Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rebuilding the role of MP as representative

This post links together two apparently disconnected stories, both concerned with the effective operation of parliaments.

On 16 September, Annabel Crab's UnQuestion Time: the Speaker makes a point dealt with question time in the Australian Parliament. The story points to a conflict between standing orders and the way question time works in practice.

On 19 September, Christopher Moore's Samara on parliamentary disfunction discussed a report by the Canadian Samara Foundation on the functioning of the Canadian Parliament based on exit interviews with retiring MPs. The MPs fulminated about the uselessness, impotence, and frustration they felt.

Both pieces are interesting. However, they also go to a common problem, the actual roles of an MP.

MPs in the Westminster System have multiple roles, roles that can conflict. They are first elected to represent electorates. Then, once elected, they acquire a role in Parliament in contributing to governance. Beyond that in a party system, they have obligations to their parties. Then ministers acquire obligations as members of the executive.

We live in a professionalised world in which the focus is on party and government. You see this in the argument that people vote for parties, that parties must select people who can ultimately best contribute to the business of power and government. You can see this in the focus on professional campaigning, on machine politics, on the leader, on the need to maintain a common front, to stick to message.

To my mind, this professionalised world misses a fundamental point, the role of the member in representing his or her electorate. It also misses a second fundamental point, the role of the member in and responsibilities to Parliament itself.

In voting, I vote for a person. I may or may not be influenced by the party that person stands for, but I am still voting for a person. In doing so, I am not voting for someone because they might become minister or even PM. I am not voting for a person because they are a good manager or might be intellectually bright. I am voting for someone who might represent me.

I grew up in a political world. For the first eighteen years of my life my grandfather was a local MP. Later, I became actively involved in party politics and even tried for pre-selection. I saw good and bad politicians. But I never doubted that politics was a vocation.

My deep distrust of the Liberal Party and its predecessors, the coalition partner of the party I supported, lay in the simple fact that (at least as I saw it) the Party was too dominated by people seeking power and career for its own sake. You could not trust them. Then Labor, by contrast, may have been the natural political enemy, may have played dirty politics from time to time, may have used class arguments that I denied, but you knew where the Party was coming from.

The original role of question time was to allow MPs to find out information about Government activities that interested them. These might deal with specific policies. More often, it dealt with specific electoral matters. Questions also allowed MPs to flag issues that were important to them.

This is no longer true. Question time has become another part of the general party political process. Who can ask a question, what will be asked, is determined by the Party leadership. There is actually no place for the ordinary MP to do his or her job. They have been emasculated.

I think that this links to the type of disillusionment recorded in the Samara report: MPs who want to fulfil their representation role and to make an individual contribution find their task increasingly constrained and difficult.

Just as bad, in attempting to focus in party selection on the roles of MPs as potential ministers or party leaders we build in seeds of future disillusionment. The statistical reality is that most MPs cannot become ministers. If that is the primary reason for entering parliament, then failure is inevitable for most. Further, many of those who come in for this type of career reason are actually impatient with the electoral grind that is an inevitable part of the representation process.

To my mind, the current approach to question time is actually a fundamental denial of the role and power of Parliament. If we really want question time to work, then one of the most practical things that might be done would be to limit the number of questions that might be asked by any single MP in any parliamentary sitting. This may sound extreme, but it would destroy current political games.

If this is too extreme, then another option would be to provide that a proportion of question time be limited to back bench questions on matters of direct concern to them.

In this, improving the capacity of MPs to actually represent might go some way to addressing the disillusionment experienced by many.


Evan said...

I doubt it Jim. I think the problem is the dominance of the parties and the professionalisation of politics.

(I even heard Drew Hutton defend professionalism in politics! Though this was a few years ago, he may have learned some things since.)

It would take reform to party funding and change to selection processes I think.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments Jim, as was your previous post.

My tuppence would be to make the Speaker truly independent; perhaps drawn from a panel of retired judges, rotating weekly during sittings.

Then I'd propose that all questions be written submissions to the Speaker for his/her sole discretion as to which is permitted to see the light of day. (A bit of an up-market QandA approach)

OT (and I'm told I'm rather good at that) I'd also suggest a form of 'secret ballot' for all parliamentary voting. MP's are always banging on about the unions over this, so why not provide each MP with yay/nay buttons to press, instead of the total waste of time Divisions seem to be? It could be hidden in a little box at each seat - reminiscent of the good old 'black ball' approach to club memberships when they actually used to signify something.

That would remove the power of the party to direct a member's vote, and would allow to the member what would basically be a conscience vote on every matter.


Anonymous said...

Further I guess one objection to my 'black box' might be that the Member is not visibly accountable for his vote on any matter.

I think I'd balance that against the farce of party line voting, and decide in favour of getting a somewhat more independent vote on any issue.

And besides, 'secret' is how we caste our votes in the first place, so why the need for open voting thereafter?


Anonymous said...

p.s. Sorry for spellos/typos. 4 a.m. start to a 'hard day at the office' is my only excuse.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi both

Evan,its interesting that the parties themselves are being driven to new preselection approaches as a way of countering electorate disillusion for those approaches actually favour the rep role.

Still, I agree with your general point. I guess that I would argue that it's also partly our own fault. Few challenge the corporatist jargon used about MP selection.

kvd, I have problems with your questions suggestion and with secret voting in parliament. The first would seem to be a denial of member freedom in just the way that the present system is. I want to expand member freedom, not limit it!

On the second, I actually want to know how my MP votes and why.

Anonymous said...


How your member votes and why is surely up to him, without reference to your approval or agreement? Except at the next ballot box. I would think you'd probably vote for an intelligent person able to bring a balanced view to the many issues placed before him, with access to information you may never have, on issues not even on the horizon when you cast your (secret) vote.

Thinking further on it, you yourself were part of departmental deliberations, the whole basis of which was that they were your considered unbiased opinions on issues as they arose. And yet those opinions were subject to the rule of government 'secrecy' in that nothing regarding the detail of your deliberations would be released for 30 years.

And yet you wish your member to be immediately, openly accountable on a day to day basis for every decision?

There's are disconnect in there somewhere - is my polite response.


Anonymous said...


Just to record it, because it strikes me as relevant to this openness and accountability issue.

Driving this morning, I listened to the NSW Minister for Transport phone in to Ray Hadley on 2GB to explain the rail trackwork maintenance schedule for the rugby league grand final Sunday.

(It seems a particular line into somewhere in Sydney's north west will be closed from 10 p.m. that night, the timing rejigged to allow for the supporters to get home- and Hadley had been going on about it. And then the Minister phoned!)

Hadley suggested that 11 p.m. was more appropriate. The minister screwed up her courage and suggested that the plans were adequate, allowing reasonable time. Hadley disagreed, in a manner which 'invited' the minister to reconsider.

Personally I found the whole concept of a minister of the Crown being quizzed in such a fashion in such an arena to be quite demeaning.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd. I don't accept the comparison because the roles are different.

I believe that official advice to Government needs a degree of protection because that is necessary to make the system work. I believe that public voting in Parliament is necessary for the same reason.

There are circumstances where a secret vote in Parliament can be helpful such as election of officials. I have no problems with confidentiality of party room discussions. But when it comes to actual debate and voting on legislation, then I want to know for present and future historical reasons.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough Jim. And I must confess to being a bit contrary with my comments, just to see where the conversation might go.

But on the point of better representation, free of party dictates, I dunno how you could ever achieve that with open voting.


Jim Belshaw said...

I don't think that I'm arguing total freedom from party constraints, kvd. I don't think that that's possible nor even desirable. I am arguing for a rethink on the role of MPs, a correction too often assumptions about role built into current discussions.

Anonymous said...

I guess what hit home to me were the comments referenced in your "Samara" link re the general impotence and frustration of the retired MPs. Largely laid at the feet of the party machine and its control/influence upon what they considered to be their duty/role.


Jim Belshaw said...

Same reaction, kvd. Just plain depressing. The party machines know that something is wrong, experiments with new types of preselections are one example, but neither the parliamentary nor organisational wings can really address the problem.

I fear that you may have triggered another post!