Until a new government is formed – which may not be for some time yet — the Prime Minister, Ministers and the public service are responsible for maintenance and upkeep of government, but under the caretaker convention do not pursue new initiatives.
For the public service this means new programs, major new contracts and significant appointments will stay on hold for as long as the political situation takes to resolve. The ship of state is becalmed,
“…stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
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Upon a painted ocean”.
— Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The inability to make new appointments or let major new contracts is manageable for a time, but increases the risk that some government programs will cease to function effectively due to lack of a key person or resource. This will increasingly worry public servants the longer the caretaker period goes on.
A majority of Commonwealth public servants work outside Canberra, in service delivery or regulatory functions, that are unaffected by the caretaker period. Pensions are paid, taxes collected, applications processed, regulations administered, regardless of who forms government.
Even so, there are significant differences between the parties on issues affecting the public service: not only cuts to staff, but policy differences in areas such as health, broadband and others.
This creates uncertainty: a morale sapping condition in any organisation, including the public service.
Moreover, endless commentary about how uncertain the result remains adds to the dismay among many public servants. It is indeed “A weary time! a weary time! How glazed each weary eye” as public servants contemplate the array of possible outcomes.
Some senior officials, those at the very top levels whose fortunes might rise or fall in the event of a change of government, are understandably worried and uncertain. There are relatively few of these.
The public servants we should have most sympathy for are those charged with preparing incoming government briefings.
These voluminous documents are prepared by the public service for their new Ministers; they cover not only the operations of the portfolio but also how the winning party’s election policies will be implemented.
Occasionally they will even go so far as to point out, respectfully, that a particularly foolish promise ought to be put off or abandoned.
Two incoming government briefs are always prepared, in case either government or opposition wins.
That is a process with which public servants are familiar. It has served them well in all the post war years.
It is different now.
How many briefs might be needed for the various permutations and combinations (as Tony Windsor calls them) of possible governments? Policy stances would be bound to differ in a combination of either Labor or Coalition plus independents.
There are other imponderables. What if the governing coalition includes Adam Bandt, and/or Andrew Wilkie? What if Tony Crook holds himself apart?
It is an impossible task to anticipate all of these – but as soon as a government is formed, the public service will be expected as usual to have comprehensive, and politically sensitive, briefing ready for new Ministers immediately.