Current Affairs

Caretaker government’s DOs and DONTs

By Anna Lee

In Malaysia, we are so used to the government being BN and the civil service or public institutions being one and the same. We forget that there is a clear line to be drawn between what belongs to the BN political coalition, and what belongs to the public, held in trust by the government.

Obviously, a caretaker government is not the same as the ruling government. It has a limited scope of power that should not be exercised in a manner which will have direct implications on the elections that are to follow.

Think of it like a house tenant delivering vacant possession to the landlord’s new tenants. The rakyat are the “landlord”, so to speak, and the nations’ resources belong to us all, not the government.

The ruling government is merely “renting” and at the end of the tenure, it needs to vacate the “premises” in the same condition that the “landlord” expects it to be. That is only fair to the “new tenant”, in this case, the incoming government.

There are certain conventions which a caretaker government should abide by, as summarized by former Clerk of the Privy Council Alex Himelfarb in this way:

“Do not do anything that would give you political advantage by virtue of being the government and do not make commitments that will constrain the government that is eventually elected.”

By commonwealth Parliamentary convention, there are several restrictions or limits for a caretaker government. Referring to commonwealth sources, we summarise a few here with Malaysian examples for easy understanding:

  1. BN must refrain from using public resources for their political campaign

During the caretaker period, all ministers and their entourages must not use public resources to assist their election campaign. That means, no government owned transport (cars, buses, planes) should be used to take them around campaigning.

Buses belonging to local councils, or other transport bought with public funds should not be used to ferry voters to ceramahs or polling centers either.

Another obvious example would be the appropriate usage of government buildings or public buildings. Is it fair for the ruling party to use public (government) buildings in a campaign for reelection, when opposition parties face hurdles to obtain permission to use these premises?

One more point is the use of state run media, particularly newspapers and television. RTM, Utusan Malaysia and other mainstream media must stop attacking BN’s political rivals and promoting BN’s agenda. The media must be free, not a tool of the ruling government.

Even more importantly, it is unethical for BN to access military and police intelligence to obtain an advantage in the 13GE. This is a potentially significant advantage for BN to enjoy in the elections and could determine the elections result.

  1. BN is no longer entitled to the financial entitlements of a government

Once Parliament is dissolved, the allowances of MPs will cease, the same goes for state legislatures. State agencies and departments must not pay for claims related to an election campaign or political event.

BN must pay for its own political campaign with its own funds, not taxpayers’ money. This includes buying additional laptops, tablets, mobile phones or equipment to be used during the election.

In Australia, it has been a longstanding convention that Ministers do not claim travelling allowance from the day of the Prime Minister’s campaign launch to the day after polling day.

Australia even has a Charter for Budget Honesty and Other Policy Costings, which covers cost during the caretaker period.

  1. BN must cease making major policy decisions

BN must observe discretion and refrain from making any major policy decisions of a continuing or long-term character which would “trap” the new government.

Last minute policy announcements not only provide the ruling government with an unfair polls advantage and lead to accusations of vote buying, the incoming government may act on a completely different tack.

So what’s with announcing a pay rise for civil servants, policemen and soldiers just before the election? Morally, BN should refrain from such clear ‘vote fishing’.

  1. BN must stay away from making important appointments

BN should not make important appointments of public officials during this period. Acting or short-term appointments can be made, other non-urgent appointments can be deferred until the elections have been resolved.

  1. BN should not sign major contracts or undertakings

BN should not ink major contracts or commitments which can be deferred while it is the caretaker government. This is for the simple reason that, should a change of government occur, the new government may not want to be bound by the previous commitments.

  1. BN must avoid international negotiations and visits

BN should defer major international negotiations, or to adopt observer status until the caretaker period expires.

Lim Kit Siang even went as far as to suggest that in view of its caretaker status, the BN should not make decisions regarding the Sabah Sulu crisis without consultation with the opposition.

  1. Prevent public service involvement in election activities. 

Separation of power necessitates that during the caretaker period, the public service must adopt a neutral stance while continuing its normal role.

The civil service are supposed to be apolitical, in the first place. They are there to serve the people, not any political party in power.

This is why public services officers must refrain from participating in political campaigning. They must discharge their duties impartially and refrain from promoting any individual or party.

Act within limits of caretaker role, BN

BN should recognize that its legitimacy to rule expires on 9 March 2013 and it must act according to the norms and limitations of a caretaker government. Failure to do so would be judged and punished severely by the rakyat in subsequent polls.

Pakatan Rakyat-led states have led the way in this, with Selangor having drawn up a set of caretaker government guidelines with reference to established democratic conventions.

PKR deputy president Azmin Ali has also urged the four Pakatan Rakyat-led states establish caretaker governments once legislatures are dissolved ahead of elections.

Let’s introduce fairness to the electoral process in every sense. Not only does the electoral roll need to be cleaned up.  It’s about neutrality. Elections must be held in such a manner where any party that wins, does so in a fair way. -The Rocket

One comment on “Caretaker government’s DOs and DONTs

  1. How about Pakatan state government? Make sure you act precisely like a caretaker state government.

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