Dr Scott Brenton
Given that not only public and media perceptions are negative, but that politicians themselves can also be dismissive of the worth of their parliamentary colleagues in the other chamber, the first aim of this study is to provide a more accurate and fair account of the work of senators and members by quantifying the working time of politicians. While this measure is imperfect due to its reliance on self-reporting and possible tendency to over-estimate to counter negative perceptions, the inclusion of former members of parliament in the survey at least provides a fuller, and often more critical, perspective. The results, presented in Figures 10a, 10b, 11a and 11b, also align with months of personal observations inside Parliament House and discussions with political staffers and more impartial Senate and House departmental officers. From the demands of the 24-hour news cycle from ‘Sunrise’ to ‘Lateline’, to the pressure to fundraise and fulfil party obligations, in addition to the commonly expected tasks of legislating and attending to constituents, community events and public functions, criticisms of lazy politicians are unjustified (despite the occasional exceptions). A parliamentarian’s work life is broadly structured into either sitting weeks or non-sitting weeks, and many often speak of living double lives. Thus the following findings are also broadly separated between sittings in Canberra and non-sittings in home electorates.
House respondents in the current parliament report working on average 6.2 days per non-sitting week and 6.4 days per sitting week, compared with 5.8 days per non-sitting week and 6.0 days per sitting week for Senate respondents (see Figure 10a).
Figure 10a: Average number of days per week current parliamentarians work
Former parliamentarians also reported working in excess of a regular five-day working week, with the responses of former senators displaying a similar pattern to current parliamentarians in working more days on average during sitting weeks (see Figure 10b). While one long-serving member reflected on how the workload has increased (with the number of electors increasing by about 50 per cent since the expansion of parliament in 1984), there does not appear to be any large differences between current and former parliamentarians. Furthermore, the number of staff has also increased to cope, to some extent, with increases in the workload.
Figure 10b: Average number of days per week former parliamentarians worked
Many interviewees explained that the reason for working more days on average during sitting weeks is because in addition to attending parliament in Canberra from Monday to Thursday, they return to their home electorates to work on Friday and Saturday, which are important days to ‘be seen’ in the community and attend events. There is also the pressure to compensate for absences in the electorate during the previous four days, and to explain (or criticise) parliamentary proceedings to the electorate, while also gauging public reaction to the debates and issues raised.
Figures 11a and 11b provide breakdowns of the average number of hours worked during weekdays. Among current parliamentarians, about half of House respondents work between 12 and 15 hours a day during both sitting and non-sitting weeks. A further third report working between 16 and 19 hours a day during sittings and about a third report working between eight and eleven hours during non-sittings. About two-thirds of Senate respondents work between eight and eleven hours a day during non-sitting weeks and the rest work between 12 and 15 hours. About three-quarters work between 12 and 15 hours a day during sittings and about a quarter work between 16 and 19 hours a day.
Figure 11a: Average number of hours per weekday current parliamentarians work
A broadly similar pattern is evident in the responses of former parliamentarians. Almost all former House and Senate respondents worked between eight and fifteen hours a day during non-sittings, and between twelve and nineteen hours during sittings.
Figure 11b: Average number of hours per weekday former parliamentarians worked
Thus the evidence does not support the stereotype of the Senate as a retirement home. While on average current House respondents reported working about half a day more than Senate respondents, the averages were much closer for former members and senators, and all averages were well above the typical five-day working week. Furthermore, the averages were significantly above the standard eight-hour day. The major difference was between sittings and non-sittings, rather than between senators and members, although in broad terms the balance of longer hours tipped towards members in non-sitting weeks and senators during sitting weeks. Although one interviewee who served in both houses conceded that it was easier to get away with not working hard in the Senate (at least as a state senator) and that you had to actively look for a role to build a profile.
Changes over time
While the work may not have changed in terms of the time-demands, many former politicians in particular were sympathetic to the more modern pressures facing current politicians. One long-serving member reflected on technological developments and how modern technology has proved to be a double-edged sword. While the ability to communicate has improved there can be information overload with so many different ways to communicate with constituents, particularly through the internet. Another parliamentarian concurred, and argued that the 24-hour news cycle has changed lifestyles. Furthermore, high-profile politicians have to always be on guard; for example, after-work drinks do not mix well with late night news interviews. Another long-serving member observed the modern pressures of 30-second grabs for the media, and family pressures, particularly for younger members, and increasing numbers of women and primary carers.
Parliamentarians were asked about possible future reforms of parliament, particularly in relation to alleviating the workloads and providing greater representation to the growing population. Overall, there was strong support for the status quo, with high levels of pride in the current system, particularly in its stability and innovative design. One parliamentarian argued that because Australian democracy is so young, ‘it was able to pick the eye out of other systems’ and create ‘a Westminster cocktail of the British and American systems’. Another argued for breaking the ‘nexus’ provision in the Constitution, while one senator proposed online voting to reduce the amount of sittings in Canberra and enable parliamentarians to spend more time in their electorates.
Other possible reforms were canvassed in the survey. Leaving aside the Constitutional constraints, there was negligible support for increasing the membership of the houses of parliament: only 4 per cent of senators and 6 per cent of members supported increasing the size of both houses; only 13 per cent of members and 4 per cent of senators supported increasing the number of seats in the House of Representatives; while 8 per cent of senators and no members supported increasing the number of seats in the Senate. There was greater support for increasing resources through more staff and offices, particularly in larger electorates and states and territories (see Figure 12a).
Figure 12a: Levels of support among current parliamentarians for increasing resources
Among former parliamentarians there was also negligible support for increasing the membership of the houses of parliament: only 6 per cent of former senators and 5 per cent of former members supported increasing the size of both houses; only 22 per cent of members and 12 per cent of former senators supported increasing the number of seats in the House of Representatives; while 6 per cent of former senators and 1 per cent of members supported increasing the number of seats in the Senate. There was not much support amongst former parliamentarians for increasing resources (see Figure 12b), although most did concede that the size of a parliamentarian’s workload has increased over time. Forty per cent of former parliamentarians believed that it has increased significantly while a further 28 per cent thought that it has only increased marginally. Furthermore, many former parliamentarians pointed out that even if the workload has increased, so have staffing levels. Many recalled having only one-and-a-half full-time equivalent staff compared to the current allocation of four staff.
Figure 12b: Levels of support among former parliamentarians for increasing resources
Given the size of Australia and many of the electorates, and limited direct flights to and from Canberra, simply servicing an electorate and attending Parliament necessitates significant amounts of travel for most senators and members. While current parliamentarians appear to be travelling slightly more of the time, the differences are not pronounced (see Figures 13a and 13b). Most respondents reported spending between 5 and 10 per cent of their time on travelling.
Figure 13a: Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on travel
Figure 13b: Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on travel
The breakdowns of the time spent travelling around the electorate and across the nation during a non-sitting month reveal more noticeable differences between senators and members (see Figures 14a and 14b). The majority of House respondents spent 12 or more days a month travelling around their electorate during non-sitting weeks, while the majority of Senate respondents spent less than 12 days travelling around their state/territory. In terms of national travel, overall Senate respondents spent much more time compared to members during non-sitting weeks outside their home state/territory. More than 70 per cent of current Senate respondents and 90 per cent of former senators spent eight or more days travelling compared with only a third of current House respondents and half of former members. Senate respondents did travel more than House respondents, consistent with the Senate’s focus on committees. Committee hearings are held throughout the country and necessitate frequent national travel. Members (at least backbenchers) are perhaps also more reluctant to travel extensively around the nation at the expense of spending time in their local electorates, particularly those in marginal electorates. While most senators are dependent on their party’s performance for re-election, members are ultimately dependent on the support of their local electorate.
Figure 14a: Average number of days per month current parliamentarians spent on travelling during non-sitting weeks
Figure 14b: Average number of days per month former parliamentarians spent on travelling during non-sitting weeks
While most states and territories are geographically large and require significant amounts of travel to facilitate direct face-to-face contact with constituents, the size of many lower house electorates is also significant. A rural representative argued that more staff and extra travelling allowance would help in servicing large and remote electorates. This interviewee also proposed exploring options for statutory minimum seats for rural and regional areas, such as in the case of Tasmania where the Constitution guarantees the state a minimum of five seats despite their small population.
Indeed some electorates, such as Kalgoorlie and Grey, are bigger than the smaller states and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Therefore, it is not surprising that the differences between senators and members in relation to electorate travel are not pronounced. There is probably more variation within these groups, as an ACT senator would presumably travel much less than a Western Australian or Queensland senator, while the Member for Kalgoorlie (the largest single-member electorate in the world) would presumably travel much more around the electorate than an inner-city Sydney MP. However, travel need not be an inefficient use of a parliamentarian’s time. One Western Australian interviewee found the plane to be a good office, providing a rare opportunity of uninterrupted time to get through paperwork, particularly as a Minister.
Types of work
One interviewee who served in both houses found that they spent the same amount of time being a member as being a senator, but it is allocated differently. They did more electorate and constituent work as a member and more committee work as a senator. Thus senators often spend less time in their electorate office and more time travelling, as committee work takes place in multiple locations. Another interviewee who also served in both houses found Senate committees more active and in general found that there was more parliamentary activity in the Senate.
Leaving aside the negative stereotypes of politicians, a dominant perception is that members are active parliamentarians with constituents and represent those concerns in the national parliament. The corollary is that senators do not have constituents as they do not represent the people but the states, even if this myth has been debunked, which will be further explored later in this study. However, these stereotypes of senators are more powerful as senators have less recognition in the community, with voters often unsure of their representative function. Occasionally, close Senate votes and Senate Estimates committees receive media attention, contributing to the perception that senators are more chamber and committee-focused.
Most interviewees, both senators and members, expressed a belief that in general members receive more media attention. However, figures 15a and 15b show no major discernible differences between Senate and House respondents in relation to media work. About half of current parliamentarians and former members spent 5 to 10 per cent of their time with the media, while about half of former senators spent 10 per cent of their time.
Figure 15a: Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on media
Figure 15b: Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on media
Again, there appear to be greater differences within the broad groups. Rural and regional members discussed increased media scrutiny with multiple newspapers, radio and television stations in the local area focused on one federal member—as opposed to metropolitan members who must compete for media coverage. However this is also beneficial in assisting rural and regional members develop a strong profile. One member revealed that resource-starved country newspapers are open to accurate information from the local member and come to rely on it (often repeating media releases verbatim). If the member can develop credibility in this area, it can be a great method of communicating with the electorate. There was also regional cooperation, for example, ACT Labor members and their senator often work as a team and issue joint media releases.
While minor parties struggle to gain media attention in Australia, one minor party parliamentarian noted that they constantly receive media requests from international media to comment on international issues, and in many respects CNN, BBC, AFP are more comprehensive in their coverage and more balanced than the local pack-mentality of the Canberra Press Gallery. Major party politicians were also critical of the Australian media. One long-serving current parliamentarian argued that the modern media has killed political skills and now everything is carefully stage-managed. Reactions used to be spontaneous but are now programmed and strategically determined. However, this ignores the role that political parties and their strategists have played.
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