This newsletter describes the work of a typical House backbencher – a deputy who does not hold a parliamentary or party position.1The term "backbencher" refers to the sitting position of the Deputy in the Chamber of Deputies, where the front bench is occupied by Ministers and Shadow Ministers.
However, it should be noted that much of what is described here applies to all members - the speaker and caucus members also represent their constituents and perform their various additional roles.
What does a deputy do?
While there is no formal "job description" that defines what a backbench member does, it is possible to identify aspects of the job that are common to all backbenchers.
A member is expected to be a spokesperson for local interests; an ombudsman and facilitator to address concerns related to government affairs; a lawgiver; an examiner of the government's work and how it spends the money raised from taxes; and a contribution to debates on national issues. If a member is elected with the support of a political party (as is the case with the majority), he is also expected to participate in party activities.
backbencher at home
Most MPs can therefore be seen as having three roles – that of MP, constituency representative and party member. Each of these functions is discussed in more detail below.
Different roles may have conflicting demands on a member's time – for example, members must leave their constituents to attend Parliament. When Parliament is not in session, the parliamentary committees to which they belong may be carrying out investigations in different parts of the country.
Each member's knowledge or experience and the nature of their constituency can influence members' work priorities and their decisions about where their most effective contribution can be made.
What skills does a member need?
Members need a wide range of skills to be able to contribute effectively across the full range of their job responsibilities. Individual MPs have different skills acquired through education and work before becoming MPs. This can affect where a member makes their main contribution. For example, analytical and research skills are important in committee investigative work and in reviewing and drafting legislation; Good communication skills are important in all aspects of a member's work, but especially when working with constituents, debating legislation and lobbying. Negotiation skills, organizational skills and problem solving skills are just some of the other skills required of members. As in any field of work, members build on existing skills and acquire new ones simply because of the variety of tasks they must perform.
information and communication
One of a Member's most important skills is communication – receiving, understanding and evaluating information from a variety of sources and communicating information and opinions in Parliament and elsewhere – to government and to individuals and groups.
Being well-informed and up-to-date is essential for a deputy to understand and debate the wide range of legislation and other matters dealt with in the House, and to establish an effective representative link between his constituents and Parliament.
Members spend a lot of time reading, although they don't expect to read all of the material sent to them. Important national, regional and international news are read as a priority for information. In addition, hundreds of reports are submitted to the House each year, and a member interested in some policy areas can read hundreds of pages of reports each year to keep in touch with the subject. They also have to read and digest detailed research on specific issues done for them by personal or parliamentary staff. Working in parliament or on party committees may require more reading and research in relatively specialized areas.
Another important parliamentary activity is speaking. Giving speeches is the job the general observer is most familiar with and is likely to get the most attention, although other jobs like office work or committee work can actually take much more time. However, most deputies are regularly called upon to speak in the Chamber of the Chamber and the Chamber of the Federation (the second Chamber of the Chamber, cf.Fact Sheet No. 16 Chamber of the Association), usually for or against a legislative act.
There are a number of other opportunities for MPs to speak in the House to raise issues of particular concern to them or their constituents – for example, during the halftime debate at the end of each session day and on the weekly private weekday of MPs Bills and motions may be made by being sponsored by private members (cf.Fact Sheet #6 Opportunities for Private Members). During their visit to Parliament, MPs also spend time with colleagues, members of other parties, journalists, visitors, lobbyists and the parliamentary staff that manage the affairs of the House.
A key aspect of communication for a member is keeping constituents informed about developments in government or party policy and the impact of government decisions and activities. Members also spend a great deal of time communicating on behalf of their constituents – taking up the cases of individuals or conveying constituents' concerns more generally to the government or their parties. Every aspect of a member's job involves communication - writing lots of letters/emails, speaking to large numbers of people both privately and in public forums, and perhaps most importantly, listening.
work of parliamentary committees
The House of Representatives has a system of committees that conduct inquiries; carry out inspections; listen to people's opinions and suggestions; analyze evidence; discuss and debate aspects of an investigation in detail and report its conclusions. Depending on the subject of the request, much of this work is done outside of Canberra. Committees created by the Chamber of Deputies (including some jointly with the Senate, which also has its own committees) investigate public policy issues, evaluate government activities, and make recommendations for changes. Committees are given far-reaching investigative powers. They are a valuable means of receiving and sharing information and provide a direct link between members and the Australian community.
Each parliamentary committee is made up of governmental and non-governmental members. Most members of parliament, with the exception of ministers and some directors, belong to committees. Backbench members are typically members of more than one committee. Working on committees is an important part of a member's role and consumes a significant amount of their time.
A committee inspection during an investigation
To contribute to the work of a commission, the member must not only attend meetings, public hearings and inspections, but also dedicate time to study the subject of the consultation. The demands placed on members who are committee chairs are greater because they must direct the work of their committees and be spokespersons for their work. Committee meetings are held in Canberra during sessions of the House of Representatives and at other times, and most committees also hold hearings, public meetings or informal discussions in various locations across the country.
Once investigations are complete, the commissions present a report to the Chamber of Deputies, which may spend some time debating. Subsequently, the Government will provide the Chamber and the competent committee with a response to the Commission's recommendations.
For more information on Chamber Committees, visitLeaflet No. 4 CommitteesEwww.aph.gov.au/house/committee.
Almost all members belong to a political party - very few of the 151 members of the House of Representatives are independent (ie not members of a political party). Members are expected to contribute to developing and changing the policies of the party to which they belong. Each party has its own way of doing this, but in all parties members have the opportunity to present their constituents' interests and their own personal views. All parties hold meetings of their MPs, usually weekly when Parliament is in session, where policy is discussed.
Both governing and opposition parties make extensive use of party bench committees, with each committee specializing in a specific area of government. These committees review proposed legislation and government policy and may assist in the development of party policy. While parliamentary commissions work to produce individual reports with recommendations that the government may or may not accept, party commissions play an ongoing role in commenting on and adjusting party policy.
Party committees generally meet weekly on parliamentary session days, usually before or after parliamentary sessions in the morning or evening. A member can be on more than one party committee, and most backbenchers spend a significant amount of time on these activities.
voter and his member
MPs establish a direct link between their constituents and Parliament. Federal constituencies in Australia average around 108,770 eligible voters. Electoral divisions vary greatly in area, ranging from approximately 32 km². (Grayndler, NSW) to over 1.6 million square kilometers. (Durack, Washington). Each member holds a position in their constituency. Some members representing very large constitutions may have polling stations in more than one centre. Members of large constituencies spend a lot of time traveling within the constituency.
In the electorate, parliamentarians and their advisors spend most of their time representing the interests of their constituents. Sometimes this requires personal intervention by the member, who may write to a minister, telephone a government official, or call a minister's office to obtain his personal involvement in handling the matter. Many of the questions or requests for help fall into the areas of welfare, immigration and tax. A member also handles issues related to family law, postal and telephone services, employment, health and education. Many Commonwealth and state functions overlap, and when they do, issues are escalated between federal and state members, regardless of political affiliation.
Members have influence and standing outside of Parliament and typically have numerous contacts with government agencies, their political party, community groups and individuals. A member's personal interference in a constituent matter has traditionally received priority attention from government agencies. If the matter is merely administrative, the member can go to the competent service or authority, where the process will be handled by the competent section. If the matter is urgent, the member can approach the Minister directly or, if the member feels that the case requires public discussion or a change in policy, take the matter to the House - for example, by sending a question to the responsible Minister or raising it in the debate. Members can also advise voters in preparing petitions for the House. Petitions can only be presented to the Chamber if the problems concern matters on which the Chamber can deliberate (cf.Information Sheet No. 11 Petitions).
Members also represent the government on behalf of its entire constituency on matters of particular concern to the electorate. Construction of a major road or other significant project within the constituency, or the prospect of closure of a local industry that would cause unemployment or other problems for the area, are examples of constituency issues that members may raise. Such matters are more likely to be the subject of termination issues (cf.Information Sheet #1 Questions) or raised in the House as individual voter issues. Member representation of community views on national issues is also important in policy making.
Members frequently meet with constituents visiting Parliament. Some member groups look for members to advocate for them on a specific issue. Most of the time, though, voters are simply visitors to the state capital who want a chance to meet their legislators. Members also find time to meet groups of schoolchildren from their constituency and show them around Parliament. The parliament building has an education center where visiting school groups can learn more about parliament and meet its federal representatives. To seewww.peo.gov.au.
It is voters who judge the performance of deputies in all elections. Deputies must prove themselves fit for the function of their parliamentary representation. All members who wish to make a long-term commitment to improving Australia's governance must work to serve the interests of their constituency and be worthy of re-election.
Deputies work long hours in the Chamber of Deputies, on the work of parliamentary committees and with their constituents.
When the Chamber is in session, it generally meets between 7.5 and 10.5 hours a day, and sometimes more. It is not uncommon for a member's day to start with breakfast around 7:30 am and end with waking up at 8:00 pm or later. Members are not in the Chamber all the time, but they are always aware of what is happening through the television monitors in their offices and elsewhere in the Parliament building, and they are always ready to be present in the Chamber to vote in a department and make a speech or support a colleague. Federation House and parliamentary committee meetings and hearings also take place while the House is in session, and members should manage their time carefully to avoid the need to be in two places at once. When not attending these formal House meetings, members conduct polls, write speeches, meet with voters, influence interest groups, raise concerns with ministers, and participate in party meetings and the work of party committees.
Hours worked by MPs in constituencies are similar to those in Canberra. In their constituency, members meet with community leaders and organizations; presentations; attend schools; participate in party meetings; process constituent requests; communicate with the media and keep up to date with developments in the constituency. Travel time between different centers in large constituencies can significantly increase the time needed to stay in touch with community views – some constituencies in Australia are larger than in many other countries.
A member's many demands can easily fill days and nights, seven days a week. This is particularly the case when the House of Representatives is in session and voters' duties need to be resolved over the weekend before the member returns to Canberra. Members of constituencies in parts of Australia farther from Canberra spend many extra hours traveling at the beginning and end of each session week. These working hours also affect members' families, and members must carefully prioritize their activities to maintain a balanced perspective on issues.
Members have the opportunity to participate in Parliament's international programme. These international links with other parliaments help promote understanding, knowledge sharing and democratic development. The program includes parliamentary visits (inbound and outbound), development programs and participation in international parliamentary associations. Members of outgoing delegations may be away from a few days to several weeks, and the delegation will report back to Parliament on the visit in due course. To seewww.aph.gov.au/international.
For more information
practice of the Chamber of Deputies, 7th Edition, Department of the Chamber of Deputies, Canberra, 2018.
Images courtesy of AUSPIC.
1. President, Prime Minister, Parliamentary Secretary, Leader or Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Shadow Minister or Leader of a Recognized Party