What is the caretaker period and what does it mean for me?

Cannings Purple 11 Apr 2019
3 mins
The Federal Election caretaker period shouldn't mean the end of your efforts to engage with government.

With a Federal Election now confirmed for May 18, it’s time to consider what can or can’t happen during the caretaker period and what it means to you.

The caretaker period starts at the time the House of Representatives is dissolved and remains in place until the election result is clear – either the incumbent party retaining power, or in the case where there is to be a change of government, until the new government is appointed by the Governor-General.

The caretaker period reflects that (with Parliament dissolved) the government cannot be held accountable for its actions in the usual manner and that the autonomy of an incoming government needs to be preserved (in the event of a change of government).

From a procedural perspective, it prevents the incumbent government from making major policy decisions or significant appointments and entering into major contracts, undertakings or international negotiations. There are conditions that allow for exceptions to these conventions but they generally rely on co-operation from the Opposition, agreement as to what qualifies as “major” and whether a commitment requires ministerial approval.

From a practical point-of-view, the closeness of an election means current Members of Parliament and candidates will be extremely busy campaigning and hard to pin down for meetings.

But that doesn’t mean you should entirely give up on trying to engage with sitting and aspiring MPs and government over the next few weeks. Here’s why:

It’s events season: the campaign trail also coincides with parties (and politicians) holding and attending scores of fundraising events. From that standpoint, they will be pressing the flesh with regularity.

Caretaker conventions may prevent politicians from addressing your issues right now but investing in a ticket for a fundraising event and meeting them can put you and your business on the radar for the future.

Public service, at your service: public servants tend to be very cautious in accepting meetings during the caretaker period and will limit discussions to factual issues and matters of administration, expressly avoiding public explanation or promotion of policies.  However, you can still use the time to build a relationship, to understand the role and function of agencies and requirements they may need to support effective delivery of outcomes.  While the APS won’t be able to commit to much during discussions, they will find the engagement valuable.

And given the largely separate operations of public service roles and ministerial offices, it’s a fair bet that any public servant contacts you can make now will still be around in some capacity in the future.

Playing the long game: waiting until an election result is declared before you start taking action leaves you open to playing catch-up and not being consulted by government during crucial policy development stages.

My advice is that you make use of the caretaker period to map out your stakeholders, carefully identify your strategic priorities, work to catch the attention of the media and stay across the issues and funding commitments that are on the agenda of major parties and candidates relevant to you.

When you get the chance to meet MPs and candidates (whether it be on the hustings or at fundraising events), take the opportunity not only to introduce yourself and your business but to make it clear you understand who they are and what’s important to them.

It could be the start of an important relationship.

Jennifer Kirk is an Associate Director in Cannings Purple’s Government Relations team and spent more than seven years working for the Commonwealth government, including leading stakeholder and regional engagement on important economy policy reform during her time in the Treasury Perth office. If you need help mapping out your pre-election engagement, contact Jennifer.

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