In whose interest do they act? The Role of Politicians within the Australian context
Well, what a week we observed recently on the national political stage? Actors (AKA politicians) come and go, but the week before last really brought home the vagaries of the Australian political scene.
Our changes of government are not accompanied by a military coup, so I figure this must mean we live in a democracy. However, perhaps very naively many of us expect that when we vote in a federal election we expect the winning party to elect the prime minister and we, the electorate will be governed by the party voted in by the majority of the voters AND the prime minister voted in by the party, for a period of three years – not so.
But that is not all we expect. We also believe that our elected representative, be it State or Federal will act in accordance with the issues raised by us and of concern to us – not so.
The recent Federal fiasco would raise in the mind of intelligent people the vexed question of who a politician acts for – the Parliament, the Party, the People or themselves.
So what is the role of a politician? According to Information Sheet 15 published by the Parliament of Australia a member of Parliament is considered to have three roles, “that of parliamentarian, constituency representative, and party member.” So how does a member reconcile those roles when there may be conflict arising out of what the constituents want, that is the people who voted the member into Parliament, and what the Party policy is and what is for the good of the greater number? Some might say that they, the politicians, don’t reconcile the three roles and therefore someone “misses out”. It would not be surprising to find that it is the constituents who may well be the losers in any conflict. In addressing this question Furse-Roberts cites Edmund Burke – the 18th century Whig – who believed that
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests … Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.
But is it possible for Members of Parliament to understand what the needs, and concerns, of their constituents are and reconcile them to those of their Party as well as taking a Utilitarian approach? Or is it perhaps easier for an Independent Member of Parliament to represent their electorate, without the constraints of Party endorsement.
However, according to Information Sheet 15 (mentioned above),
It is the constituents who pass judgment on the performance of Members of Parliament at each election. Members must prove themselves fit for the task of being their parliamentary representative. All Members who wish to make a long-term commitment to improving the governance of Australia need to be dedicated to serving the interests of their electorates and proving themselves worthy of re-election
Well, that part appears to be pretty straight-forward, the elected member is there to represent their constituents!
But whether we believe in Burke’s theory of Parliament, our own observation of politicians over the years, or even the view expressed in the above Information Sheet it is of interest to know how politicians actually find out what concerns their constituents. In other words what interaction does a politician have with the voters in their electorate?
In my last electorate I never had cause to contact my Federal Member so I can’t comment on their interaction with those of us who resided in their electorate. However, I certainly contacted my State Member on a number of occasions, inevitably on issues relating to a particular mode of public transport. And dare I say through the Member’s intervention and a concerted effort on the part of those in the electorate the matter was eventually resolved with the State Government agreeing to change the fare structure to our great delight and satisfaction and in the financial interests of all parents/grandparents/carers of school children in those electorates.
My previous State Member was, and is, an Independent. He was readily contactable through his office staff who always responded promptly with the required information and support. The Member had a regular newsletter, regular public meetings and an Open Door policy – not to mention the success already referred to.
The State Member (not an Independent) in the adjoining electorate was also readily available and supportive - the particular mode of public transport also traversed his electorate. In all the years I lived in that electorate I not only felt that my concerns were listened to, they were acted upon by both my own Member and the Member in the adjoining electorate.
So what does all this mean? Should elected representatives, be they Federal or State be readily available to those in their electorate and if so how available should they be? No-one expects a political representative to be available 24/7 but how do they find out what is of concern to the good citizens they represent and what steps are they prepared to take to represent those views in Parliament? Perhaps irrespective of where we live, we need to ask our elected representatives who they believe they represent, the Parliament, the Party, the People or themselves. However, that question is really a standard multiple choice format and we all know with multiple choice – there can only be one right answer!
 QUANDRANT ONLINE, July 2018