- Title page
- 1 About this Guidance
- 2 Prior to a general election
- 3 Following a general election
- 4 Where to get more information on election year issues
- Appendix 1: Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State Services
- Appendix 2: Guidelines for Costing Party Political Policies
2 Prior to a general election
2.1 Government decisions and actions before an election
- The Government has the right to govern until the election. The caretaker convention does not apply during the pre-election period.
- However, governments have chosen to restrict their actions to some extent during previous pre-election periods.
In the pre-election period, the Government retains the right to govern. The Government is not bound by the caretaker convention (see section 3.1) unless the election has resulted from the Government’s loss of confidence of the House.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet published the Cabinet Office circular CO (17) 1 Government Decisions and Actions in the Pre-election Period (http://www.dpmc.govt.nz/cabinet/circulars/co17/1) on 22 February 2017. It contains the following information.
It has been the practice for governments to exercise restraint in making significant appointments in the pre-election period. Whether or not a particular appointment is “significant” is a matter of judgement. A case by case assessment is required. Successive governments have also chosen to avoid holding advertising campaigns that may create a perception that funds are being used to finance publicity for party political purposes.
From a practical perspective, the election period can be a difficult time for Ministers to focus on big or difficult policy questions. A general election always results in a period of reduced decision making capacity at the ministerial and Cabinet level, while Ministers are occupied with the election campaign. Chief executives should talk to their Ministers in the earlier part of the year about the matters that they wish to see advanced before the election, and agree on timeframes for getting the relevant papers to Ministers and to Cabinet. (see also section 2.2).
The Secretary of the Cabinet is available to provide advice on decision making during the pre‑election period.
- Agencies and Ministers’ offices need to have protocols in place to ensure that media enquiries are handled promptly, by the person most appropriately placed to do so.
An election year increases media interest in the activities of government and its agencies. State servants need to know how to identify matters that are primarily either political or operational, and whether those matters are to be handled by the Minister or by the agency.
Those who are authorised to speak on behalf of an agency in the period before, during, and after an election need to understand the sensitivity of the environment in which they are operating. Good processes and engagement with Ministers’ offices will help to ensure that enquiries from the media are handled promptly, by the person most appropriately placed to do so.
Media releases by State services agencies during election periods must be drafted with an appreciation of the scrutiny given at such times to the activities of the Government, its agencies, and their employees. As at all times of the year, they must be strictly factual and impartial.
Programme launches and events
- Agencies should continue to support Ministers with ‘business as usual’ initiatives during an election period.
- Particular care is needed around ceremonial events to avoid perceptions of being associated with any political aspects of such events.
There is no blanket restriction on Ministers wishing to launch programmes or initiatives in the lead up to the election. In general, the business of government should continue and State servants should support Ministers with ‘business as usual’ initiatives. However, the nature and timing of high profile ceremonial events (e.g. building openings or award ceremonies) must be carefully considered.
During an election period, there is a risk that public launches and events may take on a ‘party political’ character that would not be evident at other times. This is particularly so when Ministers and/or MPs are involved in the event. In general, State servants should support Ministers as usual, but must be vigilant in avoiding association with any political aspects of such events. Particular care must also be taken with the preparation of supporting material. All agency material must remain strictly impartial and factual to avoid any perceptions of being associated with any party political messages (see ‘advertising campaigns’ directly below).
State servants should consider whether the impartiality of their agency could be called into question if high profile events involving politicians are scheduled in the weeks immediately prior to the election. In some circumstances, where there is a high perception of risk to the agency, it may be appropriate to defer the event until after the election.
Advertising and publicity campaigns
- Government advertising is any process for which payment is made from public funds for the purpose of publicising any policy, product, service, or activity provided at public expense by the government.
- Agencies are responsible for publicising government policies, products, services, and activities, and this ‘business as usual’ activity continues during an election period.
- Restraint is required around advertising and publicity that may create a perception that government funds are being used to finance publicity for party political purposes.
- Advertising or communications by State services agencies that could be regarded as encouraging voters to vote, or not vote, in a particular way are never acceptable.
- To work through a particular matter State servants should first read the Guidelines for Government Advertising (http://www.dpmc.govt.nz/dpmc/publications/guidelines-government-advertising approved by Cabinet, and the Cabinet Office Circular CO (17) 1 Government Decisions and Actions in the Pre-election Period (http://www.dpmc.govt.nz/cabinet/circulars).
The Guidelines for Government Advertising define Government advertising as “any process for which payment is made from public funds for the purpose of publicising any policy, product, service, or activity provided at public expense by the government.” This definition is intentionally broad and does not differentiate between delivery platforms e.g an authorised State servant speaking to members of the public about the detail in a consultation document or putting information out through social media.
Government advertising and publicity must be presented in a manner which is accurate, factual, truthful, fair, honest, impartial, lawful and proper and complies with all relevant legislation and government policies. Agencies must comply with these long-standing principles at all times, not simply during an election period. Some questions agencies may want to consider include:
- Are you confident that the material has a clear business purpose that fits with the agency’s objectives?
- Is the material presented factual, accurate, truthful, fair, and honest?
- Does the material look like it is encouraging the public to vote in a certain way for example, by publishing an expensive booklet that has a focus on past policy successes of one political party over a period of time when different political parties had been in government?
- Have you liaised with everyone in your agency who needs to be involved, e.g. the communications team or finance experts to ensure the spending is in scope of the appropriation or other spending authority?
- If you are producing material with organisations that are not part of government does your agency material meet the guidelines or does the total package of material make it look like your agency is no longer adhering to the guidelines?
Business as usual campaigns
Publicity and advertising are legitimate forms of governmental spending; there is no blanket restriction on communication campaigns during the election period. In general, campaigns that inform people of government policies and services or set out their entitlements and responsibilities do not need to stop during an election period.
Restraint in certain circumstances
In the run-up to an election, agencies should carefully consider the content and timing of their campaigns. Successive governments have exercised restraint around advertising campaigns to avoid any perception that funds are being used to finance publicity for party political purposes.
Communication campaigns or advertising undertaken during this period should be assessed for perceptions of ‘party political’ bias. Agencies should be aware that content, which might be unexceptionable at other times, may take on a ‘party political’ flavour in the lead up to an election.
Agencies should also carefully consider the timing of their communications. As the election date approaches, there should be a clear need by the recipients to receive the information at that time. For instance, it may be inappropriate to publicise programmes during an election period if the implementation of the programme is dependent on the election outcome or that do not come into effect for some time.
Advertising and publicity examples
The following examples illustrate how the principle of political neutrality, the Government’s right to govern and the Government’s self-restraint in advertising may apply to an agency advertising and publicity in an election period. Each answer will depend on the exact context the agency is working through.
- A monthly Facebook, YouTube and newspaper campaign, which involves government agencies, private sector agencies, citizen groups and NGOs, is underway to advise the community of services available following an earthquake. The general election is to take place in three weeks.
This is a business as usual activity that needs to continue. When material is co-produced, the government agencies involved need to make sure their part of the content is politically neutral and follows the Guidelines for Government Advertising. If government agencies involved have any concerns about the overall look of the material these should be talked through with the other organisations involved in the publicity. The government agency may need to reconsider their involvement if there is a perception that the agency is contributing to political material.
It is three months until the General Election. The opposition party has criticised a government programme, but the criticisms are regarded as being based on incorrect information. The agency involved considers the criticism misleads the public, and decides to make a media statement to correct the misinformation.
This situation requires careful consideration. Although the agency is setting out to correct misinformation, that may be better to come from the Minister rather than the agency. The agency may get drawn into a political situation and may breach existing principles.
An agency is responsible for a new programme which, if the current government is re-elected, will come into effect in April of the year following the election. The agency wants to start early with publicity so that all those who would be entitled to benefits under the programme are aware of it. The advertising will commence in October, which is one month before the general election.
In this situation, it may be prudent to delay the campaign until after the general election, particularly as the implementation of the programme may be dependent on the election outcome. That will reduce any risk that the campaign is seen as not being politically neutral. However, if the affected people need all the time between October to April to prepare for the possible change then this would be a good reason to proceed. If proceeding, the campaign needs to adhere to the Guidelines for Government Advertising.
An agency is ready to undertake consultation on a proposed Government policy by publishing a consultation document on their website. It is in the middle of a pre-election period and the topic is an election issue with strong and divergent views across political parties.
Consulting on a proposed government policy may be absolutely fine to go ahead close to an election where there is good reason to do so. If proceeding, the agency and State servants need to carefully work through how they will meet their political neutrality obligations to mitigate the perception that funds are being used to finance publicity for party political purposes. However, if there is no reason to go ahead at this time an agency may consider talking to the Minister about a possible delay in the public consultation.