The ‘caretaker conventions’ are accepted guidelines that apply to relations between ministers and parliamentary secretaries and their departments and agencies. As a general rule, no significant new decisions or initiatives, appointments, or contractual undertakings should be made during the period leading up to an election.
The NSW Government assumes a ‘caretaker’ role during the period immediately before an election to ensure:
- decisions are not taken which would bind an incoming Government and limit its freedom of action;
- important decisions are not made by Ministers who cannot be held accountable once the Legislative Assembly has been dissolved;
- the neutrality of the public service is protected; and
- state resources are not being used in election campaigns, or to advance the aims of a particular party.
The Caretaker Period
The formal period during which the caretaker conventions operate dates from the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly until the election result is clear, or, in the event of a change of Government, until the new Government is appointed.
The departments or agencies are responsible for observing the conventions. Ministerial responsibility for upholding the conventions is restricted to matters in which they are specifically involved.
It is of note that the conventions are not legally binding, but are recommended guidelines only.
During the caretaker period, routine government business should continue as usual, except for some important qualifications:
Significant government appointments should not be made during this period, especially if the appointment is considered controversial. If an appointment must be made, there is the option of making an acting or short term appointment.
Major Contracts and Agreements
The Government should not enter into major contracts or undertakings during this period. Exceptions may be made for contracts or undertakings which have been previously announced or for which tenders have already been called. Entering into contracts which are politically contentious is especially to be avoided.
Operation of Agencies
Ministers must not compromise the neutrality of the Public Service. Material concerning the normal day to day business of government is to be supplied to Ministers in the usual way during this period.
During the election period, Ministers should continue to attend to essential correspondence. Other correspondence may be attended to by agencies.
Consultation by Non-Government MPs with Agency Officers
Requests by non-Government members of Parliament to consult with agency officers must be made through the relevant Minister, as per usual. Agency officers may comment on the practicalities of implementing and administering Opposition or other non-Government member's policies, but should not discuss Government policies. Ministers must be advised of when such discussions are to take place and the general nature and scope of those discussions.
Cabinet documents are confidential and are not to be made available to succeeding Governments drawn from different political parties. Therefore, during this period, Ministers should account for, and properly store, all Cabinet documents ready for return to the Cabinet Office in the event that there is a change of Government.
It is the practice for Bills which have passed through Parliament to be assented to by the Governor before the dissolution of the House. The Executive Council will meet as usual during this period to consider routine matters of Government business.
Government advertising must not be published for party political purposes. Instead, advertising must have a clear commercial or essential community information purpose. To this end, advertisements are not to contain any photographs of Ministers, highlight the role of particular Ministers or address issues which are controversial between the major political parties.
(Premier’s Memorandum to Ministers No. T98-6, 22 Dec, 1998)
When a care-taker periodcontinues for a long period of time, it may be in the public interest for significant decisions to be made or commitments entered into. In such a situation, procedures should be implemented to consult the leader of the main opposition party or to take measure to prevent a future Government being bound by decisions or commitments to which it objects.
(‘Cabinet Conventions: NSW Practice’, The Cabinet Office, 2004)