Election route a well-trodden minefield
Knowing the election date may be a good thing, but spare a thought for the bureaucrats.
Wednesday's federal election announcement by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was doubtless calculated to reduce speculation and uncertainty and to provide her government with ''clear air'' to govern for a full term. Her announcement is unprecedented for a federal leader. Usually they guard their prerogative to announce the timing of an election to their advantage.
Before Ms Gillard's announcement the stage was set for a lengthy unofficial campaign, with Opposition leader Tony Abbott kicking off the Coalition's pitch to voters on Saturday with a mini-campaign in Western Sydney.
In the Australian parliamentary democracy there is technically no problem with the PM's decision, welcomed by key independents on whom Ms Gillard has relied to support her minority government.
The Parliament continues to sit and the executive's accountability to it remains intact until Parliament is formally dissolved with the issuing of the writs on August 12. This marks the formal commencement of the caretaker period, intended to moderate the advantages of incumbency by constraining the power of the executive during an election campaign.
The caretaker conventions are designed to guide the behaviour of ministers and public servants during an election campaign. They constrain the incumbent government from making major policy decisions, significant appointments, entering into major contracts or other decisions that would unreasonably bind an incoming government.
The Prime Minister's announcement that the election will be in 7½ months' time, with a fairly standard caretaker period of 30 days, is unusual. A long lead-up is quite normal for jurisdictions with fixed parliamentary terms, when both the government and officials use this time to finalise the legislation program and Cabinet decision-making.
Only two jurisdictions, the Commonwealth and Queensland, retain three-year non-fixed terms, and we have argued previously that leaders' ability to set election dates creates the temptation for them to pursue maximum political advantage.
It appears Ms Gillard has traded the prerogative of surprise for certainty - perhaps to guarantee her government can deliver on its commitments, since it is widely anticipated Labor will lose the September poll. Perhaps, too, she has made this judgment in the interests of certainty and confidence for business as global weakness continues to dog the Australian economy.
The real challenge in managing these unusual arrangements will fall to the bureaucracy. The beginning of the caretaker period provides a buffer not available to it during a normal term of government. It enables it to separate its activities from the incumbent government and to draw a stronger distinction between its obligations to be responsive to ministers and the principles of impartiality expected of a career bureaucracy during an election campaign.
The complexity which will now confront the public service for the next eight months is two-fold. Firstly, to separate requests for information that relate to the continuity of government business from those for information which could confer an unfair advantage during the election campaign. Public funds will continue to pay the expenses of ministers and their staff until the official campaign launch, now increasingly held towards the end of the campaign.
Separating genuine campaigning activities from responding to the normal course of requests from a ministerial office will require judgment by senior officials and real mastery of their craft. Ministerial offices will continue to expect high levels of support from the public sector and the challenge for the bureaucracy will be to not only maintain impartiality in a highly contested and partisan environment, but to exercise another key obligation of the caretaker period - preparing two sets of detailed briefs: one for an incoming government, another for a returning government.
As partisans fighting for their political lives, Ms Gillard and her advisers may not have anticipated some of these difficulties but you can be sure the Coalition will seek at every opportunity to highlight breaches, real or perceived - making the atmosphere for public servants even more fraught.
It will be a long campaign for all of us, but spare a thought for those in the federal public service based in Canberra.
Associate Professor Anne Tiernan is at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University.
Jennifer Menzies is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University.