The Ministry

Dr Scott Brenton

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The Ministry

Many parliamentary participants argue that ministers should not sit in the Senate. A former senior minister suggested that all ministers should be in the lower house—except for two ministers without portfolio in the Senate (who would also be Leader and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate). A current senator agreed that ministers do not belong in the Senate (or even parliament), and refuses to take on a ministerial position. The argument is that if the Senate is to be a genuine House of Review, the executive should be removed. However, it seems that the Senate will continue to seat ministers, if for no other reason than to provide a wider pool of talent in the legislature from which to draw the executive, but also to provide the government with a ministerial presence and to ensure the passage of their legislation. Yet the ministry has traditionally been weighted more towards members than senators.

Figure 22a shows the proportions of senators in ministries since Federation, which is depicted by a red line on this graph, against the blue line, which is the proportion of senators in Parliament. The blue line remains fairly constant at about a 33 per cent, due to the ‘nexus’ provision in the Constitution, which stipulates that the number of members shall be as near as practicable twice the number of senators. However, while senators comprise a third of the number of parliamentarians, they have rarely comprised a third of the ministry since Federation, let alone more than a third.

Figure 22a: Proportions of senators in the ministry and the parliament since Federation

This graph is somewhat misleading as it is looking at the whole parliament, and while theoretically the executive is drawn from the legislature, more precisely in practice it is from the governing party or parties in the legislature, and the governing party or parties have generally had healthy majorities in the House but not necessarily the Senate. Therefore, senators often comprise less than a third of the parliamentary membership of the governing party or parties. Figure 22b charts the proportion of ministers among government members since Federation, which is shown by the green line, while the red line depicts the proportion of ministers among government senators. It appears that the probability of becoming a minister as a member is greater than as a senator, although interestingly at the turn of the century the proportion of ministers among government senators was higher than among government members. However, is too early to say whether this is an emerging trend and there has been a swing back in the most recent ministries.

In terms of the workload and pressures of being a minister, many would argue that senators are in a better position to manage their ministerial duties compared to members. Ministers are senior members of a party and therefore are virtually guaranteed a ‘safe’ top two position on the Senate ticket for a fixed six-year term and not have to worry about an electorate. Being a minister is a full-time job in itself, with significant commitments in Canberra and greater than average and constant national and international travel commitment, yet members still have to be good local representatives as they may be in a marginal seat. A former senior minister discussed having to effectively balance ministerial and local constituent work, but ultimately, in the lower house, a politician has to be seat driven. This minister would often devote Fridays and Saturdays in particular to maintaining a local profile. One interviewee with not only experience serving in both houses but also ministerial experience observed that, at the margin, it is probably easier to be a minister in the Senate. However, many ministers are in reasonably safe seats anyway, or at least benefit electorally from a higher profile, and therefore do not have to be beholden to the local electorate as much as backbenchers. Fundamentally, ministers have to take the national interest into account, regardless of the house in which they serve. However, a former senior minister argued that portfolios such as Defence or Foreign Affairs would be more manageable without the demands of a local electorate.

Figure 22b: Proportions of ministers among government members and senators since Federation

Proportions of ministers among government members and senators since Federation

In terms of the raw proportions of time spent on ministerial duties, the differences between senators and members do not appear to be great (see Figures 23a and 23b).

Figure 23a: Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on ministerial duties

Proportions of current parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on ministerial duties

Figure 23b: Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on ministerial duties

Proportions of former parliamentarians according to approximate percentage of time spent on ministerial duties

One interviewee with experience in both an upper and lower house claimed that while the demands of the lower house are greater, especially if you are a minister, there are less upper house members so there are more responsibilities. It is often overlooked that all ministers are represented in the other House by a ministerial colleague, and there are less in the Senate which means that they not only have to be across their own portfolios but also many others. One interviewee who served in both houses, found that the challenge of being a minister in the Senate was having to represent three to four other portfolios and be across these areas in significant detail to be able to respond to questions and matters of public importance in debates, which meant additional briefing requirements. Another minister in the Senate agreed.

However a former minister argued that it would have been preferable to be in the House as there are more portfolios there and more media coverage. The minister found it hard to gain traction in the Senate. Another parliamentarian who served in both houses argued that for ministers the day-to-day work is similar in both houses, but that there tends to be more scrutiny of ministers ‘downstairs’ because of Question Time in the House. While the Senate’s Question Time may not have the same prominence as in the House, the Senate is where legislation is often ultimately decided and ministers can expect questions from a much broader political spectrum and the votes of the questioners do actually matter so flippant or theatrical responses will only go so far.

For many interviewees the bigger difference was not between ministers in the Senate and ministers in the House, but between government ministers and their shadows. Shadow ministers are also expected to be across the detail of their portfolio and work on portfolio-related issues, in addition to their electoral commitments, but without the extra staffing, resources, and public service departments that government ministers enjoy. Indeed, some interviewees thought that government ministers have a comparatively easier job.

Crossbench perspectives

Crossbench senators and members were quite critical of ministers, albeit perhaps tinged with envy. One minor party senator argued that while ideally aspiring to hold a ministry that minor party politicians have to be comfortable with just being a senator. Unlike the major parties with a career structure, opportunity for angling and advancement are limited. One crossbench parliamentarian argued that ministers are constrained by solidarity and are often too portfolio-focused. In trying to advance their careers they submit to the authority of the Prime Minister. Senators holding the ‘balance of power’ referred to a constant and high level of constituent correspondence. Indeed, one interviewee suggested that ministers have it easier compared to senators holding the balance of power. This interviewee from a minor party described carrying six major portfolios and participating in three major inquiries at any one time with a staff of only four people, again comparing themselves to ministers with only one or two portfolios and considerable departmental and staffing resources. Yet crossbench senators often have to negotiate with key ministers over budgets and important legislation, which can be considered as a form of ‘governing’.

Outside the Ministry: the backbench

A senator suggested lower house backbenchers (particularly in safe seats) have the easiest job, but that it would be boring and frustrating. Another interviewee suggested that lower house backbenchers could choose to become experts in a particular policy area and contribute significant policy expertise. Yet one marginal seat holder described the experience as ‘working like a dog’ and being constantly in campaign and survival mode. Another House interviewee argued that marginal seat members are good at finding out at a local level whether the government ‘is on the nose’. One former parliamentarian was critical of some members in safe seats, stating that they were not worthy of holding such seats and could take it for granted. However, a Labor parliamentarian with a safe seat pointed out that the demographics of such seats typically comprising of lower social-economic groups meant there was often very high level of constituent work involved. Even in some marginal seats, the demographics influenced the workload. For example, the Northern Territory’s high proportion of Indigenous constituents presents different challenges to other electorates.

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