10 October 2013

Although there are similarities in the public administrations of Australia and New Zealand, some practices are quite different. What is considered unparliamentary behaviour, perhaps, is one.  But the post election period highlights a substantive difference in the preparation for a new government.

Departments in New Zealand follow procedure specified in the Cabinet Manual and guidance published by the State services Commissioner which make it clear that briefings are to be tailored to the needs of the new Minister, and therefore whether they have previous knowledge of the portfolio. The type of  information needed is identified, and the format is specified – in the style of other Departmental advice, not prepared for public release and recognising that it is the start of an on-going series of briefings.  Because the briefing is shaped to the needs of a known Minister, of necessity, it must be finalised after the election and negotiations to form a government have been completed.

However that was not always the case. Until the 1980s each Department compiled a “black book” setting out pertinent issues in anticipation of a change of Ministers. The briefing was “locked down” on the eve of an election as an act of political neutrality. The reverse is now the case.  The briefing for an incoming Minister is worked on after an election to make sure the content meets the needs of the appointee.

The Australians manage matters differently. Each Department prepares post-election briefings during the election campaign, to be handed to a new Minister, as soon as the election result is clear.

Three briefings are prepared to meet the election outcome – either for the extant Minister, a new Minister from the returning administration , or for a new administration. But whereas New Zealand requirements are for the briefing to be targeted by post election editing, the Australia practice is still for the briefings to be frozen at the eve of the election.

The Australians differentiate the content by colour – red, blue and green.  In New Zealand there is no longer any currency for the term “black book” once  commonly used.

Some New Zealand agencies have shown a reluctance to conform.  They find the Cabinet Manual too prescription. They want to convey their world view to their Minister. They want the briefing to look good and, anticipating the Minister will be respond to Official Information Act requests, package the briefing in a media friendly format.

The requirement for the incoming briefing to follow the form of other ministerial documents reflects the concern of one State Service Commissioner who felt some briefings were becoming more like tourism brochures intended to be republished by the media.  At that time the content was not focussing on the immediate needs of a Minister taking on a new portfolio.

Australian Ministers traditionally have been reluctant to disclose the content of Departmental briefings, finding reasons for delaying disclosure or discouraging requests by setting high fees for the information release. The new Prime Minister in Canberra may be keen to make the state of the economy – as pictured in the post election briefings – readily available for publication. However he has previously spoken of the inappropriateness of disclosing what should be some of the most sensitive of Public Service advice.