants had to deal with during the 2004 Queensland State and Howard/Latham Federal elections.

I've only read the intro so far, but during the 2004 campaign Howard and so on did four ungentlemanly things:

-Posted ministerial press releases and transcripts on departmental websites [which technically weren't theirs to be posting on],
-Failed to brief or consult with Latham over a decision that needed making [which was dismissed on the grounds that a prime minister can't be expected to spend all his time explaining things to the opposition],
-Continued pork barrelling [even though technically they had no control over the money] and, you'll be ever so pleased to hear,
-Kept up some government ad campaigns [because the people needed to be alert but not alarmed election or not].

As we've often been told, Rudd is not Latham. He's highly unlikely to sprain Howard's wrist during a handshake given a chance encounter in front of TV cameras. It's difficult to imagine him getting entangled in his own tie doing the Macarena hand movements of the ladder of opportunity, although he does risk that rakish, tie-over-the-shoulder look if he's not careful with his out-the-back-door gesture.

He won't be wedged or whistled regardless of principle or policy. We'll see how he goes with the conventions and guidelines of caretaker mode. He's already dealing with the ad campaign one which, if comments from media commentators and blogworld are any indication, have well and truly sunk in. Seeking briefs has been part and parcel of wedge-avoidance.

It will be interesting to see how far Howard is prepared to push it and how much violation of convention Rudd is prepared to take. If he gets through it all without blowing a gasket he'll deserve a medal for extraordinary personal discipline.

| Posted by Lyn at 5:45 PM | | Comments (8)


ACA tonight did a day in the life of Howard. Followed him around for 24 hours. It would of humanized him to many of that audience. It was a good decision to do it I think. Will be interesting to see if Rudd does it too.

Bangladesh has a constitutional provision for the caretake agreements where a non-party caretaker government is put into place. The President (GG in our system) basically made himself head of the caretaker government, established a state of exception and then a state of emergency.

The problems with conventions is that they have no force of history or practice. They are defined by the sovereign agreeing to perpetuate that convention and consequently are perpetually at the whim of the sovereign.


That does seem to be the case. It's a pretty big loophole in our system which, technically, is supposed to prevent such things from happening.

As your Bangladesh example shows, it only takes one mad enough Wally to take advantage and the whole thing falls over.

It sure is a fraught time for the bureaucracy. I see that Tiernan and Menzies say in the Introduction that:

elections are a fraught time for public administrators in Westminster-style political systems. For the duration of the ‘caretaker period’ — the period between the calling of an election and the return of the existing government or the commissioning of a new government—public servants must tread a careful line: they must be seen to be apolitical; although they may be required to brief the government’s political opponents, they must maintain the policy status quo and ensure administrative continuity until the election result is known. In this context, they must administer policy, provide advice and manage programs in a highly charged and adversarial political environment in which key actors—ministers, ministerial staff, shadow ministers, the Opposition, its staff and journalists—can be expected to have varying degrees of familiarity and appreciation of the application (and nuances) of the practices and procedures developed to regulate how a government should operate once an election is called.

Those balls are not easy to juggle since caretaker conventions apply during the most intense time of adversarial politics—when both major parties have the potential to retain or gain government. Minor slips and inexactitudes are exploited by both sides. There is intense pressure on public servants to justify their decisions regarding perceived support or partiality for the incumbent government.


Before I read this I had a vague idea of how risky a period it is and was also aware of some of the problems with manipulating the public service for partisan purposes. Just hadn't put the two together.

Apparently democracy is fragile, but this is a clear illustration of how fragile it is. We take so much for granted.

When I read this I was thinking about the million dollars a day ad campaign, but Cam's example makes you wonder. We already have a state of emergency on remote Aboriginal communities - how hard would it be to declare another one on the drought for example?

It put the public service in a whole new perspective for me.

Lyn, State of emergency has definitely become an electoral device. Australia has had the children overboard immigration emergency, Australia and the US has had the GWOT electoral emergency and more recently the Aboriginal children.

It is definately a way of making the politics unitary (and here). The executive ends up dominating the politics of the issue under emergency as the opposition usually agrees and joins some kind of war cabinet. This removes any liberal deliberation or competition over policy on the issue - hence the politics become unitary.

The Washington System has caretaker conventions too though it isnt called that. The Republican legislature adhered to it when they lost government in 2006 and didnt pass several bills. They actually got panned for not passing the bills (ie not doing their job) in the media. When in reality they were adhering to the caretaker conventions. It really puts the system at the mercy of the reasonableness of the politicians. That is proving less and less trustworthy these days as politicians realise they can get away with breaking conventions without popular backlash.


Interesting. So all you have to do is declare something a state of emergency (or an exception?) to sidestep conventions. Am I right in thinking that more and more stuff has been left to ministerial discretion recently? The two together could pretty much stuff conventions altogether, couldn't they?

Lyn, I dont think conventions require a state of emergency to be broken. A simple statement of sovereignty can break them, and it is not necessarily the executive. There was this convention in the Senate recently which was busted by majority and not necessarily executive assertion.

Emergency removes the liberal in democracy/republic. Whereas convention is a statement of mutual sovereignty which I think is a very different process.