The Member’s role
This chapter is confined, in the main, to the role of the private Member, who may be defined generally as a Member who does not hold any of the following positions: Prime Minister, Speaker, Minister, Parliamentary Secretary, Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, or leader of a recognised party. The commonly used term backbencher, which is sometimes used as a synonym of the term private Member, strictly refers to a Member who sits on a back bench as opposed to those Members who sit on the front benches which are reserved for Ministers and members of the opposition executive.
The private Member has a number of distinct and sometimes competing roles. His or her responsibilities and loyalties lie with:
- the House of Representatives but with an overriding duty to the national interest;
- constituents—he or she has a primary duty to represent their interests; and
- his or her political party.
These roles are discussed briefly below.
The national Parliament is the forum for debating legislation and discussing and publicising matters of national and international importance. The role played by the Member in the House is the one with which the general observer is most familiar. In the Chamber (or in the additional forum provided by the Federation Chamber) Members participate in public debate of legislation and government policy. They also have opportunities to elicit information from the Government, and to raise matters of their own concern for discussion. It is this role which probably attracts the most publicity but, at the same time, it is the one which is probably least demanding of a Member’s time.
Since the late 1960s the House of Representatives has sought to strengthen its ability to scrutinise the actions and policies of government, mainly through the creation of committees. This has placed considerable demands on the time of the private Member, as committee meetings are held during both sitting and non-sitting periods and committees may hold hearings in many places throughout Australia. In order to make a substantive contribution to the work of a committee, a Member needs to invest a considerable amount of time in becoming familiar with the subject-matter of the inquiry. Committees are given wide powers of investigation and study, and their reports testify to the thoroughness of their work. They are valuable vehicles for acquiring and disseminating information and supplement the normal parliamentary role of a private Member considerably.
The volume of legislation and the increasing breadth and complexity of government activity in recent times have required the typical private Member to narrow his or her range of interest and activity, and to specialise in areas which are of particular concern.
The electoral divisions in Australia vary in population around an average of about 150 000 people and vary greatly in other respects, ranging from inner-city electorates of a few square kilometres to electorates that are larger in area than many countries.
Members provide a direct link between their constituents and the federal administration. Constituents constantly seek the assistance of their local Member in securing the redress of grievances or help with various problems they may encounter. Many of the complaints or calls for assistance fall within the areas of social welfare, immigration and taxation. A Member will also deal with problems ranging from family law, postal and telephone services, employment, housing and health to education—even the task of just filling out forms. Many Commonwealth and State functions overlap and when this occurs, cross-referrals of problems are made between Federal and State Members, regardless of political affiliations.
A Member has influence and standing outside Parliament and typically has a wide range of contacts with government bodies, political parties, and the community as a whole. Personal intervention by a Member traditionally commands priority attention by departments. In many cases the Member or the Member’s assistants will contact the department or authority concerned. In other cases, the Member may approach the Minister direct. If the Member feels the case requires public ventilation, he or she may bring the matter before the House—for instance, by addressing a question to the responsible Minister, by raising it during a grievance debate or by speaking on it during an adjournment debate. It is more common, however, for the concerns or grievances of citizens to be dealt with by means of representations to departments and authorities, or Ministers, and for them to be raised in the House only if such representations fail. A Member may also make representations to the Government on behalf of his or her electorate as a whole on matters which are peculiar to the electorate.
Most Members of the House of Representatives are elected as members of one of the political parties represented in the House. If a Member is elected with the support of a political party, it is not unreasonable for the party to expect that the Member will demonstrate loyalty and support in his or her actions in the House. Most decisions of the House are determined on party lines and, thus, a Member’s vote will usually be in accord with the policies of his or her party.
One exception to this rule arises in the relatively rare case of a ‘free vote’. A free vote may occur when a party has no particular policy on a matter or when a party feels that Members should be permitted to exercise their responsibilities in accordance with their consciences. A free vote may also be extended to matters affecting the functioning of the House, such as changes to the standing orders.
While Members rarely challenge the policies of their parties effectively on the floor of the House because of the strong tradition of party loyalty that exists in Australia, policy can be influenced and changed both in the party room and through the system of party committees. All parties hold meetings, usually weekly when the Parliament is sitting, at which proposals are put before the parliamentary parties and attitudes are determined.
Both the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party/Nationals make extensive use of backbench party committees, each committee specialising in a particular area of government. These committees scrutinise legislative proposals and government policy, and may help develop party policy. They can enable private government Members to have detailed discussions with senior departmental officials and may provide a platform for hearing the attitudes of community groups and organisations on particular matters.