Dr Scott Brenton



‘Senators and members are completely different animals’ – current senator

‘Being a member is not harder than being a senator—it’s just different, like being a man or a woman’ – current parliamentarian who has served in both houses

Comparing the work of senators and members

While one senator argued that comparing the work of senators and members was like ‘apples and oranges’, with each having their own worth, it became clear through this study that senators and members do compare themselves to each other and tend to undervalue the contributions of the other group. Through surveys and interviews of current and former parliamentarians from all parties and all states and territories, this study reveals how senators and members perceive their own roles and responsibilities in comparison to parliamentarians from the other chamber. The principal research question is what are the similarities and differences between members of the House of Representatives and senators in terms of their own understanding of their representative roles and responsibilities? Supplementing this main research question is who (or what) are they representing?


All current senators and members of the 42nd Commonwealth Parliament (226 in total) were emailed a link to an electronic survey, followed by a paper copy mailed to their Parliament House office. Of the 150 current members of the House of Representatives, 54 responded to the survey (39 responded using a paper copy while 15 responded electronically), giving a response rate of 36 per cent. Twenty-six of the current 76 senators responded (23 paper; three electronic), which is a response rate of 34 per cent. This compares favourably with previous surveys of serving parliamentarians, which had response rates of between 26 and 40 per cent.[1] Over 450 surveys were mailed to former parliamentarians, of which 153 were completed and returned. While an exact response rate is difficult to determine as the address database of former parliamentarians is not completely accurate, it appears to be similar to current parliamentarians. Former parliamentarians were included to provide a more comprehensive set of results, but also to ascertain whether there have been changes over time. However, it should be noted that this is an imperfect measure as the time periods served by former parliamentarians vary considerably, as it does for current parliamentarians. The results are presented for the purposes of basic comparison but should be interpreted with caution.

Representativeness of the responses

Figure 1a shows the current distribution of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives across the states and territories, based on population and minimum seat provisions in the Constitution. Each seat contains a similar number of voters, with the more populous states containing the most seats.[2] Figure 1b shows the state distributions of current members of the House of Representatives who responded to the survey. As 11 of the 54 respondents did not disclose their state/territory it is difficult to accurately assess the representativeness of the sample, but based on the available information, there appears to be an overrepresentation of New South Wales’ members and absence of Tasmanians and members from the Northern Territory (although these members may not have indicated a state/territory to preserve their anonymity, given the small number of members from these regions).

House seats by stateRespondents by state

*11 Members did not disclose their state/territory

Figure 1c shows the corresponding distribution of the 76 Senate seats, with the Constitution guaranteeing an equal number of seats for all the original states. All senators who responded indicated their state/territory, with New South Wales underrepresented in the sample, and Tasmania overrepresented (see Figure 1d). 

Senate seats by stateRespondents by state

Figure 2a shows the proportions of seats in the House of Representatives each party holds, while Figure 2b shows the party affiliations of members who responded. Labor (the current governing party) is underrepresented in the sample, while the Liberals and Nationals (the current opposition) are overrepresented, although again 11 members did not disclose their party.

House seats by partyRespondents by party


*11 Members did not disclose their party

Figure 2c shows the proportions of Senate seats each party holds, while Figure 2d shows the party affiliations of the Senate respondents, with only two senators choosing not to disclose their party. In terms of party affiliation, the survey sample is fairly representative of the current composition of the Senate, particularly in relation to the Labor and Liberal parties.

Senate seats by partyRespondents by party

* 2 Senators did not disclose their party

Finally, the representativeness of the sample is assessed in terms of executive membership within political parties. The survey did not define this criterion, and could be interpreted as the ministry or frontbench or other party leadership positions. Only 17 of the respondents reported being in an executive position, with some of the respondents choosing not to disclose this information.

House respondents by positionSenate respondents by position

Figures 4a to 4f present similar information for former senators and members who responded to the survey.

Former members by stateFormer senators by state

*11 Members did not disclose their state/territory

Former members by partyFormer senators by party

* 1 Labor Member and 1 Liberal became independents     *   1 Senator did not disclose their party, and 3 changed party affiliation during their terms

Former members by positionFormer senators by position



Twenty-nine interviews, both telephone and face-to-face in Parliament House, were conducted with selected current and former parliamentarians. Parliamentarians were chosen on the basis of whether they had served in both an upper and lower house, at a federal level or a federal and state level, in addition to ensuring representatives from all parties (and independents) and all states and territories were included. Although most interviewees provided quotable ‘on the record’ responses, for ease of reporting the material, anonymity is provided for all interviewees. Therefore, given the relatively small number of interviewees, often no distinction is made between former and current parliamentarians unless relevant and gendered pronouns are also avoided to prevent identification. A full list of interviewees is shown in the Appendix.

Figure 5: Party of affiliation, state/territory, and chamber of interviewees

Figure 5: Party of affiliation, state/territory, and chamber of interviewees


[1].          E.g. W Swenden, Federalism and second chambers, op. cit.; T Kendall, Within China’s orbit: China through the eyes of the Australian Parliament, Australian Parliamentary Fellow monograph, 2007, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2008.

[2].          While all states have the same number of seats regardless of population, there is a moderate gerrymander in the House of Representatives, with Tasmania overrepresented and the Australian Capital Territory underrepresented.


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