Federal Government agencies have assumed a ‘caretaker role’ as of 5pm on 19 July, following the announcement (on Saturday 17 July) of a general election scheduled for Saturday 21 August. The caretaker period will have a profound impact on the progress of ICT initiatives in coming weeks, by halting any key decision making until after the outcome of the election is known.
According to the ‘Guidance on Caretaker Conventions’ document published by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), “successive governments have accepted that, during the period preceding an election for the House of Representatives, the government assumes a ‘caretaker role’’ whereby aspects of government business are suspended to reflect appropriate circumstances for an election campaign.
Caretaker conventions mandate that governments should not make major policy decisions during the caretaker period, so that incoming governments are not committed to the last-minute policies of their predecessors. However, no such prohibition extends to the announcementof policy. The DPMC guidance document explains that “the conventions do not apply to promises on future policies that the party in government announce as part of its election campaign”.
Caretaker conventions are intended to safeguard the “apolitical nature of the public service and avoid the use of Commonwealth resources in a manner to advantage a particular party”. The conventions are pragmatic and aimed at making a smoother transition in the event of a change of government.
One of the stipulations of the caretaker conventions is that governments should not enter into major contracts with business during the election period. Where postponement until after the election is impossible due to legal or commercial factors, governments are expected to explain the implications of a change of government to potential contractors and allow for necessary clauses.
Governments are also encouraged to avoid approaches to market and/or warn potential tenderers of similar implications.
As a result of agencies complying with the caretaker conventions, Intermedium expects that the ICT market will now enter a period of inactivity in relation to contracts, tenders and procurements that will last until at least the beginning of September if the Labor Government is returned, and potentially until the early new year if a Liberal Government is elected and chooses to make major changes in ICT direction.
The caretaker period will also impact government communications. Agency websites, for example, will conduct a review of their content to remove any seemingly political material. Media releases and other communications will be issued from political parties rather than from government agencies during the caretaker period.
A number of initiatives in line with Government 2.0 principles will therefore be impacted as discussion groups, chat rooms and blogs within the gov.au domain will be monitored and political content may be removed or censored. The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) has said its ‘Twitter’ account would be less active during this period, in a statement posted on the social networking site on Monday 19 July 2010.
Caretaker conventions are not legally binding but are considered “established practice”. Resolution 32 of the Proceedings of the Australian Constitutional Convention 1983 noted that “no important new initiative is taken, and no appointment to high office is made, by a government in the period immediately prior to a general election for the House of Representatives unless it can be publicly justified as necessary in the national interest”.