Constituents and constituencies

Dr Scott Brenton

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Constituents and constituencies

‘My constituency is everything this side of the moon’ – a Greens politician who describes themself as a ‘planetarian’

One member represents each local electorate, which is a clearly definable constituency, with the residents the constituents. The majority of the voters elect the member. If a constituent has a problem they can contact their local member, who often lives, or at least has an office in their constituency. However, twelve senators represent each state and, due to the electoral system, often only a minority of voters elect each senator. Most senators live in the capital cities and many senators’ offices are located in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in the central business district. The connection to constituents is more obscure, but senators do have constituencies, they are just not necessarily geographically contained. One senator made the distinction between a constituency and an electorate (which is the state).

Stilborn typologises the contemporary roles of parliamentarians into four major activities: the traditional roles of legislative activity and surveillance activity and the more recent roles of constituency service activity and party responsibilities.[1] Stilborn observes:

The emergence of constituency service activity as a major occupation of Members of Parliament presents a paradox. On the one hand, such activity, unlike the intra-parliamentary activities discussed elsewhere in the paper, is carried out by virtually all Members and reflects a set of expectations consistently applicable to all. In this sense it is a generic role, deriving from the status of having been elected to membership in the House. On the other hand, constituency service activity has no necessary and specific connection with Parliament, and could in principle be performed by public servants appointed to perform “ombudsman” or citizen-liaison functions. Members need not rely on assistance from Parliament in carrying out these services, although at times they may find it useful to do so. Equally, while ombudsman activity may at times furnish a Member with information better enabling him or her to engage in policy work, the refinement of legislation or the surveillance of the Government, it need not do so. While constituency service activity may make a coincidental contribution to the Member’s ability to participate within Parliament, it more typically competes with parliamentary participation for a Member’s time.[2]

Indeed, one interviewee saw being a senator as an opportunity to focus on issues rather than individual constituents more appealing, and found that the issues the Senate deals with are broader and more interesting. Senators often have particular policy interest areas or through their committee work develop such interests. Thus many senators become important political allies of particular groups in the wider community pursuing similar policy outcomes, be it groups interested in tax reform, or refugee advocates, rural organisations or tertiary education unions. For example, one senator built connections with major ethnic communities, which became their constituency to some extent. Another senator felt an obligation as a feminist to represent women across the country and show them women could be effective politicians. At the same time some senators were conscious of being labelled as one-issue politicians. Successful minor party senators appear better at defining a constituency, while other crossbench senators identified ordinary people as being their constituents, as opposed to big business or big unions.

One interviewee who served in both houses found that constituency issues tend to be national issues anyway, or at least regional, and that it was difficult to confine it to a single electorate. However, there are occasionally issues, such as airport noise and or employment generation, which have different impacts on different electorates. One parliamentarian who served in both houses found the day-to-day work completely different, and while senators still get constituent inquiries, they tend to be more issues of the day. For most senators, constituent inquiries often came from groups and were generally national issues of the day.

Interviewees with ministerial or party leadership experience, while not discounting the importance of simultaneous local representation, tended to take a more national view of their responsibilities. One senator saw their constituency as going beyond their state, in a similar manner to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition going beyond their local constituencies. This senator made the distinction between backbenchers with the interests of their local electorates, and party leaders and frontbenchers who must appeal more broadly. Indeed party leaders and high-profile senators received constituent inquiries from across Australia, and crossbench senators appeared to receive the most constituent correspondence, as they hold the balance of power. Territory senators, from both the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory also appear to receive a higher level of constituent inquiries, with only two senators for each territory. Particularly before self-government in the ACT, residents seemed to regard senators as local members.

While senators have less individual constituent issues than members, they tend to be more difficult or complex as the constituent has often already approached a department or member and come to the senator as a last resort. Many senators agreed with this sentiment, and found constituent inquiries to senators more issues-based than electorate-related. There are also partisan differences. For constituents, the choice of twelve senators (in the states) of differing political persuasions compared to only one local member who may or may not be sympathetic to their concerns, may mean that they approach a senator rather than their local member. Many Labor senators claimed that they generally get constituent inquiries from members of the public uncomfortable with dealing with their local Coalition member who may be perceived as unsympathetic, for example, on social security and immigration matters. Green senators also often received these types of inquiries, in addition to environmental and social justice issues. Liberal senators reported receiving inquiries around business and tax issues and Nationals on rural and regional concerns.

One interviewee who switched from the Senate to the House found a different level of constituent issues in the House, despite having operated constituent ‘clinics’ as a senator. This interviewee described a feeling of oppression as a member in the sense of the electorate feeling that they owned you, whereas senators are not treated in the same way. Many senators claimed that backbench members in particular are totally focused on their electorates. Yet a senator who served in a party leadership position found the constituent workload as a member a shock. This interviewee found that as a member you have to constantly communicate with the electorate and the constituent load of     80 000 constituents was much greater than for a senator, even one representing a large state.

The findings from the survey do reveal a difference, although it not as large as some believe. As can be seen in Figure 16a, close to two-thirds of Senate respondents spend at least 20 per cent of their time on constituent work, compared to just over three-quarters of House respondents. However, the survey was aimed at parliamentarians and what they do with their time rather than their electorate office as a whole, and while senators and members might personally spend the same proportion of their time on constituent work, a member’s electorate office may be more preoccupied with such work than a senator’s office.

Figure 16a: Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on constituent work

Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on constituent work

Furthermore, this appears to be a recent development, as there is a much clearer distinction between former senators and members (see Figure 16b). The pattern among the responses of former members is very similar to that of current members, but the responses of former senators are much more evenly spread across the time scale, and just over a third of former senators reported spending at least 20 per cent of their time on constituent work.

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Figure 16b: Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on constituent work

Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on constituent work

Duty senators

As minor parties have always been more successful in Senate than House elections, senators have long been the public face of parties like the Democratic Labor Party, Australian Democrats and the Greens. For the major parties, the focus has always been on House elections and winning government, but they are also increasingly recognising the value of senators. Van Onselen and Errington observe that major parties use their senators and associated resources in marginal and opposition-held seats, to assist with campaigning and constituency contact.[3] They found that both major parties allocate lower house electorates, often known as ‘duty electorates’, to senators (or ‘duty senators’) within their respective States.[4] Yet curiously, the precise details of the allocations and functions remain confidential within the parties, with van Onselen and Errington negotiating special access to this information for their research. Duty senators act as ‘quasi-local representatives’, often locating their offices in marginal or opposition-held seats to provide constituents with contact points, in addition to campaign support for fellow party candidates for lower house electorates and raising the party’s profile in the local media and the community.[5] However, one senator explained that while they sited their office in an area where their party did not have members, they are not expected to become the ‘shadow member’ of the electorate. Another senator explained that in duty electorates and in marginal seats it is about getting the party’s message out there rather than developing a personal profile.

Furthermore, it has not been entirely party driven. Many of the interviewees who switched from the Senate to the House began working ‘like members’ while in the Senate, for example, by moving their electorate offices to areas without party representation and getting involved in the local community like local members and eliciting constituent work. However, one senator who set up their Senate office in a strong area for the opposing party did not find a noticeable increase in the number of constituent inquiries from that area. Another interviewee remarked that it was not easy going into ‘hostile’ territory.

The 2000 Australian Parliamentary Fellow, Jennifer Curtin, considered rural representation and the Senate, which is particularly pertinent to this study, and noted the dearth of academic analyses on the representative functions of senators. In her monograph, entitled The Voice and the Vote of the Bush: The Representation of Rural and Regional Australia in the Federal Parliament, Curtin discusses the ‘nexus’ provision in the Constitution (ensuring that the size of both Houses of Parliaments can only be increased together and proportionally as the population grows). She argues that an unintentional consequence has been that urbanisation and the resultant loss of rural electorates has not affected the number or geographical distribution of seats in the Senate.[6] A logical extension of this line of argument is that political differences between urban areas and rural and regional areas in contemporary politics are arguably greater than the political differences between the states. Both dimensions are geographical yet it is the archaic state-based geographic divisions that are institutionalised in the representative structure of the Senate. Curtin canvasses a possible reform of (informally) dividing each state into smaller electorates so that senators have more contained geographic constituencies and ensuring that rural and regional areas are guaranteed that a senator will be closer to or perhaps even be based in their communities.[7] One senator in the current study critically observed that most senators live in the capitals and therefore also proposed dividing the states into regions, which would give more power and status to both the capitals and the regions. For example, the Gold Coast with a population of half a million people does not currently have a resident senator. Yet Curtin acknowledges that dividing the states into regions negates the representational benefits of proportional representational.

As previously mentioned, senators have traditionally received office space in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, concentrated in the Central Business Districts (CBDs) of the state capitals. One senator explained that they actually moved their office to the CBD so that interest and community groups would have better access to the office. Another Senate interviewee observed that while Senate offices are concentrated in the capital cities, senators travel a lot more, which is easier to do from a capital city. The senator argued that large lower house rural electorates with only one member are more underrepresented, than whole states with twelve representatives. However, a senior Senate officer observed that over the last thirty years there has been a shift away from CBDs and into the suburbs and regions.[8] The following figures show the approximate locations of senators’ offices over the last thirty years. A clear drift away from the central business districts to the suburbs and regions can be observed.

Figure 17a: Location of senators’ offices (January 1979)

Location of senators’ offices (January 1979)

Figure 17b: Location of senators’ offices (August 1981)

Location of senators’ offices (August 1981)

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Figure 17c: Location of senators’ offices (August 1983)

Location of senators’ offices (August 1983)

Figure 17d: Location of senators’ offices (August 1985)

Location of senators’ offices (August 1985)

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Figure 17e: Location of senators’ offices (October 1987)

Location of senators’ offices (October 1987)

Figure 17f: Location of senators’ offices (August 1990)

Location of senators’ offices (August 1990)

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Figure 17g: Location of senators’ offices (January 1993)

Location of senators’ offices (January 1993)

Figure 17h: Location of senators’ offices (July 1996)

Location of senators’ offices (July 1996)

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Figure 17i: Location of senators’ offices (August 1999)

Location of senators’ offices (August 1999)

Figure 17j: Location of senators’ offices (July 2002)

Location of senators’ offices (July 2002)

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Figure 17k: Location of senators’ offices (August 2005)

Location of senators’ offices (August 2005)

Figure 17l: Location of senators’ offices (March 2009)

Location of senators’ offices (March 2009)

Community engagement

In terms of attendance at events and visibility within the community, the differences between Senate and House respondents are more pronounced than in relation to constituent work (see Figure 18a). Surprisingly, almost two-thirds of Senate respondents spent at least 20 per cent of their time at public meetings and forums, compared with only a fifth of House respondents. About two-thirds of House respondents spent only 10 to 15 per cent of their time on such activities. Perhaps this higher level of community engagement by Senators can be considered further evidence of the effectiveness of the major parties’ duty senator strategy, but this pronounced contrast between senators and members is surprising given that local electorate visibility is so important for members. However, the survey item did not distinguish between local electorate functions and public functions across the nation, and instead categorised such events as ‘public meetings and functions’.

Figure 18a: Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on public functions

Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on public functions

However there is some evidence that the higher level of community engagement among senators is only a recent trend, with clear majorities of former senators and members reporting spending only five or ten per cent of their time on such activities (see Figure 18b). The different pattern is particularly noticeable when comparing the responses of current senators with those of former senators.

Figure 18b: Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on public functions

Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on public functions

While one interviewee who served in both houses found that they received more invitations and correspondence as a member, they remarked that there was a qualitative difference. As a member often attendance was all that was required whereas as a senator they would be invited to perform a certain role, such as giving a speech. More cynically, some members suggested that senators have more spare time to spend on such activities. However, another interviewee who served in both houses found the demands of being a member more intense, having to attend something in the electorate every night, from school fetes to speech nights to community meetings. Thus once again, there is considerable variation within the groups.

Lobbyists and interest groups

One senator noted that senators are more likely to receive representations from more lobby and interest groups than directly from constituents. As previously discussed, certain interest groups can form a senator’s constituency. The responses from the survey did reveal that generally larger proportions of Senate respondents reported spending more time with lobbyists than House respondents (see Figures 19a and 19b). This perhaps reflects the tightness of numbers in the Senate, and where lobbyists feel they are more effective in influencing important votes. However, despite concerns that lobbyists are becoming more influential, there does not appear to have been a major change over time, with current and former parliamentarians spending similar amounts of time with these groups.

Figure 19a: Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent with lobbyists and interest groups

Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent with lobbyists and interest groups

Figure 19b: Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent with lobbyists and interest groups

Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent with lobbyists and interest groups


[1].         J Stilborn, The roles of the Member of Parliament in Canada: are they changing?, Research paper, no. 02-04E, Library of Parliament/Bibliothèque du Parlement, Ottawa, 2002, p. 6.

[2].         Ibid., p. 11.

[3].          P van Onselen and W Errington, ‘Shock troops: the emerging role of senators in House of Representatives campaigns’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 40, no. 3, 2005, p. 357.

[4].          Ibid., p. 362.

[5].          Ibid., pp. 362–3.

[6].          J Curtin, op.cit., p. 48.

[7].          Ibid., pp. 50–53.

[8].          Interview with a senior Senate departmental officer.

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