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The Newman government still runs Queensland, so what can it do?

While Queenslanders watch and wait for a state election result, the quiet business of government continues. Flickr/James Cridland, CC BY

Queenslanders won’t know until at least next week who will lead the next state government, despite Labor winning the crucial support of an independent MP.

That means Campbell Newman will remain premier and in charge of a caretaker Liberal National government for some time.

So how close are we to seeing an election result? What do a caretaker premier and government actually do in the meantime? And what happened 20 years ago, when Queensland had a similarly tight election and there was a court challenge over a seat that got the Goss government back into power?

Which party is closest to forming government?

On Thursday, independent MP Peter Wellington said he would support Labor’s Annastacia Palaszczuk to become the next premier of Queensland if – as appears likely – his vote was needed for the ALP to form a minority government. Wellington said his decision was based on wanting to give Queensland certainty, which only Labor was offering. The LNP won’t elect a leader to replace Newman, who lost his seat, until Saturday.

The Sunshine Coast independent said that while he respected Lawrence Springborg, who is officially leading the LNP’s negotiations to win back government, his efforts were being undermined by other MPs “running around trying to … destabilise Lawrence’s attempts”.

Wellington’s declaration came shortly after two Katter’s Australian Party MPs said they couldn’t decide who to support until all the votes had been counted. That is expected to take until February 10.

Even after next week, one seat could be hanging in the balance. Labor is narrowly ahead and looks likely to win the north-western Brisbane electorate of Ferny Grove. But it has emerged since the election that the Palmer United Party candidate wasn’t eligible to run. If the final result is close enough for PUP preferences to have mattered, there could be a by-election.

As Anne Twomey and Graeme Orr have explained on The Conversation, there has to be a government in office at all times – and that means Newman’s post-politics plans have had to be put on hold for now.

What do caretaker premier and ministers do?

On the night of the January 31 election, Newman declared that “my political career is over”. But the close result means he will remain premier for the foreseeable future.

Media footage of Newman packing up his electorate and parliamentary offices led some to question whether Queensland still had a serving premier. The fact is, Newman remains premier, albeit a caretaker one – and the same is true for all his ministers.

Newman flew to Townsville on Thursday for police graduation, with Labor police spokesman Bill Byrne invited to join him. Similarly, Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie attended the swearing-in of new judges on Wednesday.

Like any other government in caretaker mode, Newman and his ministers can’t simply do what they like. Instead, they have to keep following the caretaker conventions that came into force when the writs for the election were issued. These will stay in place until a new government is formed.

The caretaker conventions are designed to prevent an outgoing government from locking an incoming government into major new policy, funding commitments or significant appointments. They provide that any significant decisions should be deferred, be handled by temporary arrangements (such as with a short-term contract extension) or be subject to consultation with the other parties.

But the caretaker conventions do not prevent the ordinary business of government from continuing. Departments continue to prepare incoming government briefs as required to under the conventions; programs continue to be administered; and payments continue to be made on current contracts, projects and so on.

All this requires sensitivity and judgement and above all, the need to avoid controversy. There are no hard-and-fast rules.

If urgent or unexpected matters arise – such as a natural disaster – it falls to officials to liaise with the caretaker premier and opposition leader and to broker a bipartisan agreement. This is not always easy. Public servants must find ways to navigate a neutral path in the treacherous partisan waters of political combatants, who are facing off when the stakes have never been higher.

How Wayne Goss kept governing in 1995, even with a crucial seat under challenge

It is unusual in Queensland for the caretaker conventions to continue post-election. Mostly, but not always (think 1996 and 1998), the result is clear on election night. The increasing incidence of close election results and hung parliaments in all jurisdictions is making the period that the caretaker conventions apply post-election lengthier.

After the July 1995 election, the result wasn’t clear for 10 days, during which time Wayne Goss’s Labor party continued on as the caretaker government. Labor eventually won, claiming the crucial seat of Mundingburra by just 16 votes to reach a slim majority of just 45 seats to the Coalition’s 43. (Bundaberg independent Liz Cunningham held the remaining seat.)

The Mundingburra result was then challenged by the then Liberal Party and referred to the Court of Disputed Returns. While that was going on, Goss governed on.

The court determined in early December 1995 that a by-election should be held. It was called for February 3, 1996. After a bitter campaign, the Liberals claimed Mundingburra to draw even with Labor at 44 seats, leaving Cunningham holding the balance of power.

That put Goss back in the role of caretaker premier again. Nine days after the by-election, Cunningham announced she would support the Rob Borbidge-led National and Liberal coalition to form minority government. Goss resigned as premier on February 19, 1996.

Queenslanders will no doubt be crossing their fingers for a quicker resolution to this election than in 1995-96.

Newman’s defeat in the seat of Ashgrove means that whichever of the major parties forms government in Queensland, the state will have a new premier.

With this in mind, and given both parties have time to contemplate the lessons of Saturday’s poll, I have prepared some more detailed advice to Queensland’s next premier. If she or he can look after the four Ps – people, process, policy and politics  —  our next premier will have the best chance possible of hitting the ground running.

Read more of The Conversation’s Queensland election 2015 coverage.

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