House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

5 - Members

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The Member and the House in the democratic process

Members of the House hold office only with the support of the electorate and must retain its confidence at the next election to remain in office. As a result the influence which citizens exert on individual Members and their parties is a fundamental strength of the democratic system.

Members are influenced by what they perceive to be public opinion, by other parliamentarians and by the people they meet in performing their parliamentary and electorate duties. They are also informed and influenced by specific representations made to them by way of requests by groups and individuals for support of particular causes, expressed points of view or expressions of interest in some government activity, or requests for assistance in dealings with government departments and instrumentalities.

Representations may be made by individuals acting on their own account or as part of an organised campaign. Major campaigns, for example, have been launched on such issues as abortion law reform and family law legislation. These campaigns may be supplemented by other measures, such as telephone campaigns and by the sending of delegations to speak to Members personally.

Representations may also be made to Members, especially Ministers, by professional lobbyists and highly organised pressure groups, such as industry associations and trade unions, which may have significant staff and financial resources.

Accessibility of Members to citizens in the electorate is important for the proper operation of the democratic process. Members are conscious of the importance of being accessible to their constituents and of identifying and promoting the interests of their electorates. This has been summarised as follows:

They accept that generally the seats of all MPs will depend on the overall performance of the party, but they believe that they themselves are in a slightly better position because of the work they do in their electorates. Most of them certainly behave as if they were firmly convinced that their future was dependent on the contribution they make to the condition of their electorates and its residents, rather than anything they might do in the parliament.[7]

In short, the democratic system makes Members responsible and responsive to the constituents they represent and to the Australian electorate generally. This is not to ignore the fine balance which must at times be struck between leading and responding to the people. Edmund Burke’s view of this still carries weight:

Your representative owes you, not his industry only; but his judgement, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.[8]

In turn, it may be considered that the House must be responsive to the views of its Members and, through them, to the electorate at large, if it is to be effective as a democratic institution.

7. David Solomon, Inside the Australian Parliament, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1978, p. 126.
8. Speech to the electors of Bristol, 1774’, quoted in Michael Rush, Parliament and the public, Longman, London, 1976, p. 55.