Dr Scott Brenton

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Conclusion: more similar than different

The sentiments exposed in the Contemporary Bicameralism Conference were confirmed in this study as both senators and members saw their work as unique­, which was a perception even more pronounced among current parliamentarians. There were strong senses of pride, even superiority, in identifying as either a senator or member, and confidence that political skills could easily be transferred between the chambers. Yet the experience of parliamentarians who did switch chambers and the opinions of senior chamber officials who witnessed the transfers, suggests that transitions are not quite so easy.

While the focus of this study was comparing senators and members, differences emerged between current and former parliamentarians. There were differences between senators and members in terms of how they saw their representative role, but there was far more variation within the groups and there appears to have been changes over time. Overall the profession has changed for both senators and members, with technological and communication developments, increases in staff and constituents, increased media intrusions, and challenges to balance work and family. This study proceeded on the premise that senators and members are two distinct groups, and it was expected that there would be more differences between them than similarities. While there are some differences between senators and members in terms of their roles and responsibilities, they are not as different as some might think, including the senators and members themselves. Yet often the differences between current and former parliamentarians appeared to be greater than between senators and members. There were also greater differences between the major parties and the minor parties, and between the parties and independents.

While it is theoretically difficult to clearly articulate how all representatives should act in all circumstances, empiricists have been more successful in typologising how different representatives act compared to one another. Donald D. Searing is his study of political roles in the British House of Commons, identified four informal backbench roles—Policy Advocates, Ministerial Aspirants, Constituency Members, and Parliament ‘Men’.[1] Building on the typologies of Searing in the British context and Wahlke et al. in the American context, Jones identifies five preferential roles based parliamentarians, constituency servants, partisans, policy specialists and political theorists.[2] Jones concluded that the Senate is more concentrated with partisans and less with constituency servants than the House of Representatives, where there is a greater spread of roles. However Jones’ categories were based on mutually exclusive assumptions about political behaviours, and most politicians exhibit multiple behaviours. In this study, ideologues, philosophers, interest and social groupies, and parliamentarians-at-large have been replaced by more geographically-identifying representatives (including through a party) in both chambers. While senators generally owe their preselection and election to their parties, so do most members, even if they may not see themselves primarily as party representatives. There is certainly a stronger sense of local attachment among members, but most acknowledge the politics goes far beyond the local. Furthermore, local representation is occurring in the party room rather than the parliament, as representatives advocate for their community in order to influence party policy.

The biggest difference between senators and members is in terms of parliament. Senators are more committee-focused, and chamber-focused while in Canberra, and again this has become more pronounced in recent times. The cultural differences between the chambers are stark, and these institutions have strongly influenced the political actors. The changes for senators over time appear to have been greater than for members, with the role of the Senate changing. Most see the House as the House of Government and the Senate as the House of Review, and this view has become even more entrenched in the current parliament. This policy and legislative focus of the Senate is arguably aided by longer terms, as (state) senators are elected for fixed six-year terms and party ticket voting provides more certainty than for members, who are subjected to individualised electorate contests at least every three years. The focus of members across the different roles and responsibilities is more divided, and is perhaps indicative of the competing demands due to the greater pressures associated with re-election.

The House was once the chamber of choice for parliamentarians wanting to represent a defined electorate, while only a minority of senators were attracted to the idea of state-based representation.  Now the difference is less acute, with senators identifying as strong state-based advocates, for example, Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce and South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon. Furthermore, the Senate is now perceived by its participants as the more interesting and exciting chamber. While it was expected that the ambitious ministerial aspirants and hardworking constituency servants would reside in the House, and the ‘policy wonks’ and conscientious legislators, or true parliamentarians, would occupy the red-leather Senate benches, there is far more variation. There are many high-profile ministers in the Senate with major portfolios and even more lower-profile backbenchers in the House who will probably never aspire to higher office. Indeed the image of the consummate politician kissing babies in shopping centres is contrasted by some introverted and painfully shy members in reality. Equally there are many extroverted senators with excellent campaigning skills eliciting high levels of constituent interest and support from across the country. However, the ‘House of Review’ is unfortunately also home to many party ‘hacks’, as well as diligent legislators and committee inquisitors.

Despite negative perceptions of the ‘dark’ side, there are many similarities in workloads of senators and members and most types of work, including constituent work, which may surprise many members in particular. Yet the type of constituent work appears to be different, as do the constituencies that senators and members represent. Most members have retained their traditional role as representatives of constituents in their local community, while many senators align themselves with interest and other groups that transcend geographical boundaries. Senators (and their party strategists) have begun to move away from the CBDs of capital cities and are now engaging more with the community and forming regional—if not local—attachments. It appears that senators are shattering (or indeed have shattered) the stereotypes of retirees and ‘unrepresentative swill’ and become ‘pseudo-Members’. Senators are engaging in significant amounts of constituent work and increasingly acting as the public face of the parties at various community and campaigning events.

Australia’s ‘Washminster’ mutation has evolved into a uniquely stable and workable system of government incorporating some of the best aspects of parliamentary and presidential systems. While the executive sits in the parliament there is effectively a presidential-like separation of powers between the executive and the legislature, or more precisely between the executive-controlled lower house and an upper house where the government usually lacks a majority. Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice provides the following theoretical justification for Australian bicameralism:

Adequate representation of a modern society, with its geographic, social and economic variety, can be realised only by a variety of modes of election. This is best achieved by a bicameral parliament in which each house is constituted by distinctive electoral process. A properly structured bicameral parliament ensures that representation goes beyond winning a simple majority of votes in one election, and encompasses the state of electoral opinion in different phases of development.[3]

Thus, it is not simply the existence of two houses that has produced this democratic dynamism but the different electoral systems, which has preserved the government’s authority in House and not only resulted in a wider range of parties in the Senate but also a broader range of people. Just as the Senate has emerged from the shadow of the House of Representatives and increasingly asserted itself and established a unique role, so too have senators. 

[1].          DD Searing, Westminster’s world: understanding political roles, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1994.

[2].          G Jones, ‘The tension between individual role constructions, responsibilities to the institution and their reconciliation on Committees’, paper presented to the annual conference of the Australasian Study of Parliament Group, Adelaide, 23–25 August 2007; JC Wahlke, The legislative system: explorations in legislative behaviour, Wiley, New York, 1962.

[3].          H Evans (ed.), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice (Twelfth Edition), op. cit., p. 4.

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