12 August 2013

Last Monday, in anticipation of the general election, the Australian Parliament was prorogued and the House of Representatives was dissolved.  This wording indicates a minor distinction between the Australian and the New Zealand Parliamentary procedures. Because New Zealand has a unicameral House, on proroguing Parliament, the Parliament is dissolved also.  In Australia it is the House of Representatives that has been dissolved – only if there were to be a double dissolution- involving both Houses, would Parliament be dissolved.

A greater distinction  highlighted is that proroguing the House of Representatives brings the caretaker government convention into force. The convention in Australia is that the Government takes on a caretaker status throughout the election period until a new Government takes office.  That is not the case in New Zealand where the pre election authority of a Government is reduced to caretaker status only if the election has been called because the Government has lost the confidence of the House.

In New Zealand the theory is that the Government retains full powers – on the basis that there must always be a Government – but that those powers are constrained if there is uncertainty about who has the majority support of Parliament. A caretaker arrangement will be declared if the Government has lost a confidence motion and a new Ministry is being negotiated,  or if, following an election, there is uncertainty about who has the majority support required  to form a new Government.

The reality is that there is probably not much difference in practice between Australia and New Zealand.  Once an election is underway New Zealand Governments tend to act as if executive power were limited.  Commonly they will

  • Defer making major policy decisions that are likely to commit an incoming government;
  • Defer making significant appointments;
  • Defer entering major contracts or undertakings, and
  • Defer programme advertising  which could create a perception of public spending for party political purposes.

Under the Australian caretaker convention these are explicit obligations.