My experience as an adviser to Peter Andren – perhaps the modern-day first wave of non-Party MPs arriving in Canberra – suggests that Labor’s planned cuts to independents would be a backward step for our democracy. It would be a serious blow to the more collaborative approach to politics that many Australians have been yearning for.
I had the privilege of serving as an electoral officer and eventually as Chief of Staff for Peter from 1996, when he was first elected, until 2001. As an independent member of Calare in mid-west New South Wales, he won widespread respect. His 11 years in Parliament.
Peter tragically passed away in 2007 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. If he were still with us today, I’m sure he sympathizes with the government’s desire to rein in the rising costs of running our federal parliament, which now costs taxpayers $1 billion (including lawmakers and staff) every year. spends more than For the latest budget.
But I am also sure that the way independent parliamentarians are being forced to bear a disproportionate share of these savings – and in particular the government’s apparent failure to understand the workload of independent parliamentarians, he will be concerned.
A freelance workload is fundamentally different
Serving as an independent parliamentarian is fundamentally different from being elected as a member of a major political party. This requires substantially different levels of support. Anthony Albanese and Peter Andren may have entered parliament at the same time – when John Howard took power in 1996 – but their experiences as MPs could not have been more different.
For starters, every independent parliamentarian is required to make his position on every piece of legislation, amendment, division, motion and matter of public importance and every report to be tabled in Parliament.
Prominent party backbenchers, in contrast, generally have the luxury of relying on policy, legislative and strategic advice provided by their party machines.
They do not need to put equal effort in the day-to-day working of Parliament. Their ministers or shadow ministers and their offices prepare standardized briefings, parliamentary and media speaking points. Party backbenchers rely on these and are expected to follow them.
During Peter’s time in parliament, it was common for members of both major parties to ask him privately if they were voting to follow instructions from their party whips.
During the last Parliament, according to recent media reports, two senior advisors, two junior advisors and four election staff were allotted to each independent MP.
The increase in numbers prior to 2019 recognized the complexity of dealing with the full suite of legislation while meeting the needs of local constituents through significant pastoral and advocacy work taking place in MPs’ electoral offices.
This has been compared to a typical party backbencher, entitled to four electoral staff, most of whom are located in electoral offices rather than in the Parliament House.
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a significant cut
Labor’s proposal would see the staff profile of each independent as something that Peter Andren’s complement was more than 20 years ago – one consultant and four voter staff due to Calare’s large geographic size.
In other words, Labor is proposing a 75% cut in the high-level staff of independent lawmakers. These are people who often hold degrees in law, politics, economics, finance, public policy, communications and public relations and provide significant support to lawmakers.
Tracking changes in the legislative workload of Parliament over the past 25 years is difficult from the available data.
But the following figures for the House of Representatives give a sense of the enormous task that the new wave of independents is likely to face:
Average number of bills to be considered each year 1996–2021: 206
Average number of sittings 1996-2021: 850 hours
Average number of divisions from 1996 to 2021: 168
2019-22 Number of Bills introduced during Parliament: 484
No. of Bills considered in detail during Parliament 2019-22: 89
Government amendments introduced during Parliament 2019-22: 1189
Opposition and Non-Aligned Amendments were introduced during the Parliament of 2019-22: 366.
Independent senators in the current parliament will face an even heavier workload than their colleagues in the House of Representatives. This is because the balance of power sees its committees more active and influential, while controversial bills and amendments are often debated line-by-line.
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When I worked for Peter, our resources were insufficient to manage both his electorate and parliamentary duties.
We made an average of about 6,000 constituent inquiries each year – a number that is probably now too high for many independent lawmakers given the advent of mobile phones and social media.
I remember the enormous challenges I faced as Peter’s Chief of Staff, including:
Trying to familiarize yourself with all laws and policy matters that are relevant to your voters
Keeping up with late night parliamentary debates and divisions
support the work of his committee
Preparing speeches, questions, letters, bills, media releases and dealing with consequent inquiries
Manage your dedicated team of election staff and volunteers and
Advising on component matters, which can be very complex and time consuming.
It was a challenging, engaging, exciting and rewarding job, but not one you could do well without countless hours of unpaid overtime.
It is reported that the government expects independent parliamentarians to draw more on the services of their own electoral staff and the parliamentary library, thereby increasing funding.
The Parliamentary Library is a wonderful resource, home to excellent researchers with expertise in most policy areas. We paid great attention to its services and the services of the clerks of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
But these ordinary parliamentary services, while important, are no substitute for each independent MP given his intrinsic ability to participate fully and effectively as “legislators” in the true sense of the word.
Whether independents have a balance of power in the House or Senate, the care they take in reviewing laws and amendments improves the quality of our democracy.
Time and again in recent years, the painstaking work of Senate committees and independent senators has delivered better legislation.
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With the budget deficit now so large, there may be a case for reducing the advisory staff of independent lawmakers and senators somewhat.
But any decision must be based on evidence of the level of support required. That evidence should be scrutinized by an independent review that consults MPs of all persuasion and ensures that savings are shared across Parliament.
There may also be the ability to gain efficiency by centralizing routine aspects of policy, legislative and procedural advice available to independents, while ensuring that each MP maintains sufficient internal capacity to perform his legislative duties.
Once a new resource level is in place, their continuous adequacy should be reviewed every three years.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of or on behalf of the University of Sydney.