Parliamentary work

Dr Scott Brenton

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Parliamentary work

Senators appear to be much more focused on chamber work, which is not surprising given that currently the government does not have a majority in the Senate and the numbers are tight. This finding also supports the notion of the Senate as a ‘House of Review’, with senators more thoroughly scrutinising legislation, either in the chamber or in committees. One interviewee who served in both houses observed that in terms of the executive, the parliament, and the constituency, that the real difference between members and senators is in terms of the parliament. Finding the right balance between constituency work and parliamentary participation is challenging, as it is constituency work—for members at least—that arguably enhances one’s standing in the community, and therefore prospects for re-election. Yet parliamentary participation arguably enhances one’s standing in the party, and therefore prospects for promotion. Perhaps tilting the balance are the different electoral mandates for members and senators, with members relying more on their local community and senators on their party’s performance for re-election. Albeit, both members and senators must also work to retain their party’s endorsement. One senator cynically viewed parliamentary sittings as a party control mechanism centralising power—or in their words, “corruption with Giorgio Armani suits”.

Parliamentary participation also differs due to the government controlling the numbers in the House but generally not in the Senate. One Senate interviewee contended that senators face more pressure than members during sitting periods, as the numbers are tight and senators cannot miss divisions, while constant negotiation with the crossbench is required. This senator argued that senators work much harder than members when they are in Canberra. Senators are involved in more legislative activity, as can be seen in Figures 20a and 20b. About two-thirds of Senate respondents compared with less than half of House respondents spent at least 20 per cent of their time on chamber work.

Figure 20a: Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on chamber work

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

Figure 20b: Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on chamber work

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

Cultural differences

One senator who switched to the House found it a culture shock, experiencing a higher level of personal denigration, and feeling that it was complete open slather for the government to attack and be attacked. In many respects their Senate experience did not prepare them for the House. This parliamentarian reflected on their Senate experience as sheltered in comparison, but did find that the quality of debate in the Senate was much better. This observation was supported by other interviewees who served in both houses. One interviewee argued that there was more shouting in the House, a lack of a conversational tone and more artificially inflated debates compared to the more ‘gentlemanly’ debate in the Senate. Another interviewee who served in both houses found the Senate more collaborative and more deliberative, without the same level of partisan conflict as the House and more opportunities to develop good relationships with colleagues in other parties.

Another parliamentarian with experience in both chambers believed that the sizes of chambers made a difference, as did the slightly different standing orders and modes of operation. Many interviewees who served in both houses noticed procedural and cultural differences between the chambers, and one experienced a steep learning curve in adapting to the different culture, processes and procedures of the other chamber. Yet upper house members often emphasised approaches to legislation as the key difference. One senator who switched to the House was surprised at the level of disinterest in the passage of legislation. Another senator with experience in a lower house concurred, stating that there was not the same level of awareness of legislation as in the upper house, even though most bills originate in the lower house. Once through the House, they simply vanish over to the dark side, while in the Senate (generally-speaking) bills become law. One senator noted that members never watch the Senate, but that senators often watch debates in the House.

Committees

Senators appear to be more active in committees, particularly in the politically important estimates process. While the Fraser government briefly experimented with House estimates committees for a few years, the estimates committees remain under the purview of the Senate. Committee work occupied 20 per cent or more of their time for almost two-thirds of current Senate respondents, compared to only 13 per cent of House respondents (see Figure 21a). Almost two-thirds of House respondents spent 5 per cent or less of their time on committee work, compared with only 12 per cent of Senate respondents.

Figure 21a: Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on committee work

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

Thus there is some evidence supporting the common perception that one of the major differences between senators and members is that senators not only do more committee work than members, but that such work comprises a significant amount of their time and can be considered a key role and responsibility for senators (at least those not in the Ministry). In general, senators belong to more committees than members.

Yet the Senate’s committee system has only achieved a high level of prominence in recent decades. The responses of former senators and members paint a different picture (see Figure 21b). Only a third of former senators spent at least 20 per cent of their time on committee work, while the responses of former members were more similar to current members. 

Figure 21b: Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on committee work

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

There also appears to be a qualitative difference in how senators and members approach committee work. One interviewee who served in both houses argued that House committees tend to be more practical or technical whereas Senate committees are more broadly-based and investigative. They tend to be longer in terms of content and time, more extensive, and involve substantial review of legislation. Estimates committees in particular, are the epitome of the House of Review. A member argued that in House committees there is often bipartisanship as individual members feel much freer to move outside strict party lines. Members are more efficient with their time and more motivated to achieve realistic bipartisan outcomes. Committees take the House to the people, but the member conceded that it is hard to balance that with electorate duties outside sitting weeks. Conversely, a senator observed that the Senate is much more committee focused and the best work occurs outside the parliament when its activities are taken to the people through committees.

Another senator stated that committees are central to the work of senators with four to five reports released every week, and senators often actively working on two to three committees at a time with constant travelling around the country. In this respect, senators are not held in their own states like members, who feel ‘required’ to be in their own electorates by their constituents. Another argued that the time spent travelling doing committee work compares with members doing constituent work.

The differing levels of committee work revealed the differences in the skill sets of senators and members and appeared to be a key reason for choosing one chamber over the other (see earlier Figure 6a). One interviewee who served in both houses found the Senate a more suitable vehicle for their skills and really enjoyed the committee work. Another senator, by building a reputation as a good estimates cross-examiner found that people would then come to them with information. A senior Senate officer recalled the bags of mail for this one senator. One interviewee, who switched from the Senate to the House, missed the estimates committees the most. They tried to get estimates into the House, believing it would enhance the effectiveness of the process as members would no longer have to direct their questions through Senate colleagues and ministers would have to listen more intently. While members are busier with constituent work, this parliamentarian believed they would find a way to make estimates committees work in the House.

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