Are we in caretaker mode already?
22 Mar 2013|

With all the ‘Days of Our Lives’ action in parliament a new Defence White Paper seems so far down the list of political priorities as to seem almost irrelevant.

Prime Minister Gillard announced the election date of September 14 at the end of January this year, making it the longest election campaign in the nation’s history. Thanks to the democratic system that Australia operates under, a caretaker period begins for all government agencies as the campaign enters its final throes.

It’s worth understanding what that means. Here’s the formal version:

During the caretaker period, the business of government continues and ordinary matters of administration still need to be addressed.  However, successive governments have followed a series of practices, known as the ‘caretaker conventions’, which aim to ensure that their actions do not bind an incoming government and limit its freedom of action.  In summary, the conventions are that the government avoids:

  • making major policy decisions that are likely to commit an incoming government
  • making significant appointments and
  • entering major contracts or undertakings.

This caretaker period nominally lasts for about 6 weeks once the Governor-General dissolves parliament. But in reality it begins much earlier than that. Government departments, in the main, grind to a halt once the initial rush of ‘please let me get this through before the election’ work flurry has ended. Even the whiff of a new government means that all current work might be set aside by a new administration with new priorities.

Major decisions are put off, sometimes for months, as a new government finds their feet both politically and financially. Defence is even more affected by these arrangements as the portfolio is complex and many parts pertaining to capabilities are classified. The classified incoming brief for a new Defence minister would be eye opening to say the least—even the sanitised for release version (PDF) has a few tidbits left.

Given the inflexible time lines of some major defence programs that have bipartisan support, one would hope that work would continue on building the business cases surrounding future programs. Politics reaches into this bubble most effectively when it comes to basing, jobs and Australian industry participation. Most defence commentators can come up with a list of at least half a dozen defence decisions that have felt the hand of politics steer a program rather than logic or military requirements. Expect to see some announcements in the next few months that require fluoro vests and hard hats for maximum effect.

Even so, the number of projects being approved on either side of an election historically slows down markedly. Mark Thomson’s analysis of historical project approval rates (PDF, pages 118–123) shows this very clearly. For a Defence Capability Plan that’s already lagging badly, an even more extended than usual period of disruption isn’t good news.

Given the political shenanigans of the current parliament, meaningful debate on defence and security (which require time, effort and money) might be hard to come by inside Parliament House for some months. The calling of an election almost nine months before said election could see a pseudo election campaign running the entire time. Will the process of good governance and deliberative process be followed in this climate?

Katherine Ziesing is the Editor of Australian Defence Magazine, an independently published magazine on Defence capability and procurement. She is also a board member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, an air power think tank. Image courtesy of Flickr user rachelcaitlin.