This Factsheet looks at the role of the private or backbench Member of the House of Representatives, not of Ministers or opposition shadow ministers. The ministerial role is a distinct and different one, focused largely on the work of Cabinet and its committees and a particular department of state and is supported by considerable resources.
The backbench Member is a jack-of-all-trades, developing his or her own role in the Parliament and the electorate. Ministers and shadow ministers have electorates and constituents too and they perform these functions as well as their ministerial duties or shadow responsibilities.
There is no 'job description' which sets out the work of a backbencher and no specific daily routine is required, but it is possible to identify some common tasks and goals which all backbenchers share. A Member is expected to be a spokesperson for his or her local interests, an ombudsman who deals with complaints about government matters, a law maker, an examiner of the work of the government and how it spends the money it raises from taxpayers, and a contributor to debates on national issues. In order to carry out all these functions and others a Member needs to have a wide range of abilities and talents.
Because there are so many demands on Members' time and they are presented with such a wide variety of tasks, Members determine their own job descriptions simply by deciding which they think are the most important and choosing which to do first or spend the most time on. Whatever set of tasks MPs find themselves doing, it requires a range of skills and problem-solving techniques.
Members work long hours in the House, on parliamentary committee work and in their electorates attending to the demands and problems of their constituents. They attend a constant round of engagements to which they are invited because of their position in the community as parliamentarians. The ear of the parliamentarian is constantly sought at these functions. Attendance is necessary to keep in touch with community developments and attitudes.
When the House is sitting it meets for between 7½ and 10½ hours a day and sometimes even longer. Although a Member will not sit in the Chamber all the time, he or she will keep in touch with proceedings via a television service provided to each Member's office and be ready to attend in the House at any time to vote in a division, to make a speech or to lend support to a colleague. In addition a Member may spend several hours each day attending meetings of the Main Committee, parliamentary committees, party committees and other groups. When a Member is not in the House or attending a formal meeting he or she deals with the wide variety of tasks which face a Member when in Canberra, including preparing speeches, doing research, meeting constituents, raising matters of concern with Ministers or liaising with colleagues, public servants, lobbyists or foreign diplomats.
One of a Member's most important skills is communicating—receiving, understanding and evaluating information from many sources, and passing on information and opinions in Parliament and elsewhere—to the Government and to individuals and groups.
Being well informed and up to date is vital if an MP is to come to grips with the great range of legislation and other issues dealt with by the House and provide an effective link between the public and the Parliament.
Backbenchers spend a great deal of time reading, although no backbencher can expect to read all the material sent to Members at Parliament House. Major national and regional, and sometimes overseas, newspapers and journals are priority reading in order to keep up with day to day news and views. In addition hundreds of reports are presented to the House each year and an MP with an interest in just a few major policy areas may read hundreds of pages of reports annually, just to keep in touch with developments. The MP may also read articles and listen to television and radio programs in his or her area of interest. He or she may ask for detailed research on specific topics to be done by personal or parliamentary staff. Parliamentary or party committee work requires more reading and research in relatively specialised areas.
Another major parliamentary occupation is talking. Making speeches in the Chamber is the role with which the general observer is most familiar and which probably attracts the most publicity, although in fact other tasks such as office work or committee work may take much more time. Nevertheless most Members are regularly called upon to speak in the Chamber of the House and in the Main Committee, usually in support of, or opposition to, a piece of legislation. There are a number of other opportunities for Members to raise issues of particular interest to them or their constituents especially during the daily adjournment debates and the weekly private Members' business debates. (For further information about opportunities for Members to raise matters of concern see Factsheet No. 6 — Opportunities for Private Members.)
The MP also spends time each day talking with colleagues and MPs from other parties, and exchanging views with journalists and others. The other important aspect of communication for the MP is keeping constituents informed of developments in government or party policy and the implications of government decisions and activity. Members must write many letters and talk to many people both privately and in public forums.
The House of Representatives has set up a system of committees to perform functions the House itself cannot do well, such as carrying out investigations, hearing witnesses, sifting evidence, discussing matters in detail and making reasoned conclusions. The committees set up by the House (including some set up jointly with the Senate which also has its own committees) investigate matters of public policy and make recommendations for change and examine the activities of government. Parliamentary committees consist of Members of all parties and (in some cases) independent Members.
Committee work is an important part of the duties of a Member of Parliament and generally makes considerable demands on a Member's time. Committee meetings are held during both sitting and non-sitting periods, and in many instances, committees may hold their hearings, public meetings or informal discussions in a number of places throughout the country. Many backbenchers are members of more than one parliamentary committee.
Committees are given wide powers of investigation. They are valuable vehicles for getting and giving out information and supplement the normal parliamentary role of a private Member considerably. They also provide a direct link between Members and the many sources of information and opinion across the Australian community. In order to make a contribution to the work of a committee, a Member must spend time studying the subject matter of the inquiry.
(For further information on House of Representatives committees see Factsheet No. 4 — Committees.)
Nearly all Members belong to a political party (five of the 148 Members of the House in the 38th Parliament are not members of a political party). They are expected to contribute to the development and amendment of the policies of the party to which they belong. Each party has its own ways of doing this but in all parties Members are given opportunities to put forward the interests of their constituents and their own personal views. All parties hold meetings of their parliamentary members, usually weekly when the Parliament is sitting, at which proposals are put before them and attitudes are decided.
Both the Liberal-National Party coalition and the Australian Labor Party make extensive use of backbench party committees, each committee specialising in a particular area of government. These committees look at legislative proposals and government policy, and may help to develop party policy. Party committees command a considerable amount of the time of MPs. They meet mostly on parliamentary sitting days, generally during meal breaks, in the morning, or at night. During sittings periods, these committees meet, typically, at least once a week and a Member may be on more than one committee. While parliamentary committees work towards the production of individual reports with recommendations which the Government may or may not adopt, party committees have a continuing role in commenting on and adapting party policies.
The federal electoral divisions in Australia have an average population of over 100,000 people (around 79,000 eligible voters in each) and range in area from 26 square kilometres to 2.2 million square kilometres. Members provide a direct link between their constituents and the Parliament.
Each Member maintains an electorate office which serves as his or her electorate base. Members and their staff spend much energy on solving the problems of constituents. Sometimes these require the personal intervention of the MP who may write to a Minister, phone a public servant, or call into a Minister's office to enlist his or her personal involvement in settling the matter. Many of the complaints or calls for assistance fall within the areas of social welfare, immigration and taxation. A Member also deals with problems concerning family law, postal and telephone services, employment, housing, health and education—even assisting with the task of filling in 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 an important influence and standing outside Parliament and typically has a wide range of contacts with government bodies, political parties, community groups and individuals. Personal intervention in a constituent's problem by a Member traditionally gets priority attention by government departments. If the problem is purely an administrative one, the Member may contact the department or authority concerned, where the case will be dealt with by the relevant section. If the problem is urgent, the Member may approach the Minister direct or, if the Member feels the case requires public discussion or a change of policy, he or she may bring the matter before the House, for instance, by addressing a question to the responsible Minister or by raising it in debate.
A Member may also make representations to the Government on behalf of his electorate as a whole on matters of special interest to the electorate. The building of an airport or other major project within the electorate, or the prospect of closure of a local industry which would cause unemployment or other problems for the area, are examples of electorate issues that can be very important. Such matters are more likely to be the subject of questions on notice or to be raised in the House than are problems of individual constituents. A Member's representation of community views on national issues is also important in shaping policy.
Backbenchers frequently meet constituents who are visiting Parliament House. Some constituents seek out the politician to lobby him or her on a particular problem. Mostly however, the constituents are simply visitors to the national capital who want the chance to meet their MP. Members also find time to meet groups of school children from their electorates and conduct them around the Parliament. Parliament House has a room set aside for visiting school groups to meet their MPs, receive refreshments and learn about Parliament.
It is constituents who Members of Parliament must satisfy as to their fitness for the task of being their parliamentary representative and who pass judgment on their performance at each election.