What lies beneath: the work of senators and members in the Australian Parliament

Dr Scott Brenton
2009 Australian Parliamentary Fellow

[PDF 2.06MB]

Preliminary pages
  Presiding Officers’ Foreword
The Senate versus the House
Work/life imbalance
Constituents and constituencies
Parliamentary work
The Ministry
Representatives roles and responsibilities
Bicameral representation
Conclusion: more similar than different
Appendix: list of interview participants

Since its establishment in 1971, the Australian Parliamentary Fellowship has provided an opportunity for researchers to investigate and analyse aspects of the working of the Australian Parliament and the parliamentary process. The work of Dr Scott Brenton, the 2009 Australian Parliamentary Fellow, compares Senators and Members of the House of Representatives to assess the similarities and differences between their work, their roles and responsibilities, and their conceptions of representation.

Dr Brenton surveyed and interviewed over 200 current and former parliamentarians. The monograph presents a comprehensive account of the state of politics as a profession from a parliamentary perspective, while noting major changes over time. In challenging some negative perceptions of politics, this study outlines a successful and stable Australian model of bicameralism in practice.

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Firstly, thank you to the Joint Standing Committee on the Parliamentary Library, particularly the Joint Chairs, the Hon. Dick Adams MP and Senator Russell Trood for the opportunity and their assistance in encouraging their colleagues to participate in this study. To the many current and former parliamentarians who took time out of their hectic schedules to kindly share their insights and experiences I am extremely grateful.

Former Parliamentary Fellows Dr Jennifer Curtin of the University of Auckland and Professor John Uhr of the Australian National University not only provided their expertise in this study, but have also been important mentors over the last few years. I am also grateful to my former colleagues at the Australian National University and my new colleagues at the University of Melbourne for their feedback during progress seminars and suggestions for future research.

The chamber departments were very welcoming and helped guide much of the research. I would particularly like to acknowledge Dr Rosemary Laing, Cleaver Elliott, Richard Pye, Brien Hallett, and Harry Evans, from the Department of the Senate, and Ian Harris and Joanne Towner from the Department of the House of Representatives.

Within the Parliamentary Library, thanks particularly to Dr Jane Romeyn, Cathy Madden, Janet Wilson, Deirdre McKeown, Dr Mark Rodrigues, Martin Lumb, Chris Lawley, Paige Darby, Maryanne Lawless, Margaret Krikorian, Yu-Qian (Chan) Wang, Michael Klapdor, Anita Talberg, Roxanne Missingham, Rowena Billing, Nina Markovic, Dr Luke Buckmaster, Roy Jordan, Joanne James, Nola Adcock, Dr Nicholas Horne, Rob Lundie, and the friendly and helpful crew at the Central Enquiry Point. Special thanks to Janet Smith, Doreen White and Klaus Inveen for their invaluable assistance in computing the data and Colin Grant and Maria Wasson for arranging the artwork.

There are two people who deserve very special mentions, as I could not have done this study in this form without their support. Dr Tony Lamb OAM of the Association of Former Members of the Parliament of Australia went above and beyond in encouraging the participation of former Senators and Members. Dr Sarah Miskin as my principal supervisor brought a rare combination of enthusiasm, energy, expertise and experience and helped carry the study through the ups and downs.

Finally, yet most importantly, I could not have got through the year without the personal support of Nathan, Suzete and Toni.

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This study compares senators as a group of political representatives with members of the House of Representatives as another group to assess the similarities and differences between their work, their roles and responsibilities, and their conceptions of representation. Drawing on surveys of 233 current and former parliamentarians and 29 interviews with prominent politicians, this study finds that the profession has changed with technological and communication developments, increases in staff and constituents, increased media intrusions, and challenges to balance work and family. Most fundamentally, the stature of the Senate has grown from out of the shadow of the House of Representatives, while senators have also raised their profiles and become important campaign agents. While the House still seats the most powerful politicians and retains the interest of the media with its theatrics, the Senate has carved out a strong policy and legislative focus. The Senate has also been more successful in attracting a more diverse cross-section of the Australian community into the chamber and is now challenging the lower house as the real house of representatives.

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