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Backbenchers – An Overview

A backbencher is a member of parliament in either house who is neither a government minister or parliamentary secretary, or an opposition shadow minister.

Backbenchers actually sit on the benches behind the ministry and shadow ministry.

It is generally argued that backbenchers have three main duties to fulfill:

  1. Parliamentary Duties – these include attending parliament and supporting their frontbench colleagues, participating in debates on legislation or other formal occasions, such as Matters of Public Importance, Urgency Debates, Adjournment Debates, and the like. Backbenchers also contribute to debate in their party-rooms and participate in the election of leaders.
  2. Electorate Duties – these include dealing with constitutent inquiries, complaints and problems, particularly in areas such as social welfare, immigration and education. As the local member, a backbencher needs to be seen to be an active participant in the life of their community, attending civic, business, cultural and sporting functions, and liasing with groups in the electorate.
  3. Party Duties – these include attending branch meetings and other party functions within the electorate and beyond. Backbenchers know that their preselection depends in part on the support of local party members. Fundraising and campaign support in elections also requires the support of party members and supporters.

The work of a backbench member of parliament will often vary depending on a range of factors:

  1. Electoral margin – a member in a safe electorate may be able to devote more time to parliamentary and party commitments, secure in the knowledge that they are unlikely to lose the seat at the next election.
  2. Government or Opposition – a member whose party is in government may find it easier to “bring home the bacon” for their electorate because of their easier access to ministers, although members may find they are the focus of attention from all sides if their electoral margin is slim.
  3. House of Representatives or Senate – a Senate backbencher represents the whole State or Territory for which they were elected, and in this sense represent everyone and no-one. Hence, senators often devote more time to parliamentary or party duties.
  4. Urban or Rural – rural members are aware that they need to be especially assiduous in dealing with their electorates, particularly in the light of recent election results, regardless of the margin of electoral safety.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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