6.2 The term of Parliament in New Zealand is three years from the date fixed for the return of the writs issued for the previous general election (see section 17 of the Constitution Act 1986). Parliament may, however, be dissolved before the three-year term finishes, under section 18 of the Constitution Act 1986. When the term of Parliament has ended, or Parliament has been dissolved, a general election is held to determine the composition of the next Parliament from which the next government will be formed.
6.3 The Governor-General has the formal power to dissolve, prorogue (that is, discontinue without dissolving), and summon Parliament, under section 18 of the Constitution Act 1986. By convention, the Governor-General exercises this power on the advice of the Prime Minister, the Governor-General’s principal adviser (see paragraphs 2.4 and 2.6).
6.4 Elections are held in accordance with the Electoral Act 1993. New Zealand's proportional representation electoral system lessens the likelihood that one party will win enough seats to be appointed as a single-party majority government. The election may result, for example, in a majority coalition government.
Cabinet and Ministers' decision-making before and after an election
6.5 Before and after a general election, it may be difficult for Cabinet and Ministers to take decisions, for several reasons.
- The period before a general election is usually characterised by a period of reduced decision-making capacity at the ministerial and Cabinet level, while Ministers are occupied with the election campaign.
- Some decision-making constraints apply in the three months before an election (see paragraphs 6.9 - 6.15).
- Immediately after the election, one of the two arms of the caretaker convention applies, under which decision-making is constrained (see paragraphs 6.21 - 6.40), and Ministers may be involved in government formation negotiations. In the past, the length of the caretaker period has varied from two weeks to two months.
6.6 Agencies should plan and prepare for a protracted electoral period of weeks or even months. The importance of such planning cannot be overstated.
6.7 An additional practical consideration is the need to make significant decisions in time to take them into account in the pre-election economic and fiscal update, which the Treasury is required to prepare under the fiscal responsibility provisions of the Public Finance Act 1989. This update is published 20 to 30 working days before election day. If short notice of an election is given, the update must be published not later than 10 working days after the day of the dissolution of Parliament. It must include information on all government decisions and all circumstances that may have a material effect on the fiscal and economic outlook.
6.8 It is therefore important for Ministers and the public sector to ensure that all significant matters that will require ministerial attention in the course of the election year are dealt with well in advance of a general election. In particular, the public sector should consider the effect of a general election on:
- the timing of any regular or annual processes that require ministerial decision or parliamentary action;
- processes with statutory deadlines; and
- the passage of legislation.
6.9 In the period immediately before a general election, the government is not bound by the caretaker convention unless the election has resulted from the government losing the confidence of the House (see paragraphs 6.21 - 6.40 for information about the caretaker convention). Successive governments, however, have chosen to restrict their actions to some extent during this time, in recognition of the fact that an election, and therefore potentially a change of government, is imminent.
6.10 For example, significant appointments have been deferred, and some otherwise unexceptionable government advertising has been considered inappropriate during the pre-election period, due to the heightened risk of a perception that public funds are being used to finance publicity for party political purposes. (See the Guidelines for Government Advertising, available on the website of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, for general guidance.)
6.11 In practice, restraints have tended to be applied from about three months before the general election is due or, if the period between the announcement of the election and polling day is less than three months, from the time of the announcement of the election.
6.12 Particular care should be taken to ensure the appropriate use of officials for policy development purposes in the lead-up to a general election or a by-election. Policy work carried out by officials for a Minister should not be used to develop party political material or be labelled as party policy. A “government policy” should generally be confirmed through the Cabinet and Cabinet committee decision-making process and then announced by the Minister in their official capacity. Once government decisions have been announced, however, they can appear in party political material used in an election campaign, as long as they are identified as government decisions. (See also paragraphs 6.65 - 6.68 for information on provision of information by the public sector during transitions.)
6.13 Political party policies that have not been worked on by officials or been the subject of government decisions may, of course, appear in party political material used in the election campaign. Such policies must not, however, be labelled “government policies”.
6.14 Political advisers continue to assist their Minister in the normal way during the pre‑election period.
6.15 The Public Service Commission publishes guidance on the pre-election period for those agencies in the public sector that are subject to the Commissioner's mandate, which sets out good practice. For guidance on the pre-election period, the Public Service Commission is available to provide advice on the obligations of agencies and their employees, and the Secretary of the Cabinet is available to provide advice on decision-making.