Changes of government don’t happen often in Australia – the Coalition has been in power for the last nine years – but the public service has been preparing for this scenario for weeks.
So what happens now?
The incoming prime minister, Anthony Albanese, was receiving high-level briefings from public service officials on Sunday – and is set to be quickly sworn in on Monday with four of his most senior ministers: Richard Marles, Penny Wong, Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher.
All ministerial portfolios will be divvied up among them before the final election results are tallied (the Labor caucus is expected to decide on the membership of the full ministry on 30 May).
As Albanese noted on Sunday, the division of all ministerial portfolios had been worked out “as an interim arrangement with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, because you can’t have a circumstance whereby there aren’t ministers”.
Why so soon?
An interim swearing-in will take place on Monday to enable Albanese to fly to Tokyo for a Quad leaders meeting on Tuesday.
While this arrangement appears to be particularly quick, it is not unprecedented.
The practice has echoes of 1972, when Gough Whitlam won the “It’s time” election. Initially, an interim government comprising just Whitlam and his deputy leader, Lance Barnard, were sworn in to office in December 1972, dividing all 27 ministerial portfolios between them. They held these roles for two weeks while the final election results were being tallied and before the Labor caucus could determine the makeup of the full ministry. Then all ministers were sworn into their positions.
Whitlam would later joke that the then governor general, Sir Paul Hasluck, oversaw “one of the most effective and expeditious executive councils we have ever had – it was a happy, harmonious, heady triumvirate [and] for those two weeks in December 1972, there was total private and public unanimity among all 27 ministries”.
The public service, led by the PM&C, has been preparing for all scenarios.
The ‘red books’
In the lead-up to federal elections, departments prepare what are known as the “blue books” (for an incoming Liberal government) and the “red books” (for an incoming Labor government). These outline key issues for the next government, tailored to the policy priorities expressed by each major party.
In preparation for a new minister, each department is told to prepare advice explaining their specific ministerial responsibilities, identifying key issues they need to know, and informing them of any urgent issues or looming appointments.
Albanese, speaking on his way into a briefing in Sydney on Sunday, disclosed that he had also been given a range of preparatory briefings during the election campaign.
“We did have briefings on Wednesday with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,” Albanese said. “I’ve had a number of also national security briefings over the last fortnight.”
In a nod to some reporters who had questioned the pace of Albanese’s campaign, he said: “The times when I wasn’t with you, I wasn’t chilling out. I was doing that preparation work and that’s a good thing, so we were ready, we’ve made arrangements.”
What else is on Albanese’s agenda?
In addition to the combined Quad summit in Tokyo on Tuesday, Albanese is scheduled to have one-on-one meetings with the US president, Joe Biden, Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, and India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. While Albanese and Wong are in Tokyo for those meetings, Marles will act as prime minister.
Albanese said he would return to Australia on Wednesday and “get down to business”. He said he would ask PM&C, in coming weeks, to organise a face-to-face meeting in Canberra with all of the state premiers and territory chief ministers signalling his desire for “a cooperative relationship”. In coming months Albanese plans to “bring unions and employers and other organisations together in an employment summit” focused on lifting productivity, wages and profits.
What else happens in the transition to a new government?
Shredders are a common sight in the ministerial wing of Parliament House during changes of government.
According to the Australian Public Service Commission’s guide to transitions: “Closing down a Ministerial office means a change of personnel, retrieval of assets and identifying legacy documents.”
Departing ministers and their staff “will need to make arrangements with the National Archives of Australia to transfer relevant records” – while documents not subject to archiving can be destroyed.
“While there are no fixed rules, once a minister no longer holds their position, their ministerial offices in Parliament House and other locations generally need to be decommissioned within a few days,” the guide says.
“This involves significant departmental support, as well as cleaning and preparation work by the Department of Parliamentary Services and the Department of Finance. Sensitive material, including Cabinet document retrieval, must also be considered. Departmental assets must be ready for return, with the Department handling and auditing all assets. The Department of Finance also has a significant role to play in terms of when equipment can be removed from Parliament House, and when new offices are ready for occupation.
“Departments should also be flexible and proactive in their dealings with exiting ministerial staff, who will need time to close down systems such as email and mobile telephones.”
One of the pitfalls of Australia’s freedom of information laws is that any outstanding applications to ministerial officers simply lapse when those ministers lose their jobs. That means that there will be a bunch of pending applications for information arguably in the public interest that will go nowhere, even if the ministerial office has dragged out of the process of responding to them.
One official who has reason to be particularly nervous about the transition is the secretary of the PM&C, Philip Gaetjens, a former chief of staff to Scott Morrison. Albanese has previously expressed no confidence in Gaetjens and there has been speculation that the top public servant might quit before he is pushed. Continuity and change.