Representative roles and responsibilities

Dr Scott Brenton

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Representative roles and responsibilities

At first glance political representation in a liberal democracy such as Australia is a straightforward concept: about every three years at a national level there is an election where citizens in defined geographic areas (be it a local electorate or a state/territory) choose from a range of candidates—themselves citizens living in (or near) that same area—and elect a few to sit in the national parliament as representatives of the people living in defined geographic areas. Yet both theoretically and in practice it is far more complicated. While representative democracy is often poetically described as government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’, it is not only ‘the people’ who are represented: political parties, ideologies, states, business, unions, the environmental movement—to name but a few—are also represented. Furthermore, even the very notion of ‘the people’ is amorphous as a representative cannot possibly represent the full diversity of ‘the people’ and all their divergent and conflicting interests.

These complexities actually relate to the actors rather than the institutions. That is, the practice of being a representative and the act of representing is less straightforward than the institutions of political representation, as the institutional norms are clearly defined. In this regard, Blom defines representation ‘as a set of procedures or rules that select people to formulate and legislate the public interest in an accountable way … representation is the accountable aggregation of interests’.[1] The Constitution and standing orders of the Houses of Parliament circumscribe the functions and powers of the legislature and the actions of those within it, which a learned judiciary adjudicates, guided by widely accepted precedents and conventions. Yet the roles and responsibilities of the legislators outside the institutions are not so clearly defined, as they are contested and ultimately judged by a more unpredictable populace. It is this activity of representing, or the conception of representation as ‘acting for’ others, that this monograph is most interested in, which Pitkin defines in terms of what the representative does and how s/he does it.[2]

Delegates with a mandate or trustees with independence?

There is much literature on the idea of representative democracy and how to institutionalise and practise this idea, while the roles of political actors are overlooked or subordinated. Rather it is the roles of citizens and their engagement with representative democracy that excites interest and invites further investigation. Of the comparatively smaller number of scholars who have focused on the role of representatives, eighteenth-century political philosopher Edmund Burke, and more recently, American political theorist Professor Hanna Pitkin, are two of the most cited theorists in this area. In his famous Speech to the Electors of Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll (when he was elected to Parliament as a member for Bristol) Burke expressed his now famous ‘trustee’ view of representation. Burke writes:

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole—where not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.[3]

While this view is still popular and useful for analysing the behaviour of contemporary politicians, his work has been criticised for its inconsistencies. Proceeding cautiously, Pitkin devotes a chapter to Burke in her landmark work The Concept of Representation (1967). Representatives have also been variously conceived as agents, trustees, deputies and delegates.[4] Reflecting language norms of the time, the quotes in this monograph are reproduced with the author’s gender-bias. Pitkin asks: ‘Should (must) a representative do what his constituents want, and be bound by mandates or instructions from them; or should (must) he be free to act as seems best to him in pursuit of their welfare?’.[5] Pitkin summarises the mandate-independence debate:

A number of positions have at one time or another been defended, between the two poles of mandate and independence. A highly restrictive mandate theorist might maintain that true representation occurs only when the representative acts on explicit instructions from his constituents, that any exercise of discretion is a deviation from this ideal. A more moderate position might be that he may exercise some discretion, but must consult his constituents before doing anything new or controversial, and then do as they wish or resign his [post]. A still less extreme position might be that the representative may act as he thinks his constituents would want, unless or until he receives instructions from them, and then he must obey. Very close to the independence position would be the argument that the representative must do as he thinks best, except insofar as he is bound by campaign promises or an election platform. At the other extreme is the idea of complete independence, that constituents have no right even to exact campaign promises; once a man is elected he must be completely free to use his own judgment.[6]

Further complicating this debate is the issue of the national interest, political parties and the challenges of representing a diverse constituency. Mandate theorists favour local interests on the basis that the representative is elected locally, and argue that the sum of local interests equals the national interest.[7] Conversely, independence theorists hold that representatives must pursue the national interest, as the sum of local interest does not necessarily result in the national interest.

Local, national or party interests?

These ideas of national representation and the national interest conflict with Australia’s electoral design, whereby citizens vote together as a local community or as a state/territory to elect representatives, rather than as a nation. Representatives are referred to as the ‘Member for Griffith’ or the ‘Senator for Queensland’. Yet the national parliament is preoccupied with national politics; as previously mentioned, parliamentarians divide along national party lines rather than regional or local lines. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, despite being local members, speak as national representatives on national issues.

The dilemma for political theorists in this context has been that if a person represents a particular local electorate in the parliament, should they pursue that electorate’s interests, or the national interest?[8] Given the choice between electorate and nation interests, most members would probably claim that their local electorate is their prime concern as ultimately their political survival is based on their electorate’s opinion. For senators, the situation is more complicated as the party’s electoral performance and the senator’s position of the party ticket are important factors. Parties are variously portrayed as links between local and national interests, antithetical to the national interest, or binding the member to a party program, which a constituency endorses.[9] A parliamentarian can also be seen as more representative of a party than a constituency or the national interest. Most parliamentarians have to be very sensitive to party concerns and cultivate relationships with party colleagues, especially party leaders and other powerful figures.[10] In Australia, party discipline in the major parties is remarkably strong, and in the case of the Australian Labor Party is formalised with a signed pledge binding parliamentarians to vote on party lines. Stilborn argues that: ‘criticisms of the delegate theory on the grounds that the required independence of individual Members of Parliament is incompatible with the demands of responsible government are equally applicable to the “trustee” conception of representation. Trusteeship also requires independence from party discipline’.[11]

The ‘good’ representative

As Pitkin acknowledges in her summary of the debate, most of the positions are at the extremes and representatives act within ‘an elaborate network of pressures, demands and obligations’, chief among them being re-election.[12] ‘Good’ representatives have been broadly conceived as either ‘delegates’ reflecting constituent concerns or as paradoxical given the multiple and competing demands.[13] Fundamentally, democratic representation is characterised by regular free and fair elections, with citizens evaluating ‘good’ (and bad) representation.[14] Yet doing what a representative thinks is best for his or her constituents does not ensure re-election, while re-election does not mean that representative has been a good representative.[15] There are many examples where defeated parliamentarians have still been regarded as outstanding representatives, and vice versa. Dovi argues that:

A good democratic representative is not likely to be approved by, or even appreciated by, every one of her constituents, let alone by all citizens. Thus my claim is not that a good democratic representative will be valued by every citizen (or even a majority of citizens); rather, my claim is that a good democratic representative will be the unbridled advocate of her own constituents.[16]

Yet it is difficult to reconcile this normative value with the electoral reality. Presumably if the majority of citizens do not value good democratic representation, it will result in a negative electoral evaluation. The extent to which a representative is bound by the wishes of their constituency is the subject of a central debate within the literature and there are many compromise positions, with some theorists even maintaining that both extremes are true without offering any practical reconciliation of the inherent tensions.[17] Some theorists argue a representative can advocate different constituent positions, while ultimately voting according to their own (or their party’s) judgement; others argue that constituent desires are generally temporary and representatives must take a longer-term view; some cynically contend that constituents only need to be heard at election time.[18] In practice, representatives arguably do all of these things; just not necessarily at the same time. Defining a static and universally applicable representative role is problematic. Zappalà through an overview of previous studies of representation exposes (although perhaps unintentionally) the tendency to typologise representative roles, and the simplicity of reducing the demands and pressures of a representative to the ‘unholy trinity’ of constituents, party and conscience.[19] Only Independents, and to a lesser extent Greens, claimed that they were able to vote on conscience on all issues. According to Pitkin, Burke regarded political representation as the representation of an abstract interest, which is objective, impersonal and unattached from reality.[20] Pitkin extends this idea to ‘representing people who have interests’ in the liberal philosophical tradition, such as property interests, which has (and continues) to form the basis of suffrage qualifications.[21] Bicameralism developed to simultaneously accommodate democratic ideals of equal representation (in the lower house) and traditional aristocratic rule (in the upper house). While the founders of Australia’s bicameral legislature rejected this classic democracy/aristocracy division between the houses, democratic election of both house alone does not guard against the emergence (or reinforcement) of a political class acting like an aristocracy. Pitkin discusses Burke’s idea of virtual representation, or representation beyond strict constituency demarcations, where the virtuous elite govern for the good of the whole nation, or in Pitkin’s words, ‘Representation has nothing to do with obeying popular wishes, but means the enactment of the national good by a select elite’.[22] Under this conception, Pitkin reasons that the representative has no special relation to his or her constituency, and elections are merely the mechanism for determining the membership of the natural aristocracy, which consists of national representatives.[23] Pitkin writes:

Representing as a substantive activity may often have seemed remote from the realities of political life. A political representative—at least the typical member of an elected legislature—has a constituency rather than a single principal; and that raises problems about whether such as unorganized group can even have an interest for him to pursue, let alone a will to which he could be responsive, or an opinion before which he could attempt to justify what he has done. These problems are further heightened when we consider what political science teaches about the members of such a constituency, at least in a modern mass democracy—their apathy, their ignorance, their malleability. Furthermore, the representative who is an elected legislator does not represent his constituents on just any business, and by himself in isolation. He works with other representatives in an institutionalized context at a specific task—the governing of a nation or a state. This reintroduces the familiar problem of local or partial interests versus the national interest, and the question of the political representative’s role with respect to them.[24]

Michael Saward explores the relationship between representatives and constituents, arguing that: ‘representation in politics is at least a two-way street: the represented play a role in choosing representatives, and representatives “choose” their constituents in the sense of portraying them or framing them in particular, contestable ways’.[25] Saward conceptualises this relationship in terms of representative claims, with political representatives making claims about themselves (being the best representatives), their constituents, and their relationship with their constituents. Saward argues that: ‘The world of political representation is a world of claim-making rather than fact-adducing’.[26] These representative claims are at the heart of this study: who (or what) do parliamentarians claim to represent? Are members and senators representing the same of different things?

In terms of representation, respondents were presented with a range of options and asked to choose one that best described who or what they primarily represented. The options were: defined geographic area; party; geographic area through a party (or vice versa); particular interest/social groups; parliamentarian-at-large/national representative; and ideology/ philosophy. Respondents were also given the opportunity to record if they felt that they could not choose just one category and were able to add in a different category. The category ‘the people’ was deliberately not included as it is (perhaps naïvely) a given in a representative democracy. Furthermore, ‘the people’ are represented through most of the categories and the purpose is to determine how the people are represented, although respondents were free to write it in the ‘other’ category. ‘The states’ was also not included as a state is covered by the ‘defined geographic area’ category, which was chosen instead to provide continuity between the surveys for senators elected by the people of a state/territory and members elected by the people of a division/electorate.

The responses are presented in Figures 24a and 24b. The major difference is not a single House respondent chose their party, while about a fifth of Senate respondents did so. This is despite strong party discipline in both houses, and the importance of party identification in determining voting behaviour among the populace. While most senators are elected on a party ticket, party labels are equally as important for lower house candidates, and most also use their party leader and in local campaign material as branding. Thus parties and leaders often become the focus of election campaigns.

Rather, a third of House respondents chose a defined geographic area, which is more than twice the proportion of Senate respondents. The only other notable difference is that none of the Senate respondents used the ‘other’ category, while 11 per cent of House respondents wrote in their own categories, which included: regional Australia; the Australian people, as represented by those in my electorate; my beliefs and people; and the interests of the people within the seat boundaries. Yet three of those responses could be categorised as ‘defined geographic area’. The other categories elicited similar proportions of respondents from both the Senate and the House. About a quarter choose ‘geographic area though a party (or vice versa)’. About a fifth found it too difficult to choose just one category, while less the 10 per cent chose each of the remaining categories. None of the respondents claimed to primarily represent particular interest/social groups.

Figure 24a: Who or what current parliamentarians think they primarily represent

Members: Who or what current parliamentarians think they primarily representSenators: Who or what current parliamentarians think they primarily represent

There was more variation in the responses of former senators and members, with larger proportions of respondents seeing themselves as parliamentarians-at-large and national representatives, and representing an ideology or philosophy. There was also a minority who chose interest/social groups. Yet the difference once again was that more members than senators (five times more) chose ‘defined geographic area’ and more senators than members (three times more) saw themselves primarily as party representatives.


Figure 24b: Who or what former parliamentarians thought they primarily represented

Members: Who or what former parliamentarians thought they primarily representedSenators: Who or what former parliamentarians thought they primarily represented

One interviewee saw Senate representation as also representing the government (or opposition) by ensuring that the government gets it right through inquiries and policy and expenditure reviews. A minor party senator, despite only being elected by a small proportion of the state, still saw themselves as representing all of the state through a philosophy. Minor party senators also tended to look at themselves as more national representatives as their party often did not have representatives from all parts of Australia.

One House interviewee argued members have a representational role while senators have a broader look at things and take an ‘academic’ approach in stepping away from things. Another member talked about aspiring to represent the local area, through involvement in party politics only at the local level. One parliamentarian, who switched from the Senate to the House, did so feeling the desire to represent the local area and had a much greater affinity serving the local area.

These findings show how contested the concept of representation is among the political actors themselves, and also the distinct roles that different parliamentarians play despite performing the same job in the same institution. This is not particularly surprisingly given the array of personalities, backgrounds, aspirations, interests, causes, and expertise that politicians bring to parliament. Furthermore, not all of the categories are discrete or mutually exclusive, and respondents were instructed to choose only the one that they primarily represented. The most notable difference between Senate and House respondents was in relation to party representation. As previously mentioned, most parliamentarians in both houses are members of parties and generally ‘toe the party line’, yet it is often only the Senate that is referred to as a parties’ house. Perhaps this is partly because the concept of a ‘states’ house’ is redundant (and senators divide on party rather than state lines), or because more parties are represented in the Senate and legislation usually requires cross-party negotiation to pass. This external institutional identification of the Senate has perhaps led to self-identification among the senators as party representatives. Lower house members emphasised wanting to be local representatives.

The preselection procedures of the parties and the voting system of the Senate also distinguish Senate candidates as more party-oriented than House candidates. In most parties, Senate preselection is conducted at a state-wide level and requires a high-profile within and across the party organisation, whereas preselection for House seats is generally decided by local electorate members. Most voters for the Senate vote for a group rather than individual candidates,[27] whereas the voting system for the House of Representatives is based on individual candidates contesting a single-member electorate. Furthermore, as previously discussed, senators have also become important campaigning agents for the major parties.

Senators from the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory felt most similar to members of the House of Representatives, in terms of connection to a local electorate and expectations and awareness of their representative role. Indeed, two interviewees from the territories served in both Houses and therefore offered a unique perspective on the similarities, while also stressing that the similarities were due to the nature of the representation of the territories in the national parliament. One interviewee described being a territory representative as more personality based, while all interviewees who represented the territories reported generally higher levels of constituent inquiries than their state counterparts. Currently both territories have two Senate seats and two House seats, and their Senate terms are tied to the House of Representatives rather than fixed at six years as for state senators. The quota for election is closer to a majority at 33.3 per cent as opposed to only 14.3 per cent for state Senators at half-elections, and 7.7 per cent at full-Senate elections.

The Greens were the only party to refer to being representatives of the whole planet. One Green argued that most politicians want to make Australia a better place, whereas the Greens want to make the planet a better place.

The practice of representation

One independent saw their role as reflectingwhat the electorate thinks, and they often represent views and advocates for constituents that they may not agree with. They argued that major party parliamentarians often try and convince constituents who they do not agree with that they are wrong, as they are as much party representatives within the electorate as representatives of that electorate. However, Pitkin concedes that due to voters’ ignorance, apathy and irrationality and the diversity of views and interests of thousands (and in the case of the Senate, millions) of constituents, it is difficult for representatives to accurately gauge the views and interests of the electorate.[28]

Pitkin interrogates the Federalist’s assumptions about interest and representation, as the interests that representatives are expected to pursue are subjective, shifting, and unstable.[29] Pitkin asks: ‘Can a representative really know such interests well enough to pursue them?’ and ‘are interest and opinion identical? Can a representative know his constituents’ interests better than he can know their opinions?’. While representatives will have strong views and opinions on certain issues, interest and pressure groups, party leaders and colleagues, lobbyists, and the media are also influential in opinion formation and change.[30] They are useful filters of vast amounts of information and views, particularly as the population continues to grow. Furthermore, as Stilborn observes, the opinions and interests of constituencies are often processed through interest groups that have greater influence than individual constituents.[31] According to Stilborn, interest groups can provide streamlined representational inputs, greatly assisting parliamentarians in an environment of ever increasing policy and legislative outputs.[32] Furthermore, a representative faced with many competing demands and pressures cannot possibly devote the time required to communicate with enough constituents to be considered as a reliable method of gauging the views and opinions of the entire constituency. Advances in mass and electronic communication and the use of polling also means that traditional face-to-face contact with constituents becomes less necessary. Yet at the same time, if a parliamentarian identifies as a representative of a constituency, they will probably still consider direct communication with constituents as paramount. Survey respondents were asked which method they find most reliable in determining what their constituents think, with the collated responses presented in Figures 25a and 25b.

Figure 25a: The primary method current parliamentarians use to find out what their constituents think

The primary method current parliamentarians use to find out what their constituents think

Figure 25b: The primary method former parliamentarians used to find out what their constituents thought

The primary method former parliamentarians used to find out what their constituents thought

Among the ‘other’ responses included an admission that they ‘did not care’ along with claims of intuition and the statement ‘Regrettably, I don’t think I had any reliable method!’

Party representatives

‘There are only two rooms in Parliament House that are important—the Prime Minister’s office and the Leader of the Opposition’s’ – current senator

‘If the best debate is happening within the party rooms, why not have cameras in there?’ – current senator

Another interviewee supported this claim, stating that the best speeches are made in the party room rather than in the parliament. However, this parliamentarian maintained that some things need to be said behind the scenes.

Many interviewees and survey respondents, particularly former parliamentarians, were critical of stronger party discipline. A conservative parliamentarian was critical of the centralisation of power in the executive and the threats to the independence of the parliament and the Senate as institutions. Parliamentarians cede power to the party, which cedes power to the leader. They argued that true conservatives should be prepared to cross the floor. They blamed Labor for caucusing and binding members, which was electorally successful and thus the Liberals imitated. One senator proposed sitting in state groups rather than parties, making ‘divisions’ and ‘crossing the floor’ redundant.

One House interviewee argued that as much as you are representing your electorates view to the party, you have stood as a party candidate, so voters expect that you will be voting with the party. Despite party discipline, a House interviewee argued that members also bring a view based on their local electorate, which then feeds into the party’s policy. One interviewee advised that while being conscious of preselection panels in a survival sense, if you carve a niche you will retain preselection, even if your views are not completely supported by the party.

Figure 26a: Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on party business

Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on party business

Slightly higher proportions of senators spend more time on party business, consistent with the stereotype of party ‘machine men’ in the Senate.


Figure 26b: Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on party business

Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on party business

For most respondents, party business takes up 10 per cent or less of their time, with only minor differences between the two groups. The only discernible difference is that a higher proportion of Senate respondents spend more than 10 per cent of their time on party business, which is consistent with the earlier finding that some Senate respondents identify as primarily party representatives.

Minor party and independent perspectives

Many minor party interviewees argued that while they held more regular and in-depth party room meetings than the major parties, that they actually spent less time arguing about a common position than in the major parties. As the Greens currently have no lower house representation, they often work on certain issues with the independent crossbench. Independents, without the benefits of party support, rely on staff to get across the detail of legislation and learn ‘to pick your fights’. However, being independent or in a minor party can help to leverage gains from both sides of politics, regardless of which side is in government. A strong belief was expressed by many interviewees that being a crossbench senator meant that you had a ‘real’ voice in parliament.



[1].         HW Blom, ‘Ethos and interests. Arguments for a representational differentiation in a changing society’, in HW Blom, WP Blockmans and H de Schepper (eds), op. cit., p. 149.

[2].         HF Pitkin, The concept of representation, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967, p. 143.

[3].          RJS Hoffman and P Levack, (eds), Burke’s politics: selected writings and speeches of Edmund Burke on reform, revolution and war, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1949, p. 116.

[4].          HF Pitkin, The concept of representation, op. cit., pp. 112–42.

[5].          Ibid., p. 145.

[6].          Ibid., p. 146.

[7].          Ibid., p. 147.

[8].          Ibid., p. 215.

[9].          Ibid., pp. 147–8.

[10].        Ibid., pp. 219–20.

[11].        J Stilborn, The roles of the Member of Parliament in Canada: are they changing?, op. cit., p. 18.

[12].        HF Pitkin, The concept of representation, op. cit., p. 219.

[13].        S Dovi, The good representative, op. cit., pp. 1–2.

[14].        Ibid., p. 2.

[15].        HF Pitkin, The concept of representation, op. cit., pp. 164–5.

[16].        S Dovi, The good representative, op. cit., p. 9.

[17].        HF Pitkin, The concept of representation, op. cit., p. 148.

[18].        Ibid., p. 148.

[19].        G Zappalà, Four weddings, a funeral and a family reunion: ethnicity and representation in Australian federal politics, op. cit., p. 18. See also DT Studlar and I McAllister, ‘Constituency activity and representational roles among legislators’, Journal of Politics, vol. 58, no. 1, 1996, pp. 69–90.

[20].        HF Pitkin, The concept of representation, op. cit, p. 168.

[21].        Ibid., pp. 190–1.

[22].        Ibid., p. 170.

[23].        Ibid., p. 171.

[24].        Ibid., p. 215.

[25].        M Saward, ‘The representative claim’, Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 5, 2006, pp. 301–2.

[26].        Ibid., p. 302.

[27].        Almost 97% of Australians voted ‘above-the-line’ for a group at the 2007 election.

[28].        HF Pitkin, The concept of representation, op. cit., pp. 219–20.

[29].        Ibid., p. 197.

[30].        Ibid., pp. 219–20.

[31].        J Stilborn, The roles of the Member of Parliament in Canada: are they changing?, op. cit., p. 6.

[32].        Ibid., pp. 5–6.

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