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Australia’s government is changing after nine years of the Coalition

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.

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”.

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.

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.”

Source: theguardian.com, published 22 May 2022

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