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Review of Parliamentary Entitlements Committee Report April 2010

Chapter 2 - The Australian Parliamentarian

Public office should not be a means of private profit, but it should not involve such loss or financial embarrassment as to make it difficult for people without private means to enter Parliament or sit in the Cabinet.
- The Rt Hon Robert Menzies CH KC MP, Prime Minister (1951)9

Ultimately, it is true that as adults, members choose to become a member of parliament.  If they are making a sacrifice that is to their credit.  It is not for the taxpayer to indulge that choice.
- Mr Robert Haebich10

What is it that a member of parliament does?  There is no job description, no duty statement.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of parliaments of sovereign states, suggests that a key means to achieve an accessible parliament is direct contact between citizens and their representatives.11 This is a notion supported in the Australian Parliament’s own literature12, yet presents a particular challenge in Australia – a country of large geographical size and relatively small population.

Educational material produced by the Australian Parliament notes that a member is expected to be “a spokesperson for local interests; an ombudsman and facilitator who deals with concerns about government matters; a law maker; an examiner of the work of the government and how it spends the money it raises from taxation; and a contributor to debates on national issues”.13  Most members of parliament would no doubt quickly think of several additional functions to add to this summary.

Difficult hours, demanding clients, demanding leaders and public scrutiny face both new and seasoned parliamentarians.  A member’s day is routinely long, busy and varied, whether in the electorate or in Canberra.

A former Premier of Western Australia, the Hon Dr Geoff Gallop, described an extensive range of regular activities for a parliamentarian:  “working with electors and organisations within the electorate, informing the electorate about important issues or initiatives, attending party meetings (conferences, electorate councils, branches, policy committees), attending parliamentary party meetings, participating in parliamentary debates, working on a parliamentary committee, developing a portfolio interest if they are a minister (or indeed a shadow minister), attending functions on behalf of the government (or opposition), issuing media statements or responding to the media... and the list goes on”. 14

These daily activities require administrative support, travel and accommodation, particularly for those parliamentarians from large and/or remote electorates who must balance the demands of attending parliament with spending time in their electorate, servicing their constituents and travelling between the two.  There is a significant challenge for members to balance these considerations with their constituents’ expectations.  Most electors have an expectation of service to the electorate, but there is regular public criticism of the low number of parliamentary sitting days.

Table 2-1 Parliamentary sitting hours

Sitting Hours - 2009
House or Committee Number
House of Representatives 654
Senate 516
HoR Main Committee 238
Senate Committees 2,468
House and
Joint Committees
1,063

Over the past 13 years, sittings of the House of Representatives have occurred in an average of 17 weeks of each year (18.5 if those years disrupted by election campaigns are discounted), with the Senate sitting in 15.5 (16.5) weeks on average20.  Most sittings call for members to spend four days in Canberra, usually arriving on a Sunday night and leaving on a Thursday evening or Friday morning.  With the addition of travel time, the best part of a working week is accounted for.  This means that for nearly one in every three weeks, a parliamentarian is expected to be away from home and, quite often, away from family.  These time demands cover parliamentary business only; they do not include the many days and nights spent travelling for electorate or party business, or matters related to additional parliamentary positions which a member may hold.

Despite this demanding level of work, community activity and disruption to private life, the Australian public has a traditionally distrustful attitude towards its representatives.  As noted by Bob Bennett in 200221:  “Where there is respect, it is grudging or belated.  The desire to serve is equated with excessive ambition and, as a generalisation, those entering public life are viewed with suspicion as self-seeking”.  Independently recommended increases in parliamentary remuneration and allowances also attract criticism.

This situation is not new, nor a passing trend.  It has been noted in many of the previous inquiries and reports relating to the public monies used to help parliamentarians do their work.22  Little has changed over the years; public attitudes toward parliamentarians are still generally unfavourable23.

There are compensations.  Apart from the remuneration and allowances of office, being a member of parliament is a position of prestige and responsibility.  It can foster considerable pride and a sense of accomplishment should that member play a significant role in the affairs of the nation and the lives of constituents.

Aspects of the role of a member of parliament

What should electors expect from their parliamentary representatives?  The late Mr Peter Andren, a respected former independent member of the House of Representatives (from 1989 to 2007), described his role as “part ombudsman, part counsellor, part researcher and part advocate”.24

The modern parliamentarian owes responsibility to a number of groups, all of which compete for the member’s attention:

These responsibilities are mirrored in what are generally considered to be the key roles of the modern parliamentarian, and can be distilled into the aspects set out below.26

The constituency representative

The member serves the electorate as:

In their electorates, members meet community leaders and organisations, make presentations, visit schools, attend party meetings, handle constituent enquiries, speak to the media and keep themselves abreast of local developments.27  They receive representations from individuals, organised campaigns, telephone campaigns, delegations, lobbyists and organised pressure groups.28

The parliamentarian

As a member of the Australian Parliament and a legislator acting in the national interest, the parliamentarian is involved in:

The impact of committees on the work of parliament has been significant in recent decades.  Committee activities can take up much of a parliamentarian’s time, whether in Canberra or elsewhere around the country.  The work can include research and study, conducting seminars, consulting the public and other interested stakeholders, analysis of evidence, discussion and debate of the evidence and reporting conclusions.29  Some committees hold many meetings each year.30 

The party representative

A member of parliament is usually a member of a political party and will have responsibilities such as:

Office holders

Office holders and members of the ministry have additional responsibilities to the parliament and the nation that demand significant amounts of the individual’s time and resources. 

Is one aspect more important?

A case can be made for the importance of each aspect of the role, but the ultimate decision on whether the member has achieved the correct balance will generally be made by the electors.  Those who choose to focus on parliamentary matters can argue that they are playing a role on the national stage as their electors’ representative in Canberra on national issues.  Conversely, it is arguable that servicing the electorate is not only the prime responsibility of office but a key element of longevity in that office.

The definitive guide to business in the lower house, House of Representatives Practice, notes that members hold office only with the support of the electorate and must retain its confidence at the next election to retain office.31 Members of the public have an increasing expectation that their local member of parliament will be responsive to any approach they make, despite many of these matters being completely outside the ambit of a federal member’s responsibilities.  This in turn places a growing burden on members and their staff.32

While they may determine their priorities, members cannot afford to ignore any one aspect of their role. 

The evolving role of a parliamentarian

While urbanisation is comparable to other western countries, Australia has a relatively low population density and a small number of electorates (see Table 2.2), resulting in constituents in some electorates being spread across vast distances.  This highlights the need for their representatives to have access to flexible and efficient travel and communications.

Table 2-2 Comparison of population density and electorates

Country

Population
(2009 estimate)

Size
(km2)

Relative Size (% of Australia)

Population Density
(per km2)

Urbanised
(%)

Electorates

Average population per electorate

Australia

21,262,641

7,741,220

100

2.7

89

150

141,751

USA

307,212,123

9,826,675

126.9

31.3

82

435

706,235

UK

61,113,205

243,610

3.1

250.3

90

646

94,602

Canada

33,487,208

9,987,670

129

3.3

87

308

108,725

New Zealand

4,213,418

267,710

3.5

15.8

80

70*

60,191

Source:  CIA World Factbook 2009; OECD Environmental Data Compendium 2008
* includes 7 Maori electorates

When the Australian Constitution was written it was assumed that backbench members would earn a living outside parliament, so provision was made for an allowance rather than a salary.  The workload of a minister was considered to represent a full time role and a salary was provided.  By the 1950s, the evolving role of a member had the clear implication that carrying on an external occupation was increasingly difficult if parliamentarians were to remain effective.37

Table 2-3 Milestones relevant to parliamentary business

Year Milestone

1924

First radio transmission of parliament

1927

Transcontinental railway completed

1944

Senators and members permitted one staff member

1956

First commercial television broadcast in Australia

1975

Senators and members permitted two staff members

1984

Senators and members permitted three staff members

1990

Senate Question Time televised

1994

First Australian Labor Party Website

1996

First Liberal Party of Australia Website

2007

Senators and members permitted four staff members

2007

Active use of internet video and social networking tools in an election campaign

2009

8.4 million active internet subscribers in Australia

Over time, improvements in transport, mass communication and education have provided communities with greater access to their representatives.  Together with a significant increase in population, this means more letters, requests, feedback and criticism.  To meet these demands, members face increasing pressures on their time and office resources.

The notion of the full-time parliamentarian is now accepted and the significant workload demands of the electorate and the parliament, not least from increased committee work, are acknowledged.  Should a sitting member choose to pursue external employment, it can lead to perceptions of conflicts of interest and a neglect of parliamentary and electorate duties.

The emergence of email has presented both a powerful tool and a modern challenge to parliamentarians, saving time and money on postage, paper and other office expenses, allowing members to receive and reply at any time, even beyond their already long working hours.  It allows immediate contact with different groups of electors interested in various policy and political issues.

This form of rapid communication with parliamentarians has given rise to a new phenomenon in parliamentary and electorate offices:  ‘email overload’ 38 – the problem of large amounts of incoming email increasingly being experienced in countries with high internet usage.39  Given the modern expectations of an immediate response and a limited capability for dealing with the load, this presents a significant challenge to parliamentarians and their staff.

What do members need in order to perform their duties well?

Members of parliament should be supported in pursuing the national interest – but such support should relate to their public duties.  It should not extend to private activities, nor should it provide an unreasonable advantage for retaining incumbency.

Members should also be appropriately remunerated in recognition of the value of their service and the likelihood that they will be unable to continue in their former professions due to the demands of office.  The remuneration package (including provisions for retirement) should also be sufficient to mitigate the risk of corruption or other unethical behaviour.

In keeping with the broad roles discussed earlier, there is some fundamental assistance which parliamentarians can reasonably expect:

Such support should not be considered a perk of office; it is essential and is the community’s investment in a healthy, functioning national democracy.

Many Australian employees may claim, or are provided with, assistance from their employers for reasonable expenses incurred in the process of performing their duties.  Similarly, parliamentarians receive assistance to enable them to perform the core activities that are recognised as being important and unavoidable aspects of the role, which individual members should not be expected to fund from their private resources.

For example, few, if any, employers would expect their employees to fund personally 18 return trips to Canberra each year in order to carry out essential duties.

In 1992 the Commonwealth Remuneration Tribunal stated that, as changes occur in the duties which members are expected to perform, the facilities and the entitlements given to them should change accordingly.40  That principle remains sound and is relevant when considering the growth of the constituency aspects of a parliamentarian’s role.

Members of parliament should be able to communicate with constituents using methods that are widely accepted in the community.  An Auspoll survey of people’s perceptions of the materials provided prior to a referendum showed that 75 per cent considered the internet a useful source for gathering information on how to vote.41  It is arguable that this attitude would translate to other election-based communication and, of more relevance, routine communication from elected representatives.

It is important, however, that any adaptation of resources for members ensures that they remain able to service and communicate with the significant minority of constituents who choose to continue using more conventional ways of accessing and receiving material.

While it is important that support for members evolves with their needs, there is the distinct danger of allowance creep – the continual addition of piecemeal allowances and benefits that are not publicly disclosed and obscure the true cost of maintaining a well functioning parliament.  The danger becomes more apparent if the remuneration package suffers any relative degradation.

Distinctive features of the role

While there is often critical public comment on the benefits and allowances parliamentarians receive, some of their work conditions are less attractive than those considered to be the community standard.  Members of parliament are in a position unique within the community.  They make the country’s laws, they are subject to erratic hours and multiple workplaces, and they face significant public scrutiny.

There are three main elements of a parliamentarian’s particular circumstances:

Influence

Conditions

Accountability

While each element is not unique and can be found in other workplaces, parliamentarians alone encounter all three.

After parliament

Members who retire from parliament, particularly if they held high office or continue to live in the electorate, often hold positions of significance in the community.  Their representational responsibilities cease, but they remain recognisable figures and will be sought after to attend community and charity events and perform various other public duties.

For those wishing to re-enter the workforce, the transition can be challenging, and the absence of accrued annual and long service leave can make a period of readjustment even more difficult.  The departure from office can be sudden, for example in the event of an unexpected election result.  Depending on how long they have spent in the parliament, members’ skills in former occupations may well be out of date.  At the same time, former members may find themselves branded as ‘overqualified’ when trying to return to their profession due to the high-level skills they have developed while in parliament, working closely on significant national issues.

9. Nicholas, H, Richardson, HF & Buckley, HW (1952), Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Salaries and Allowances of Members of the National Parliament,  AGPS, Canberra,  p.10.

10. Submission to the review by Mr Robert Haebich.

11. Beetham, D (2006) Parliament and democracy in the Twenty-First Century: a guide to good practice, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Geneva, p.69.

12. Harris, I (ed.) (2005) House of Representatives Practice (5th edn.), Department of the House of Representatives, Canberra, p.133.

13. ibid.

14. Typical activities as noted in Gallop, G (2008) The Role of a Member of Parliament,  Speech to the Australasian Study of Parliament Group (NSW Chapter), viewed 10 November 2009, http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/web/common.nsf/key/ResourcesLinksASPG.

15. Chamber Research Office (2009) Statistical Digest No. 20. Department of the House of Representatives, Canberra.

16. Parliament of Australia (2009), Senate Statistical Summary No. 14/2009, Canberra, viewed 9 March 2009, http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/work/statistics/stats_sum/2009/s14.htm.

17. Chamber Research Office (2009) op. cit.

18. Department of the Senate (2010) Work of Committees, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/woc/wocjuldec09/index.htm.

19. Information courtesy of the Department of the House of Representatives, March 2010.

20. Parliament of Australia (2009), Senate Statistical Summary No. 14/2009, Canberra, viewed 9 March 2009, http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/work/statistics/stats_sum/2009/s14.htm.

21. Bennett, B (2002) Candidates, members and the Constitution, Research Paper No.18, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, p.37.

22. For example, see Richardson, HF, Fitzgerald, GE, Brown, CG (1955) Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Salaries and Allowances of Members of the Commonwealth Parliament,  AGPS, Canberra, p.10. (1955 Report).

23. For example, in a 25-year series (1976-2001) of surveys of public opinion regarding ethics and honesty, Roy Morgan Research found that the proportion of respondents who felt that federal members of parliament displayed ‘very high’ or ‘high’ ratings for ethics and honesty failed to reach 20 per cent in any year.

24. Payne, T (2007) Peter Andren: An independent way in Australian politics, Democratic Audit of Australia Discussion paper 15/07, Australian National University, Canberra, p.3.

25. Harris, op. cit., p.132; similarly in Gallop, G (2008); and The Work of a Member of Parliament, Infosheet No. 15 (2008), Department of the House of Representatives, Canberra.

26. The aspects explored are drawn from, and discussed further, in:

Chen, P, Gibson, R & Geiselhart, K (2006) Electronic democracy? The impact of new communications technologies on Australian Democracy, Democratic Audit of Australia, Report No. 6, Australian National University, Canberra, p.36.

Halligan, J, Miller, R & Power, J (2007) Parliament in the Twenty-First Century: Institutional reform and emerging roles, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, p.190.

Kelly KCB, C (2009) MPs’ expenses and allowances: Supporting parliament, safeguarding the taxpayer, Report presented to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, Stationery Office Limited, London, p.31.

Norton, P (1994) ‘The growth of the constituency role of the MP’, Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 47(4), Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.706-708.

Richardson, HF, Fitzgerald, GE & Cowper, NL (1959) Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Salaries and Allowances of Members of the Commonwealth Parliament, AGPS:Canberra, p.9. ( 1959 Report)

The Work of a Member of Parliament, op. cit.

Verrier, J (2007) Resources for members of parliament: more Australian anomalies?, Democratic Audit of Australia, Discussion Paper 7/07, Australian National University Canberra, p.3.

Zappalà, G (1997) The parliamentary responsiveness of Australian federal MPs to their ethnic constituents, Research Paper 8, 1996-97, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, p.3.

27. The Work of a Member of Parliament, op. cit.

28. Harris, op. cit., p.133.

29. Discussed in detail in Halligan et al.  op. cit., p.181.

30. For example, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade held 51 meetings in 2004-05, ibid., p.184.

31. Harris, op. cit., p.133.

32. Discussed in Lusoli, W & Ward, S (2004) From Weird to Wired: MPs, the Internet and representative politics in the UK, Paper presented to the Political Studies Association, University of Lincoln, 5-8 April 2004.

33. Young, S (2003) ‘A century of political communication in Australia 1901-2001’, in Nile, R (ed.)(2003) Grit: Journal of Australian Studies no 78, UQP, St Lucia.

34. Chen et al. op. cit., p.17.

35. ibid.

36. Explored in Kissane, D (2009) ‘Kevin07, web 2.0 and young voters at the 2007 Australian federal election’, CEU Political Science Journal, vol.4(2),  Central European University, Budapest, p.144.

37. Young, L (1996) Parliamentarians, outside employment and outside income, Research Note 50 1995-96, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, p.3.

38. ibid.

39. Noted as an item of particular concern in the US context in: Congress Online Project: E-mail overload in Congress: managing a communications crisis (2001),  http://www.cmfweb.org/storage/cmfweb/documents/CMF_Pubs/e-mailoverload.pdf.

40. Remuneration Tribunal (1992) 1992 Review, AGPS, Canberra.

41. Auspoll Pty Ltd (2009), Submission to the Inquiry into the Machinery of Referendums, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Canberra. http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/laca/referendums/subs.htm

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Chapter 3 – Limitations of the Current Framework


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