24 February 2023

The three election phases

A general election is held at least every three years. There are three phases of an election cycle:

Although a general election is usually held every three years, the Prime Minister can announce an election date any time during a three-year term. Generally, an election is announced well in advance of the election date. However, if there is a snap election, the election is called earlier, and comparatively short notice may be given. Much of this guidance concerns the time from the start of the pre-election period until a new government is sworn in.

The pre-election period

Timing of the pre-election period

The pre-election period is generally the three months immediately before election day. In 2023, the pre-election period begins on 14 July. During the pre-election period, unless the Government has clearly lost the confidence of the House and is therefore bound by the caretaker convention, it is generally business as usual, subject to any self-imposed restraint that the Government decides on.

There are no special obligations on the public sector from the date when the Prime Minister announces the election date until the pre-election period.

Exercise of voluntary restraint

The Government continues to have full power to make decisions in the pre-election period. However, successive governments have usually chosen to exercise restraint at this time in two areas:

  • making significant appointments
  • taking action that might result in government advertising campaigns running at the same time as the election campaign.

This restraint recognises that an election and, therefore, potentially a change in government is imminent.

Read the Cabinet Office Circular CO(23)1: Government Decisions and Actions in the Pre-election Period.

Working on government policy

Ministers can continue to commission policy work that goes through the Cabinet and Cabinet Committee decision-making process in the pre-election period. This is referred to as government policy. However, Ministers should not request policy work to support their party political work, for example, to use in election campaign debates.

Public servants who are concerned they are being asked to work on something that is not part of the government policy process, should inform their chief executive.

See Case study scenario 3: Public sector agency receives an information request from its Minister.

Election day

In 2023, the date of the general election is 14 October.

There is a ban on all political advertising, including social media, on election day.

Public servants are strongly encouraged to vote. Public servants can volunteer to work in the election administration by, for example, helping at voting places.

On election night, the Electoral Commission publishes the preliminary results for each party and electorate candidate. The preliminary results give an early indication about where the vote is going before the final count is complete. The chief electoral officer declares the official results up to three weeks after voting closes.

The post-election period

The caretaker convention principles

The post-election period runs from the day after election day until the new government is sworn in. During the post-election period, the caretaker convention applies until the new government is appointed. During this time, all government agencies must apply the caretaker convention principles in conducting agency business.

Read more about the caretaker convention.

Read more about the Constitutional Procedures after the Election CO (23) 8: Constitutional Procedures after the Election | Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC)

Read more about the Government Decision Making during the Period of Caretaker Government CO (23) 10: Government Decision Making during the Period of Caretaker Government | Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC)

When the caretaker convention applies

The caretaker convention applies in two situations:

  • in the post-election period before a new government is appointed
  • at any time when the Government has lost the confidence of the House, but it is necessary for the Government to remain in office on an interim basis.

While the incumbent government is still the lawful executive authority with all the powers and responsibilities that go with executive office, governments have traditionally constrained their actions when the caretaker convention applies. How much constraint and what processes to follow depends upon whether or not it is clear who will form the next government, and when.

  • If it is clear who will form the next government, but Ministers have not yet been appointed: The outgoing government should avoid new policy initiatives and must act on the advice of the incoming government on any matter of significance, even if it disagrees.
  • If it is not clear who will form the next government: In general terms, the normal government business continues but any significant decision-making should be deferred, if possible, until the political situation is resolved. If a deferral is not possible, the matter should be handled by way of a temporary or holding arrangement that does not commit the government in the longer term. If neither deferral nor temporary arrangements are possible, a decision should be made only after consultation with other political parties, to establish whether the proposed action has the support of a majority of the House.

The application of the convention to the wider public sector

The statutory provisions that govern decision-making in Crown entities, state-owned enterprises and other public sector agencies may impose different obligations to those that apply to the central government agencies. However, it is expected that during the caretaker period, all public sector agencies will discuss any issues that have caretaker convention implications with their Minister, and will apply the principles of the caretaker convention to decision-making as far as possible, taking into account their legal obligations, and statutory functions and duties.

Seeking advice on the caretaker convention

Because there are no hard and fast rules in the post-election period, Ministers and public servants must exercise careful judgement when making decisions.

Ultimately, the Prime Minister determines how a matter should be dealt with during this period. The Prime Minister must also be consulted on all issues that may require consultation with other political parties.

The Secretary of the Cabinet will issue guidance about the application of the caretaker convention following the election, and can provide advice to Ministers and agencies about applying the caretaker convention.

Forming a government

Forming a government is political and is negotiated by politicians. Typically, two or more political parties may negotiate coalition or support agreements so that a government can be formed.

Public servants are not directly involved in political party negotiations.

During negotiations, political parties may ask for information from the public sector. This process is set out in Schedule 3 of the Public Service Act 2020 (see clauses 17–20). The Public Service Commissioner administers the process and is the facilitator and contact between political parties and public sector agencies. For further guidance, see Section 7: Government processes before, during and after an election.

The political parties must make their government formation intentions clear through appropriate public announcements. The Governor-General must ascertain where the confidence of the House lies, based on the parties’ public statements, so that a Prime Minister and government can be appointed in accordance with the principles and processes set out in chapter 6 of the Cabinet Manual.

The Clerk of the Executive Council provides impartial support to the Governor-General and liaises with party leaders as required.

Read the Cabinet Manual for information about government formation.