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Specialities of the house: an investigation into subject specialisation amongst Australian Senators and Members of the House of Representatives

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An Investigation Into Subject Specialisation Amongst Australian Senators and Members of the House of Representatives

Geoffrey Skene

A joint publication by the Department of the Parliamentary Library and the Australasian Political Studies Association



An Investigation Into Subject Specialisation

r Amongst Australian Senators and Members

of the House of Representatives

Geoffrey Skene Parliamentary Political Science Fellow 1984-85

A joint publication by the Department of the Parliamentary Library and the Australasian Political Studies Association

ISSN 0 157 6860

ISBN 0 642 14248 3

© Commonwealth of Australia 1988

Except to the extent of the uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the author.

The views in this paper are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Parliamentary Library or the Australasian Political Studies Association.

Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, December 1988.




This paper has been written to fulfil the requirement made of the Parliamentary

Political Science Fellow to undertake research on parliament which might be of interest to

members and use to the parliament generally. In addition to this work, the Fellow is required

to prepare answers to members' request.a for information on particular topics, usually of a

political science nature. Whilst holding the Fellowship in 1984-85 I worked alongside

members of the Law and Government Group of the Legislative Research Service, to whom I

offer my thanks for guidance in the ways of parliament and the nature of the product required

by its members. I also wish to thank Dr George Webb and Mrs Dorothy Bennett who were

my immediate supervisors whilst holding the Fellowship. The Parliamentary Librarian, Mr

Hillas Maclean, encouraged my work and made available to me all the resources of the library,

for which I am grateful.

I am indebted to the fifty or so members of the parliament who gave their time to

answer my questions. Without their honest responses my aim to produce an empirical study

of an aspect of Australian legislative behaviour would not have been possible. In the early

1970s David Butler described Australian politics as an 'unworked lode', a description of

parliamentary studies in this country which remains apt. It is my hope that this paper may

make a small contribution to filling that gap and, of course, I am responsible for any errors or

omissions it contains.

November 1988



People often say that parliament is in decline and that factors such as the size and

complexity of government, the level of bureaucratic involvement in policy-making, and the

apparent inability of ministers to exert their influence in their departments have contributed

to a decline in the viability of the Westminster model of parliamentary government. To speak

of the challenges facing legislative bodies from a significant increase in information and a

political agenda which is becoming increasingly complex would be nothing new to

parliamentarians. The history of this century can be characterised as one of an increasing

division of labour in all aspects of human endeavour. We have seen the growth of an entirely

new industry concerned with the acquisition of knowledge and its storage and use. This has

placed great strains on parliaments and raised fundamental questions about their viability

and relevance. Does parliament have a role to play at all in a policy-making environment

characterised by specialised knowledge and technical expertise? Is it parliament's

responsibility to attempt to match the considerable knowledge of the executive and, if it is,

how should it do so?

A cursory examination of some western parliaments shows that, as with the executive

branch of government, legislatures too are turning to some kind of division of labour -specialisation of one form or another - in order to cope with these problems. But is

specialisation the correct path to take? Is the acquisition of greater and more detailed

knowledge by MPs by whatever method sufficient to ensure that parliaments do not become

irrelevant in such times? In this paper we look at the reaction of the Commonwealth

parliament to the problem of information, in particular, the extent to which it too has

developed a system of subject specialisation amongst its membership.

The paper is divided into two parts. In the first we shall map out the territory we will

cross and consider how some of the major features of the parliamentary environment relate to

and underlie the aspects of legislative behaviour in which we are interested. After defining the

nature of specialisation, we will talk in a largely theoretical way about the relationships

between specialisation and the authority structure of parliament, specialisation and the nature

of representation in Australia, and specialisation and the theory of responsible government. In

the second part we will narrow the focus of investigation and look at both the form in which

specialisation presents itself and some of its immediate causes. This part reports the findings

of a series of forty-four interviews with members of the federal parliament carried out in 1985

while the author was the Parliamentary Political Science Fellow in the Department of the

Parliamentary Library. Readers interested in the pattern of specialisation which exists in the

parliament may wish to turn directly to this section. A note on the methodology of this study


and the interviews can be found at the end of the paper.


There are many kinds of specialists in politics. Some MPs specialise in the day-to-day

business of parliamentary procedure. There are many backbenchers whose major interest is

the party machinery. One study of legislative specialisation has suggested that legislators

may specialise in one or other of their many roles, as legislators or as representatives or as

party workers (Buchanan et al.: 1960). A small proportion of MPs interviewed for this study

considered their `specialisation' to be looking after their constituents, a role which necessitates

not only a breadth of knowledge but also unflagging energy and enthusiasm.

However, it is as specialists on particular subjects that the politicians of the thirty-third

Commonwealth parliament are of most interest to us. Most MPs have an awareness or

understanding of one or more of the many fields of inquiry to which the parliament turns its

attention. Whether it be education, or health, or taxation, or the-economy, there •will be at

least one small group of parliamentarians, and often many more, who are knowledgeable in

the area and who can use that knowledge to-contribute to discussion and debate as the need

arises. They are subject specialists. They may well add their voices to debates on other topics

and, away from the public eye, know enough about most issues to give an opinion or argue for

a constituent but, in addition to these skills, which are almost the badge of office of the

politician, the specialist MP tries to retain a more detailed and relevant knowledge in order to 0 be an effective persuader and opinion leader, if not a policy-maker, in his party or parliament itself.

Earlier studies of Iegislative specialisation indicate a variety of approaches to the

subject. The `classic' examination by Buchanan, Eulau, Ferguson, and Wahlke defines it as `a

process by which an individual legislator brings to the group's deliberation the product of his

personal competence in a subject-matter field' (1960: 649). The implication is of

knowledgeable individuals using their expertise impartially and altruistically for the good of

the legislature and society. To use more recent terminology, they are information gatekeepers,

translating technical minutiae into meaningful concepts for their colleagues. `Thus they help

others distinguish "reality" or "technical knowledge" from "values", "preferences", or

"political knowledge" in areas unfamiliar to them. In recompense for their efforts they are

given the confidence of their fellows...they have power' (Buchanan et al. 1960: 650). At

Westminster Muller conceives of specialisation as an individualistic choice of subject interest

but this expertise rarely translates into substantial influence in other areas and, indeed, the

trade union MPs he studied are loathe to get involved in policy areas and parliamentary


debate beyond that (Muller 1972). For Stephens, specialisation in the Australian Senate is

both an institutional and individual phenomenon. There is a division of labour within the

parliament for the purely rational purposes of achieving organisational goals: `specialisation

is an instance of division of labour - a device to allocate work to increase the efficiency of the

collectivity' and, individually, senators are forced to specialise because of a continually

increasing mass of work (1975: 5).

In an excellent study of specialisation in the British House of Commons, which goes

beyond mere description of the workings of parliament to a greater theoretical and empirical

understanding of legislative behaviour (one of the first books to attempt this in a

Westminster-style parliament), David Judge defines the phenomenon as `the extent to which

individual backbenchers divide their activity and attention unevenly amongst the diverse

subject areas confronting parliament (i.e. informal specialisation) and the extent to which the

House as a corporate body divides its labour through committees (formal specialisation)'

(1981: 6). The focus of our study is on the former - informal specialisation - because much has

already been written on the latter in Australia. Committees are a perennial favourite of

parliament-watchers (Aldons 1985, 1987; Crisp 1983; Emy 1978; Indyk 1980; Solomon 1978,

1986; Weller 1979). Similarly little attention will be given to the personal attributes and

experiences of MPs as an explanation for why they chose to specialise because this has been

studied by Stephens in his earlier article (1975).

It is not easy to define a subject specialist. Is it someone with a good knowledge of two

or three subjects, or perhaps five or six? Perhaps the number is irrelevant, given the

differences in aptitude and application amongst the respondents. When does a specialist

become a generalist? And having determined that a certain proportion falls within an

acceptable definition of `specialist', how are we to decide if the parliament exhibits a high or

low level of specialisation overall? The question of definition dogs the researcher. What is the

MP to make of the interviewer who asks the value of an ill-defined subject such as

specialisation to attaining high office? For many MPs specialisation means only restricting

one's interests to make do in a maelstrom of information and an unremitting work schedule.

Oh yes, I focus on just three or four topics because nobody can keep tabs on everything that goes on here.

For others it is a conscious and strategic policy to achieve particular goals.

I chose housing because there are a lot of high rise flats in my electorate and I think its an issue that affects a great many people - first homes, interest rates, that sort of thing.


Some are more self-effacing. A National Party MP, for example, opined:

I am an expert to the extent that I know more about my subject than anyone else around here.

It is not possible to deal adequately with all these considerations but there are ways of

approaching them. First, we are -not interested in expertise. Judge makes a number of

distinctions between subject specialisation and expertise which, for the most part, concern the

nature of an MP's knowledge and how it is put to use (1981: 110-116). It is possible, for

example, for an expert in some field to be recruited to parliament but to specialise in quite

unrelated fields. Parliamentarians do not (usually) have the kind of expertise we might

associate with a research ' scientist who has concentrated on a narrow range of problems over a

period of years, unless they bring it with them, nor would we expect them to. MPs are not in

the business of pure research, of revealing new knowledge and passing it from one to another,

but they are interested in the passage and revelation of existing knowledge, and of the

transformation of that knowledge into relevant and workable information - information th,t

does things; solves problems, and allocates power. It is important to be clear that our

specialists are not necessarily experts and that even within the group we might label as

`specialists' there will be a number who are really only issue specialists and not subject

specialists at all.' Subject specialisation is of a transitory nature. While the expert may

retain his knowledge over an extended period, the specialist's interests may be temporary,

even fleeting, and will change over time as the political spotlight moves to new areas. We

cannot hope to compare the relative levels of expertise within the parliament and we may say

only that, in 1984, one concentrated his attention more than another. This study merely cuts

a slice through the behaviour it seeks to understand but, for reasons which will become more

apparent as we proceed, there is every likelihood its findings will be true of the parliament at

other times.

Also, while it is difficult for the researcher to judge the breadth of the subjects an MP

might name and this makes the job of comparing the number of subjects with any other

respondent hard, there is a common language spoken by MPs to describe their interests which

is closely tied to the names of government departments and portfolios. It is more likely, for

example, that parliamentarians will profess an interest in resources and energy than, say, oil

1These MPs are those whose knowledge of a subject, though deep and well-informed, is only retained so long as it meets the MP's immediate goals or a particular issue of political importance. It is difficult not to confuse them with the subject specialists and produce an inflated picture of the extent of subject specialisation in the Australian parliament. Stephens uses the notions of subject and issue specialist interchangeably, a convention which will be followed here. See (1975: 16).


exploration or gold prices.

On the evidence of the members themselves, parliament appears to be a highly

specialised organisation. Two thirds of those interviewed for this study claimed to be

specialists, a proportion similar to that discovered by Whip (62 per cent of her survey

considered themselves specialists in one to three areas (1977: 295). These self-assessment

figures equate roughly with those of Buchanan in the United States (1960: 639) and Kornberg

in Canada (Kornberg and Mishler, 1976). Although Judge's self-assessment findings are

similar (1981: 99), his objective empirical observations are quite the reverse. The overall

degree of specialisation of the Commons is low for reasons which should be equally relevant in

Australia. The likelihood of such a discrepancy causes us to look not just at the members'

subjective account but also at objective measures of specialisation. These measures compare

respondents interests across a pre-determined and uniformly applied list of subjects.

Respondents can be assessed as specialists according to their position on the objective

measures as well as their answers to key questions. This allows us to measure not only

individual specialisations but also the level of specialisation of the parliament as a whole._As

the methodology of this index is not without its difficulties, we have utilised a second and

different measure to be sure of our findings. For reasons that will be explained in the

analytical section below and to simplify matters for this paper, the measure used is an index

of specialisation based on contributions to parliamentary questions and debate.


There are a number of factors we might expect to contribute to a low level of

specialisation in parliamentary organisations. One of these is the diversity of tasks which

members of parliament perform, requiring a broad range of interests and skills. Even if

specialisation of subject interest is employed as a strategy to cope with constantly changing

issues on the political agenda, there are still many aspects of the role of an MP which remain

outside the impact of such a strategy. Specialisation may help in dealing with the demand for

input to policy articulation and formation; it helps much less in meeting electorate demands,

performing party roles, guiding factional fortunes, door knocking and so on.

In the academic literature on the role of the legislature in the political system there has

been a tendency to simplify matters into a dichotomy of lawmaking and representation. It

should be remembered, however, that - in addition to. formulating broad policy and

representing the public, legislatures also adjudicate conflicts within society, integrate

conflicting values and goals, set standards for debate and behaviour in society, link electors to

their government and vice versa, legitimise governmental policies, and so on (Blondel 1973;


Hirsch and Hancock 1971; Kornberg 1973; Loewenberg 1971; Loewenberg and Patterson 1979;

Mezey 1979; Olson 1980). Such systemic functions for the maintenance of the polity or human

societies are not conducive to the development of specialisation. Thus, the role of the

parliamentarian is by its very nature complex and not as immediately amenable to

specialisation as might be, for example, the role of a university professor or public official.

Specialisation by subject is an optional extra that does not come with the standard model.

The extent to which it is used is likely to depend on the stress laid by the member on

particular aspects of the job; the more he is interested in the legislative or policy making

aspects, the more likely it will be that specialisation is an attractive strategy. The more stress

is laid on the representative aspects, the less room there will be for such pursuits. It seems

plausible to suggest, then, that the marginality of the member's seat will compound-this. The

MP whose hold in parliament is at best tenuous must devote more of his time to

representative duties than legislative ones. Thus, the more marginal the seat, the greater are

the pressures towards generalisation. Specialisation is not a strategy employed in all facets of

the parliamentarian's work. The extent to which it is used is likely to depend on the

importance attached to the legislative aspect of the role relative to the other aspects.

The representative nature of the job is a significant force for generalisation, and we shall

examine this matter in detail below. Judge claims legislative behaviour is `influenced by the

distribution of representative role orientations amongst [the parliamentary] membership, and

concomitantly by the extent to which certain notions of representation predominate in the

political culture generally' (1981: 44). Even if the politician would like to specialise in a

narrow area of policy, he or she is constantly brought back to reality by the diversity and

magnitude of demands for representation in one form or another. The MP must generalise in

order to deal adequately with these demands.

The Structure of Authority Within the Parliamentary System

In our search for an understanding of this phenomenon we turn first to the structure of

authority within the parliamentary system. In theory members of legislatures are formally

equal to one another and derive their authority and legitimacy from their claim to represent

other members of the society of which they are a part (Loewenberg 1971: 3). As the inheritors

of the liberal democratic credo that one person's opinion is of no greater value than another's

and as representatives of electorates of roughly equal proportions, members of legislatures are

supposedly equal and the authority system within the legislature is not developed in an

hierarchical fashion. In this regard the legislature is theoretically set apart from other formal

organisations characterised by relationships of authority and subordination (Blau and Scott


1963; Etzioni 1964; Simon 1957) including the executive and administrative elements of the

constitution. While this theoretical equality may be mirrored to some extent in American

congressional style legislatures (Loewenberg and Patterson 1979: 164), in parliamentary

systems modelled on Westminster this is rarely the case. The hierarchical authority system

within the executive branch, which allocates authority between ministers and public officials,

intrudes into parliament through the presence of the political executive. The mixing of the

executive and representative functions and the almost complete domination of the former over

the latter by virtue of party discipline causes, authority in the parliament to move

hierarchically for all practical purposes. Party discipline reinforces the authority of party

leaders and members of the cabinet by ensuring security of ministerial tenure. Authority in

parliament, therefore, is ultimately a function of position within various external hierarchies,

either the ruling party (by holding a leadership position or by seniority) or the executive

branch (by appointment as a minister) rather than membership of parliament itself. The

distinctive feature of Westminster parliaments `is that the major roles have become conjoined

in a centralised hierarchy with executive, majority party, and house leaderships coterminously

located in the office of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet' (Judge 1981: 11). The leadership

of the ruling party is able to exert a substantial degree of control-over developments within

the legislative environment, by virtue of its position at the top of the executive hierarchy, the

presence of the executive within the legislature, and the discipline it exerts over its

parliamentary followers.

The control the ruling party holds over this hierarchical structure of authority is one of

the most important factors in the development of a division of labour within parliament.

Because the executive is reluctant to allow the development of alternative bases of power, it

rejects the claim from the backbenches that authority might emanate from expertise. Thus

the norm of specialisation - the notion that specialisation is a good thing with positive

benefits for the MP - is conspicuously absent from the Commonwealth parliament. This does

not preclude the executive from claiming its authority stems in part from its monopoly over

the specialised knowledge of the bureaucracy. Judge's perceptive summary of the

parliamentary authority structure is worth quoting in full:

...the continued dominance of the executive is dependent upon the maintenance of the rights stemming from hierarchy over those derived from specialisation. In this respect modern executives have found the convention of ministerial reponsibility to be an invaluable aid. Collective responsibility has been invoked both to deny the House vital information about executive actions and, perhaps more importantly, to enforce discipline within the majority party on those votes that the executive considers to be of overriding importance... Individual ministerial responsibility has served in turn to differentiate ministers, as the heads of departments with access to the bureaucracy's repositories of information and expertise, from backbenchers who have no such access other than through the intermediary of the minister. In this


way executive leadership in the Commons has a claim to be authoritative on at least

two counts; first, in that it is `authorised' in normal circumstances by a majority of backbenchers voting in its support; and second, in that it draws upon the `authoritative' expertise of the bureaucracy and major sectional interests within society. This claim to authority effectively differentiates executive from non-executive Members, and forms the basis of a hierarchy of roles within the House. Thus, in being both `in and of' the Commons the government provides the legislature with centralised leadership founded upon a hierarchical structure (1981: 11).

In those legislatures where the executive is not directly represented, specialisation and

expertise are more highly valued both for advancement and decision-making. In the U.S.

Congress decisions are `primarily the decisions of specialists (primary decision-makers) and

the collective decisions (i.e. votes) are the result of what we might call varying coalitions of

specialists and non-specialists' (Grant 1973: 125). Specialisation is an important norm, both

to cope with increasingly more complex legislation and to ensure congressmen and women get

their fair share of speaking opportunities (Mathews 1960: 95-97). Specialists gain respect in

the Congress. and are able to extend their influence into areas beyond their special competence

(Grant 1973: 144). By contrast, the expectation that members will follow their leaders and

party is largely absent from this legislature (Olson 1980: 25).

Committees as a Division of Labour

The governing party denies the value of expertise as a basis for authority by repudiating

• the notion that specialisation leads to advancement within the party, and by prohibiting the

institutionalisation of specialisation in parliamentary committees. The ambitious

backbencher seeking a position in the ministry can use a variety of potential vehicles to get

there. Hard work ., political nous, a demonstrated ability to perform in the chamber and party loyalty are the most significant of these. Nevertheless the absence of specialisation as a

parliamentary norm ensures that knowledge and expertise does not of itself guarantee

preferment. Those in our sample who believed in the value of specialisation as a prerequisite

for elevation to the ministry were small in number. Similarly, Weller and Grattan found

specialisation absent from the behaviour and norms of the ministers they interviewed in 1981,

most believing the ideal minister to be a competent generalist with a degree of political nous,

much as the traditional Westminster model would have it (1981: 52).

The diminished value of specialisation in the Australian parliament is also demonstrated

by the absence of a thorough-going system of committees. The committee is the most

common form of the division of labour in the world's legislatures. Of the 83 legislatures listed

in Parliaments of the World , 81 have committees (1986: 626). Committees can perform some


functions and tasks better than the plenary or functions deemed unsuited to it. They are

potentially more competent than plenary arenas in each phase of the policy-making process.

Their expertise increases the likelihood of consultation with the legislature when policies are

being drawn up by executive agencies; their small size and privacy make for effective

bargaining and deliberation; and their understanding of what officials are doing makes them

suitable vehicles for overseeing governmental activities. Committees permit legislatures to

develop expertise. `By dividing the work of the legislature into substantive policy areas and by

placing a committee in charge of each area a structure is created that can generate legislative

specialisation across the full array of policy areas' (Mezey 1979: 54).

As Olson points out, however, the internal organisation of the legislature by political

parties usually excludes its organisation by committees. These forms of organisation may be

contradictory and even mutually exclusive, the importance of each being inversely

proportional to that of the other. Where committees are strong, parties are likely to be weak

and vice versa. This is_ illustrated by reference to the committees of the United States

Congress which are numerous, well organised, and exercise critical leadership over bills, with

party control a less salient factor in most decisions over legislation (Olson 1980: 269). In

parliaments dominated by the executive and subject to party discipline, this situation is

reversed. 2 Parliamentary committees in Australia have never exercised a great deal of

influence over legislation or emerged as autonomous centres of power because the important

legislative decisions are made inside the parties represented in the legislature. The parties

have further strengthened their position by ensuring very little legislation is referred to

committees for consideration and allowing them to play little more than an advisory role in

the process of policy-making.3

Although the number of committees in the parliament sounds impressive and might be

thought to indicate an effective `system', the reality does not match up to the image. One

third of the 49 committees of the thirty-third parliament (1983-84) were concerned with

internal matters of procedure and parliamentary administration (Aldons 1985: 336).

Committees cannot get their teeth into currently contentious matters because the government

2 For Canada see Campbell (1977: 138); Jackson and Atkinson (1980: 130-54). For the British

House of Commons see Drewry (1985). For New Zealand see Jackson (1987: 113-132) and Skene (1987: 72-88). For a general discussion of committees in legislatures see Lees and Shaw (1979), in particular Shaw's wide-ranging conclusion.

3 The leadership of both major parties has been willing to allow for the division of labour where it can

be accommodated and controlled within the party. The parties devolve into committees of their members alone on a regular basis and the cabinet is similarly divided.


will not refer legislation to them. In the seven years from 1978 to 1984 Senate committees

were referred less than a dozen bills. In the late seventies the House of Representatives

experimented with legislation committees but did not make them a permanent part of the

work of parliament. From 1978 to 1980, thirteen bills were referred; an average of 105

minutes was spent on each bill in committee and 48 minutes when the bills were reported. The

Senate has two committees with legislative functions, the Standing Committee on Regulations

and Ordinances and the Scrutiny of Bills committee, which assess the implications of bills and

delegated legislation for civil liberties and the rights of individuals. They have contributed to

a general improvement in the attitudes of the departments in these areas (Solomon 1986: 73)

but they cannot be considered major legislative committees.4

The nearest approximation to a system of committees and the most well known are the

eight general purpose committees of the Senate, formed in 1970 at the urging of Senate staff

and the Labor opposition in the Senate. In general these committees, the four House standing

committees, and four joint committees are concerned with what Aldons calls non-legislati*e

policy' (1985: 339-40),-general investigations of public policy issues. Select committees, when

they are formed, do a similar job but are wound down when they have completed their work.

These investigations do permit MPs to work up a good knowledge of a particular subject.

Recent committees have looked at accommodation for the aged, electricity supply in south

west Tasmania, and funding for the arts among other things but their investigations may take

months, even years, to complete and the committees lack the political clout necessary to

prompt the government to act on their recommendations. Aldons has demonstrated that

committee investigations are primarily in the functional areas of foreign affairs and defence

(one third of all reports between 1978-84), transport and communications and industry policy

and development, perhaps reflecting the `national' quality of such matters in a federation. Far

less attention has been paid to functions such as education, health, social services and welfare

(1985: 347-351). Ruling parties of both political persuasions have steadfastly refused to

establish committees responsible for economic affairs, taxation, and fiscal policy; significant

omissions, given that modern governments stake their claim to legitimacy largely on the basis

4 The House of Representatives Procedure Committee recommended the re-introduction of legislation committees in 1986, specifically to bring a degree of expertise to legislation of increasing complexity' but this was not followed up by the government. See House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure, Second Report , Days and Hours of Sitting and the Effective Use of the Time of the House, May 1986, p.29.


of their management of the economy. Oversight of the administration and governmental

efficiency is similarly underrepresented as a committee function with only four committees

engaged in this work. Nor can the Estimates committees be said to constitute an effective

evaluation of departmental estimates because they are part-time and temporary bodies with

inadequate resources to match the technical expertise of the public officials they attempt to


Committee Staff ,

The reluctance to institutionalise a division of labour is also evidenced by the paucity of

specialised assistance and staff support given to the existing committees. Committees vary

little in their staff structure and how labour is divided between employees. Each of the general

purpose committees has a staff of three or four although two, the Public Accounts Committee

and the Joint Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, have more depending on the number of

sub-committees formed. The staff of the Estimates Committees are usually drawn from the

staff of the general committees at estimates time. The staff are not hired as specialists. Both

the Senate and House departments employ generalists who can be moved through all phases of

departmental activity, not just committee work. Members tend to believe staff have a greater

knowledge than they themselves possess (Skene 1983: 23). MPs are given confidence through

the mere presence of staff, particularly on Estimates committees where they must face a

battery of departmental officers so it would be no surprise if they tended to inflate the staff's


What kind of expertise do staff bring to the job? Robert Dahl's description of

congressional foreign policy committees in the 1950s, when those committees employed only

four people, approximates the Australian experience. The staffer, he says, `ought not to be so

much an expert research man as an `expert on experts'. It should be his function to help the

members evaluate the testimony and background of `expert' witnesses from the public and

from the executive branch. He should be less the man who answers questions than the man

who knows what questions need to be answered' (1950: 154). Yet some adverse effects do

5 In September 1987 the Labor government agreed to remodel some of the Senate committees and create more committees in the House of Representatives along similar lines. The Senate Estimates committees have been re-established as separate committees and the size of committees increased. The new committees are to operate largely within the resource constraints of the previous system. A judgement as to the success of the committees cannot be made at this stage but there is nothing in the

new structure to suggest any alteration of the particular political and structural constraints which surround the extant committees.


flow from lack of expertise. Committees without officers with relevant subject expertise (the

Senate's Constitutional and Legal Affairs committee, for example, employs a lawyer) can

struggle at the outset to develop policy awareness while staff gain an affinity with the subject

matter or forge contacts with particular issue networks. Thus far the solution has been to hire

consultants but this also presents special problems. In both departments it is the committee

secretary who prepares the staff budget and many of them are wary of employing external

advisers. Consultants threaten their influence over committee activites, concentrate the

members' attention on problems staff perceive as overly specialised, are unskilled in the ways

of public servants and damage established information networks. They produce reports which

are too `academic' and, lacking a constituency, have, according to staff, undue influence on

deciding the public interest (Skene 1983: 24).

The failure to devolve significant levels of authority to committees also stems in part

from the representational character of the parliamentary institution and particular notions of

representation which arewidely held in the parliament and the electorate. One of these is that

the chambers, theoretically made-up of representatives- from all groups and sections of society,

should be `the grand inquest of the nation'. Many MPs are reluctant to make any change

which detracts from the centrality of the chamber (see, for example, the dissenting report of

Mr E. Lindsay in the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure, Second

Report, 1986: 59; and the committee's reluctance to remove from the chamber any debate on

a bill which might consider its general principles: 30). The on-going argument over the

reading of speeches reflects a deep-rooted fear that the chamber's primacy as a debating forum

may be undermined. The importance of representation in relation to the work of parliament

demands that it be considered when examining parliamentary specialisation.

Representation and Specialisation

Representation in Australia occurs primarily in party terms. The willingness of voters

to align themselves with one party rather than another is widely recognised (Aitkin 1982).

Identification with a party not only has a strong effect on voting choice, it also underlies

voters' attitudes to the nature of their representation. Where voters once elected individuals

to represent the interests of their community, they now elect organised teams to govern at the

state or national level. They no longer seriously question the practice of parliamentary voting

along party lines, or the reluctance of politicians to speak out publicly when they disagree

with the party. Party identification permits a high level of ignorance of issues and political

leaders. In general voters neither know nor care about the representative style of their local

MP; the fortunes of the party are much more important. Although the electorate has become


more aware of politics and more active (Aitkin 1982), for most representation still means little

more than voting and a preference for one party over another.

At the national level the parties represent the political opinions of the electorate. They

stand for alternative approaches to government, for broadly drawn images of where society is

headed, for strategies and ideas about the allocation of public resources, economic

management, social reform, and so on. They aggregate political interests, draw together and

synthesize currents of opinion and, through the accepted language of political discourse in

which they deal, reduce the options for public policies to manageable proportions. In a two

party system this usually leads to adversary politics where issues have but two sides, each

represented by one of the parties. At the constituency level, representation has a somewhat

diffr •t nt meaning. Here the MP looks more to the physical needs, interests and concerns of

his electorate than to its opinions. This commonly involves helping individual constituents in

their dealings with government and obtaining public goods and services for the electorate.

- For many MPs the desire to change policies at a national level, stemsfrom an aceumulation of

specific requests from the constituency. We may talk about representation, then, as being the

prerogative both of parties and individual MPs for it is possible to draw a rough line between

that which each represents, notwithstanding the fact that members of parliament are both

parliamentarians and party representatives.

The dominance of party representation raises important questions: what is the effect of

this form of representation on subject specialisation? Does the party model favour

specialisation and the division of labour or hinder it? Is this form of representation a useful

tool in the understanding of parliamentary information use and management? To answer

these questions we must consider party representation in more depth. Can it be said to

constitute a set of behaviours, attitudes, or approaches to representation which are at once

both recognisable and empirically verifiable? If, to be a party representative means different

things to different MPs, if its adherents share no common characteristics, then it will have

little practical impact on the nature of specialisation. To be of value party representation

must constitute a definite style.

Style refers to the manner in which the MP represents those for whom he speaks. The

dilemma of style is simple: is the representative to give effect to the expressed wishes of his

constituency (whether that be physically manifested or merely a particular group of

individuals) or to trust his own judgement and operate in what he considers to be their best

interests? Is the MP mandated by his electorate - a delegate - or independent of its claims - a

trustee? There are no readily discernible answers. As Pitkin puts it, `What is most striking


about the mandate-independence controversy is how long it has continued without coming

any nearer to a solution, despite the participation of many astute thinkers' (1967: 148). The

controversy sits at the- heart -of.representational. theory because it concerns that theory's

oldest problem: how to ensure an identity of interest between the represented and the

representative. To best represent the values, wishes, and demands of his electorate, is the

representative to be a delegate or a trustee?

Delegates and Trustees

The notion that representatives be independent of their electors was conceived by the

18th century Whig theorists. The Whig distrust of the electorate underlay the plea for

intelligent and enlightened representatives. What was best for electors would arise out of the

deliberation and debate of such minds. But it was imperative the representative be able to

act independently of those interests for whom he stood and he should have the freedom to act

in ways he considered good for them even if they disagreed. Not only this, Burke postulated

the true focus of the representative's endeavours as national rather than local. Ultimately it

was the obligation of all representatives to look not to those interests they supported but to

employ their judgement in the national interest. The representative who came to the debate

under the riding orders of a particular interest would prevent the discovery of the general


For Burke these interests were, as Pitkin puts it, unattached. That is to say they existed

independently of localities and the people in them. There was thus an agricultural interest, a

trading interest, a professional interest and so on, each of national dispersion and each with

representation in parliament. Through the representation of the agricultural interest in one

locality, the MP represented that interest in all localities (Pitkin 1967: 175-6). In this way,

because the interest represented by an MP in any one locality was of far greater importance

than the locality alone, it made perfect sense for the Burkean to pursue the interest of his

national constituency, even against his locality's will. The necessity of national policy making

became the justification for the independent deputy. In an oft-quoted passage Burke wrote,

Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole...(1969: 175).

This theory was of considerable importance because it wrenched representation away


from the simple notion of delegation which hitherto held sway (Birch 1971: 22-40). It received

its greatest impetus, however, from liberalism for only as an independent political actor could

the liberal representative ..modify his. opinions to obtain the national consensus. Although

utilitarianism posited the individual as the final arbiter of what might be in his interest, the

representative's wisdom and knowledge could be used to pursue the people's true interest in

the long term. Bentham, for example, favoured deputies acting to advance the general

interest over their constituencies' interests and provided a mechanism to deal with any

discrepancy; a deputy's vote might reflect his electors' will but he could promote the national

interest in his parliamentary speech if the two were contradictory. Although liberalism

democratised England and Australia through the nineteenth century, this occurred slowly and

incrementally. The liberals were as concerned as their Whig predecessors with government

getting into the wrong hands. J.S. Mill struggled with extending the suffrage to the ignorant

and poor and opted in the end for plural voting for the educated to counter the perceived

ill-effects of mass voting. Independence from the masses' directives was a safeguard against

the tyranny of the majority for both Mill and Bentham.

Mill's concern had implications for legislative specialisation and expertise in

government. He was prompted to demand that the writing and creation of legislation be in

the hands of specialists and that the role of the parliamentary representative be confined to

watching and publicising the actions of the government. He considered governing and

legislating to be special tasks requiring special skills. This he assigned to a Commission of

Codification which would draft legislation that parliament could either accept or reject but

not amend. Mill's ministers were to be politicians but they too would be surrounded by an

advisory council of experts. Bentham's solution was to build competence and expertise into

both the administration and the legislature, in the former case because he favoured good law,

and in the latter because, were any failings to become apparent in the government or

judiciary, the legislature would be required to step into the breach and put the matter to

rights (Rosen 1983: 168-82, 195-9).

In recent times the question of representational style has become the subject of empirical

investigation and speculation. In 1962 Whalke and his collaborators produced The Legislative

System which used emerging techniques in the social sciences to examine how modern

legislators went about their representative tasks. Role analysis, as used by Wahlke (and in

particular Eulau who wrote the chapter on representative roles), rested on the premise that

the adoption of roles by the politician explained much of his behaviour as a legislator and

representative. The study disentangled Burke's confusion of the focal and stylistic dimensions

of the representational role (1962: 269-72) believing his `linkage of a particular areal focus of


representation with a particular representational style.. .only a special case in a generic series

of empirically possible relationships...'(1962: 270). By focus Eulau referred to whom it is the

deputy believes he represents and by style the manner of that representation. The study

identified three dimensions of style (or role-orientations) which approximate the poles of the

mandate-independence spectrum, namely the delegate, the trustee, and the politico (more will

be said of the last of these below)(272-86).

The Legislative System was welcomed not just for its methodological purity. America

had a strong tradition of delegatory representation; it followed from the notion of popular

sovereignty, one of the principal supports of the political system, that the elected

representative should act as an agent for his constituency. In some states constituents even

supplied deputies with lists of instructions (Loewenberg & Patterson 1979: 179). Scholars

became worried, however, when studies of voting behaviour suggested those giving the

instructions might be ignorant of political issues and disdainful of their civic responsibilities

(Campbell et al. 1960; Converse 1964; Kinder 1982 Showell 1953; Wahlke 1971). There ww

thus a degree of relief when The Legislative System .and its successors showed a far greater

disposition towards the trustee style amongst legislators than was previously imagined - more

than half in each of the four states under examination (Wahlke 1962: 281; Davidson 1969:

117; Patterson, Hedlund, and Boynton 1975: 140-1).

The question arising out of all this is whether or not representative style has an effect on

the subject in which we are interested. Does being a delegate or a trustee predispose the

member of parliament to narrow or broaden the focus of her interest in some way? This is a

difficult question because as we shall see politicians are rarely in practice pure delegates or

pure trustees but converge on the area between these poles in order to satisfy the demands

made on them by a public unsure of the style it prefers.

For Judge the House of Commons trustee is a generalist and the delegate a specialist.

The trustee adopts a wide-ranging approach to politics since he is required to direct his

rational and deliberative mind to the entire spectrum of issues and choices facing the nation.

Free of any sectional interest he must consider the totality of national affairs, weigh the

arguments, and make a reasoned and informed choice. The delegate, on the other hand,

elected as the representative of a narrowly defined constituency and acting solely on its

instructions, has no cause to generalise. `It may be expected that the delegate will specialise in

the area of the interest of his constituents' (Judge 1981: 29). Of course common sense and

opinion polling tell us it is rare for a constituency to organise and voice its preferences and

even more s,o to be single-minded in the first place. Judge's logic demands we accept that


these prohibitions against the delegate style ensures trustees predominate with a consequent

lowering of the level of specialisation in the Commons. He concludes: `the more pronounced a

trustee style..., the lower the likelihood of specialisation; the greater the emphasis placed upon

a delegate style and_a specific focus the higher the expectation of a pronounced division of

labour' (1981: 44).

Lacking sufficient resources to determine the representative styles of British

parliamentarians, Judge attempts to test his hypothesis by looking for differences between

Labour and Conservative MPs on the assumption that Conservatives traditionally adopt the

trustee style and Labour MPs the delegate style. He finds no consistent differences (1981:

76-81) but suggests these results are `more a rejection of the simplistic dichotomisation of role

orientations along party lines than a rejection of the fundamental hypothesis that conceptions

of representative role are associated with the level of legislative specialisation' (80). While this

is probably true in the first part, there are reasons why we should have more serious

misgivings about linking the two. These include doubts as to the logic of the initial hypotheses

and the questionable relevance of the delegate style to the modern parliamentarian.

One difficulty with Judge's hypothesis is that while it makes sense logically, it does not

take account of the realities of representation. If we consider the day-to-day environment in

which the Australian MP works, it is clear the consequences for specialisation of the trustee

and delegate roles could be reversed. Thus it is the delegate who must generalise, who must be

aware of a multitude of issues to represent the broad range of interests in his electorate. In a

similar fashion, because the trustee is free of the directives of the constituency, has less of an

obligation to consult and does not feel bound to justify publicly decisions he makes, there is

room for him to specialise in an area of particular interest or importance. It is almost a

practical impossibility for the delegate to specialise in the area of interest to his constituents,

for even in the most narrowly drawn and functionally specific constituency the array of

interests is likely to be broad. Members of the House of Representatives are elected to

represent geographically drawn constituencies and are thereby confronted with sufficient

diversity to render a delegate style largely unworkable.

The second major objection we can raise to the hypothesised Iink between representative

style and legislative specialisation concerns the delegate position on the mandate-independence continuum. There are many reasons why adopting this position is difficult for

the average member and rarely practical. The problems of the delegate's position are exactly

those of the problem of identification itself. Pitkin and others make the difficulties of the

delegate readily apparent: electorates are large and heterogenous with diverse and often


contradictory interests making it impossible to act in the interest of all; the representative is

unable to discover the electorate's will for lack of resources and because electors rarely speak

with one voice; voters have little interest in issues and are usually less informed than the MP;

interest groups cloud the picture by voicing their demands loudly but may not be

representative of the electorate (Pitkin 1967: 220); few electors think in terms which can be

readily turned into policies; they lack the knowledge of policy-making systems and political

actors to be able to communicate demands; they are generally unaware of the policy

implications of elections and express little interest in the day-to-day business of parliament

(Wahlke 1978: 74-5; Jewell 1982: 12-4). In short, the delegate orientation is largely

unworkable in a political system as fragmented and hetereogenous as ours and is reflected in

the very small proportion of members adopting the style.

While it is difficult to identify Australian legislators as delegates of their electorates,

what of the more obvious delegatory relationship between MPs and their parties? Are our

MPs party delegates in the sense that they act according to the beliefs and programme

determined by .the party and given tacit approval by the voter at election time? Does not the

doctrine of the mandate indicate a preference for a delegatory style of representation? 6 On

the basis of the parliamentary record we would conclude that MPs are party delegates,

habitually and unflinchingly loyal to the party, following their leaders through repetitive

parliamentary manoeuvres, never breaking ranks, 7 but, whatever the. appearance, Australian

parliamentarians are not party delegates.

This is so for a number of reasons. The essence of the doctrine of party delegation is

that the MP should act on the instructions of the party. In the Labor party members are

compelled to vote according to the decision of the party caucus. In the conservative parties

there is no similar rule but party discipline ensures block voting in most cases. Most members

of parliament are prepared to go along with the party when it comes to voting but they do

6 1t is doubtful, however, whether the electorate pays enough attention to these promises to be said to

be voting for them and studies of electoral behaviour tell us that individual policy planks count for little in the mix of reasons determining electoral choice (Aitkin 1982). Furthermore, while Australian parties do project images and values, these are often fuzzy; the parties cluster around the centre of the ideological spectrum and encompass beliefs and attitudes held equally strongly by other parties. In other words, party is no longer a reliable guide to policy.

7 Canadian scholars Hoffman and Ward have introduced the term party delegate' to account for those who receive instructions from the party and `constituency delegate' for the remainder (1970: 66-77). The figures suggest Canadian deputies are prepared to accept some instruction - 18 percent saw themselves as party delegates and 12 per cent as constituency delegates (Hoffman and Ward 1970: 66-7; Jackson and Atkinson 1980: 165-7).

not value parliamentary divisions highly relative to other representative activities. Divisions

must be seen in context, not as expressions of the considered views of individual

representatives, but as political weaponry to be fired in carefully chosen battles to win even

longer wars. Parliamentary voting is still essentially an act of representation but it is best

understood as a public affirmation of the institutionalisation of representation. Voting

testifies that the institution of parliament is a representative body but, other than this, it has

little practical meaning. As Pitkin puts it: `Political representation is primarily a public,

institutionalised arrangement involving many people and groups, and operating in the

complex ways of large-scale social arrangements. What makes it representation is not any

single action by any one participant, but the overall structure and functioning of the system,

the patterns emerging from the multiple activities of many people' (1967: 222). If we view

representation in this way, as well as a relationship between an individual and his or her

representative, particular divisions or members' voting records are of no great moment.

Voting has the veneer of a representative act but it is more likely to be a device for

legitimating decisions, a register. of the level of opposition to those decisions, or a ritual for

perpetuating the democratic character of the political system. Beneath the- mask of party

unity in parliament there Iie fragmented and factionalised organisations wherein each

individual MP attempts to manufacture favourable decisions and outcomes to satisfy demands

made by his or her clients. Party representation is following the party line in parliament but

in all other aspects of the job retaining the flexibility of the trustee's position. It is the

appearance of delegation to justify and legitimate decisions coupled with the maximum degree

of independence possible to accommodate conflicting and competing demands. For all

practical purposes the modern politician has as much independence as his Whig and Liberal

predecessors. Davidson's commentary on the British House of Commons could be applied

equally to the Australian scene: `Voting in the Commons is, of course, overwhelmingly along

party lines. But most members engage in lobbying, both within their parties and with the

government of the day. In these activities, it seems clear that the trustee style predominates'

(1969: 114).

Australian parliamentarians tend not to describe their representative style as either

trustee or delegate because these poles do not take sufficient account of the complexities of

working in the legislative environment. They are reluctant to attach priorities to the different

aspects of their work or countenance the researcher's difficult `what if' questions concerning

role choice, seeing these as largely theoretical and irrelevant to their real world. For the

parliamentary politician, questions concerning possible conflict between the electorate's wishes

and their own views or those of the party are almost irrelevant. As one shadow minister put



The constituency accepts the philosophy of the party, so there's no conflict there.

Most members do not feel they are instructed by their party because in general they see no

conflict between those instructions and their own judgement (they imagine they would come

to the same decision as the party in any case) and, similarly, no conflict between their party's

view and the views of their electorates. In other words, that they and the party truly

represent their electors' opinions. As a Liberal MP saw it `what the party is putting forward is

in the interests of the community' whilst a National MP observed, `I don't make those

distinctions; what I'm doing is good for my people'. This method of collapsing potential

differences of opinion to justify behaviour is common to legislators in the United States

(Loewenberg and Patterson 1979: 180) and Canada (Jackson and Atkinson 1980: 166).

Thp Pnlit.irn

The recognition of the weaknesses, both theoretical and practical, of the delegate

position in the face of late twentieth century government necessitated a reworking of the

mandate-independence continuum. The party representative does not fit neatly into one or

other of these boxes but oscillates between the two, at one point a trustee, at another a

delegate, according to issues and perceived advantage. Eulau referred to this deputy as the

politico for whom `the trustee and delegate roles may be taken simultaneously, possibly

making for role conflict, or ...seriatim, one after another as legislative situations dictate'

(Eulau 1962: 278). Not surprisingly, studies have shown the politico and trustee roles to be

well represented in many legislatures (Mezey 1979: 172).8

8 Davidson found almost one half of congressmen conformed to the politico style in the 1960s with a

further 28 per cent trustees. Twenty-three per cent could be classified as delegates, a somewhat higher figure than in those states studied by Eulau (Davidson 1969: 117; Olson 1980: 126-7). In the 'well-established legislatures' of Germany and France the trustee orientation is favoured by a majority of legislators but the pattern is reversed in less developed political systems (Loewenberg and Patterson 1979: 180). There is a degree of variation in the proportions of role orientations found in these studies, probably because of differences in methodology (Jewell 1970: 499-500). More germane to the Australian experience both in terms of political culture and institutions are the Westminster-type polities. At about the same time as Davidson's survey, Kornberg identified 15 per cent of Canadian MPs as trustees, 36 per cent politicos, and 49 per cent delegates (1967: 108), but a decade later some 44 per cent considered themselves accountable primarily to their own consciences (Kornberg and Mishler 1976: 94). Loewenberg and Patterson assert members of the British parliament `sense that they can generally act as trustees for their constituents, although on those issues that are of direct concern to their constituents they respond as delegates out of a practical political concern for renomination and re-election' ( 1979:

181-2). In the case of New Zealand the evidence is even more tenuous but Hundleby concluded after interviews with a quarter of all MPs that most `tend to display the basic characteristics of the politico' (1975: 46).


There is little direct evidence of representational styles in Australia. A study of a small

group of MPs from one state by Whip suggests that federal MPs require the independence of

the trustee/politico approach, with 50 percent claiming to be trustees, 38 per cent politicos,

and the remainder delegates (1977: 325-43). The willingness of MPs to adjust their

representational styles according to the political benefits gained from doing so means any

attempt to link style and specialisation is somewhat pointless. Nevertheless, the party model

of representation has significant implications for the parliamentary division of labour, the

acquisition of expertise by MPs, and the structures provided by parliament to acquire and

process information. Most important is that the demand for information for voting is reduced

markedly. In order to make an informed voting choice which will be accepted by electors the

member need only vote according to the dictates of the party to which he belongs. Since

observing the doctrine of the party obviates the necessity for knowledge to make and explain

these most central of parliamentary decisions, the need for specialisation decreases as does the

need for other information sources such as libraries, research assistants, computers, data

banks and other means of processing knowledge. Of course this does not mean the MP has no

need for information. We have pointed out that his independence from formal direction by

the party or adherence to the party philosophy prior to the party reaching its decision on any

matter permits a great deal of scope to argue for his preferences or do battle on behalf of those

he represents. Information is necessary to lobby and bargain within the party and with the

government. It would be a sterile debate indeed were its participants merely to recite party

sanctioned positions one to another and obviously things do not happen this way. The

significance of party voting is that it renders specialisation an optional and not obligatory

aspect of the politician's role. The acquisition of knowledge through specialisation is thus a

matter of choice for the politician depending on his aspirations and desire for influence.

We can put this into sharper relief by observing once again some important differences

between the parliament of Australia and the U.S. Congress. The former is of a class of

legislatures which Polsby has labelled as `arenas' - `formalised settings for the interplay of

significant political forces in the life of the political system', and the latter as 'transformative'

legislatures (Polsby 1975: 260, 277-8). In arena legislatures the MP's ability to channel

constituents' demands into policy outcomes depends largely on his position within extra-parliamentary organisations, usually the party, and not the parliament itself. The members of

`transformative' legislatures, on the other hand, are less well disciplined by party and attain

influence by way of a constituency power base, long service, and expertise derived from the

chairmanship of major legislative committees. Free of party control, the Congress, which is of

the latter type, forces its members to develop sophisticated information gathering and

processing mechanisms to make and justify decisions. This may take a number of forms; a


system of `expert' congressmen and `cue-givers' to guide the uninformed (Davidson 1981: 128;

Mathews 1960: 92-117); extensive support agencies providing information such as the Library

of Congress, the General Accounting Office (the equivalent of our Audit Office), and the

Congressional Budget Office; and large personal staffs to enable congressmen to respond

intelligently to the diversity of issues on the political agenda (Malbin 1981: 142). it is

significant that the U.S. House of Representatives considers the mastery of technical expertise

a positive value in decision making, expertise which has been derived from a corporate

division of labour (Campbell 1977: 131).

What this means in terms of our understanding of specialisation is that we should look

hardest for it amongst those whose position within each of the parties - and not parliament -might suggest a desire to acquire influence over party policies, for power within the party, and

for personal advancement. The parliamentary debates and questions on which we have based

our index of specialisation are from a year at the end of which almost certainly lay an election

- 1984 - a year in which MPs were out to impress not only the voters but also their party

colleagues. Since the performance of the member in the chamber is of critical importance to

his or her advancement in the party or to maintaining a position of authority, we will look for

specialisation amongst members of the parliamentary hierarchies, especially the opposition

shadow cabinet, and those seeking admission to those hierarchies, middle ranking

parliamentarians on both sides of politics and the organisers of influential party committees.

These are likely to be members with moderately safe seats who can afford the time to indulge

their interests and not the marginal MPs with a diversity of interests in their electorates to

pamper and woo.

Making Ministers Responsible: A Force For Specialisation?

If parliament's representational functions discourage specialisation - functions such as

linking the government to the electorate, legitimising governmental activity, building support

for executive decisions and policies and managing conflicts (Loewenberg and Patterson, 1979)

- the function we commonly call oversight or parliamentary control of the executive does the

opposite. In traditional theories of parliamentary government this function has been accorded

an important place. The executive is expected to give an account of its actions simultaneous

with its demand to utilise national resources. We have already suggested that parliamentary

or cabinet government allocates positions of authority to ministers who in turn use their

powerful position to control the development of the norm of specialisation, and in this sense

we might say that responsible government works against a division of labour. Yet, in

promoting accountability as arguably the main focus of parliamentary activity (for


parliament's private members, the opposition and ruling party backbench), it has an effect

which is quite the reverse. This deserves more investigation.

Collins has identified the key elements of the theory of responsible government as:

ministers are responsible to parliament for the conduct of their departments; in dealings

between bureaucrats and ministers the latter have the last word; and the bureaucracy is

accountable to the public only through the accountability of ministers and cabinet (1978:

366). There has been a lot of debate in Australia (particularly since 1975) over the relevance

of responsible government as a theory of the constitution. For one reason or another most of

its precepts have attracted often vehement criticism. The ability of parliament to hold

ministers responsible is open to considerable doubt. As we have seen, the committees are not

well equipped for this task (Indyk 1980) and the procedures in the chambers are heavily

weighted against investigation and scrutiny (see, for example, Nethercote 1982; Uhr 1982)

The Governor-General has not assumed a position of powerlessness but, at least on one

occasion, has dismissed a government, notwithstanding its majority and against the adviceof

his ministers. Public servants are neither powerless nor anonymous; many speak out on

public issues and ministerial control over their actions is severely constrained. Many

government services are provided by authorities over which ministers have no power

whatsoever. The failure of parliament to deliver an appropriate degree of accountability has

led to the development of alternative extra-parliamentary avenues both for the redress of

grievances (the ombudsmen, the new administrative law and appeals sytems and so on) and

control of the government (efficiency investigations by the Auditor-General, increased

managerial controls etc.).

Nevertheless a great many of the MPs interviewed for this study continue to see their

position as pivotal in the accountability process suggested by the theory or that, at least,

keeping governments honest is part of their role. As the demands on governments to meet the

needs of the electorate increase and the problems governments face become more technical and

complex, so it is that MPs become less able to demand an appropriate accounting. More and

more decisions as to the appropriateness of governmental actions, either in terms of equity

(between competing individuals and groups), or procedure (are the executive's actions

consonant with the appropriate and commonly agreed steps?), or legality (is the minister

empowered to take such a step?), or technical correctness (is it the best decision on the facts?)

rest on subtle or abstruse facts which the layperson could not reasonably be expected to

understand. It is reasonable to assume that parliamentarians would specialise to bridge this



This is most apparent in the practice of oppositions dividing their tasks amongst

`shadow' ministers: to ensure each area of governmental enterprise is mirrored by a

spokesperson with a knowledge sufficient to point up the minister's weaknesses and errors.

Oppositions, of course, are well aware that errant ministers do not resign, much less so

governments, and we are not suggesting that responsible government dictates the shadow

have the kind of knowledge which could force a minister to resign. Rather, responsible

government requires him or her to focus a critical light on the minister to permit an accurate

judgement by the electorate of the overall governmental performance. Since parliament is the

only arena in which the government is legally required to demonstrate its handling of the reins

of power, it is the mechanism whereby the public can form its opinion on the suitability of the

government and its confidence in its performance. 9 The preoccupation with resignation has so

muddied the waters of ministerial responsibility that the requirement of the doctrine for

nothing more than ministerial answerability has all but disappeared. Bearing in mind that the

essence of responsible government is the retention of the confidence of the parliament, then

the obligation on the minister under attack is to show the electorate that it should have

confidence in his ability to do the job properly and ensure equitable and just treatment for all

who come in contact with his department. To be responsible in this fashion is not to resign

but to be prepared to give an answer for the doubts and questions of the electorate. 10 The

claim that ministers are responsible nowadays to the cabinet and to the prime minister first

and foremost and not to parliament because party solidarity ensures a minister will never be

forced to resign ignores the fact that in parliament at least the minister must respond. The

opposition has the right to pressure the minister in parliament and the minister must respond

in the full view of the attendant media. The centrality of the censure motion to responsible

government is recognised in its taking precedence over other parliamentary business and the

generous time set aside for it (see Pettifer 1981: 417-23; Odgers 1976: 818-9). The point

about ministerial responsibility is not that a hundred politically motivated gibes fail to hit the

mark but that the minister is forced to be in the ring and, if he is not, to say why.

The opposition spokesperson is required to be a specialist to the extent that he or she

can make it obvious when a minister appears no longer willing to play by the accepted rules,

9 The opposition is not interested in procuring a resignation so much as giving the impression that government ministers are untrustworthy or incompetent. The motion to censure a minister is regarded as an important debate by the opposition but its primary purpose is to keep the heat on the government in the hope that it will make mistakes which are noticeable to the voting public.

• 10Jaensch suggests that answerability was first established as a defence by Peter Howson over the VIP planes affair in 1967 (Jaensch 1986: 114). Answerability has been defended by Butler (1972: 49) and, in the United Kingdom, by Lord Morrison (1964: 329-30).


is too inept to inspire confidence, has departed from his or her party's vision for the country

or, more often, is simply wrong. It is no longer possible for the shadow to win the argument

without demonstrating a mastery of the technical aspects of the subject or, as Buchanan et al.

put it, `...something more than a coherent political philosophy is required to take a

comfortable position in such matters' (1960: 650).

Here, then, is a group of diverse and sometimes conflicting explanations for the pattern

of subject specialisation in the Australian parliament. On balance it seems likely specialisation

will not be highly developed in a parliament where party control of authority is the norm,

where expertise as a determinant of power is discouraged, where representation occurs

principally in party terms, and where there is no tradition of the representative acting

independently of party. We should now look more closely at the pattern of specialisation with

these variables in mind and introduce some of its more immediate causes.


One indicator of specialisation is the number of subjects over which MPs spread their

interest. A study was made of the contribution of the members of the sample to debates and

questions in parliament in 1984 across 37 subject areas (see Appendix One for a description of

how the sample was chosen and its make-up.) The tendency we have suggested towards a

wide range of interests is portrayed in Table One.


Number of subject areas covered by each MP in debates and questions, 1984.

Number of Debates Questions

subjects % Z


1-3 7 16

4-10 70 61

11-37 23 23


100 100

n=44 n=44

The overwhelming majority of the sample - between 60 and 70 per cent - devotes its

attention to between four and ten subjects in both questions and debates. Nearly a quarter are


actively involved in the category of greatest generality. There is not a great deal of difference

between the procedures but, if anything (and we must be cautious about generalising from the

small absolute frequencies in all our conclusions that follow), the sample is slightly more

specialised at Question Time than in debate. The MP with the widest contribution to debate

spoke on 24 subjects; his counterpart in questioning, 28.

Looking at the number of subjects covered, however, does not permit us to say if one

member has specialised more or less than another because it does not indicate the degree of

attention given to each area. Where one MP might ask five questions in one area and 10 in

another, a second might ask 14 in one and only one in another. Both would have asked not

only the same number of questions, but also in the same number of areas, and yet the latter

has clearly specialised more than the former. 11 Mindful of these difficulties, Judge set out to

construct an index which would paint a more accurate picture of the phenomenon under

examination, and we have followed his method in our study. This index of specialisation is

based on the coefficient of variation (Judge 1981: 210-13). This measures the extent,ef

deviation in any one subject from the mean or, in other words, the extent to which

contributions to each subject area deviate from the average contribution to all areas. The

greater the variance from the mean, the more specialised the member. If a backbencher asks

one question in each of the 37 areas, his mean will be 1 and the deviation from the mean zero.

The lowest score possible is thus zero. In fact, the lowest actual score for questions was 0.87

and for debates 1.40. If another MP asks 37 questions in one area, the mean will again be 1

but the deviation from the mean • will be the greatest possible. This position, the true

specialist, has a maximum score of 6, which two or three MPs achieved (see Appendix Two

for a description of the methodology used in this analysis).

The difficulty with the index, however, is that we must tread warily at these extremes.

It seems to follow that, as activity increases, the number of areas covered also increases. The

reverse is that the MP who asks only one question is by definition a true specialist, yet it may

be that this person is so constituency-oriented or otherwise involved that he simply has no

need or time to contribute to parliament. Thus it is possible that the score may be in part a

function of the level of contribution as well as of specialisation, although it is not necessarily

the case that things turn out this way. The evidence of the interviews is that, in general, they

do not. That is, even those with a small contribution turn out to be fairly non-specialised.

11 This type of index, the extent to which a member's effort is concentrated in one area, was employed by R.M. Punnett in his study of frontbench opposition in Britain (1973: 473-81).


But it is still advisable to approach the index scores with a degree of caution. 12 The best

approach would be to determine a minimum cut-off level but this is precluded by the small

size of our sample. Any further reductions would quickly render the cell sizes (the number of

respondents who fall into any category-as a result of our manipulation of the data) so small as

to be meaningless. In Stephens' earlier study of specialisation in the Senate minimum levels of

activity were set (1975: 18) but his survey covered all senators and could afford some

exclusions. In our case we have restricted our analysis of the parliamentary records (Hansard)

to only those members who were interviewed, a procedure which trades statistical imprecision

for greater explanatory power (by linking members' personal characteristics and opinions with

their specialisation scores).


Index of specialisation, debates and questions, 1984.

Level of specialisation

High (4.47-6.00)

Medium (2.94-4.46)

Low (1.40-2.93)





100 n=44


(4.26-6.00) 16

(2.56-4.25) 39

(0.87-2.55) 45

100 n=44

The second table ranks these index scores and again suggests an absence of

specialisation consonant with the underlying influences already discussed.. Nearly half of the

MPs demonstrate a reluctance to specialise in the questioning procedure and 60 per cent in

debates. The curious aspect of this, though this time more forcefully so, is that again there is

a greater tendency to specialise in questions than in debate. Given the lack of substantive

knowledge or expertise one might need to ask a question relative to making a speech, and the

use of Question Time for political purposes rather than as an information source (Uhr 1982),

12 0f

those respondents with less than 10 contributions to debate, only one has a score which places

him in the highest specialisation category and six of the remaining eleven have scores which fall in the lower half of the index. On all other questions which might have been used to determine an MP's propensity to specialise, the respondent with the high score revealed himself as a generalist and, for the purpose of analysis, was coded as a generalist.


it might be thought questioning would be a less specialised activity. We can explain this

result when we consider that the participants in the two procedures vary somewhat. Question

Time is largely the bailiwick of the opposition frontbench and the government backbench 13 (even if only tossing up Dorothy Dixers), whereas debate involves a larger cross-section of members. The shadow ministers are considerably more specialised in their questioning than

the government backbench, with nearly 90 per cent falling into the medium to high

specialisation strata compared with the other group's 40 per cent, as shown in Table Three.


Index of specialisation for questions and debates by parliamentary status, 1984.

Questions Index Debates Index

7. 7.

Level of Oppn Govt Uppn Oppn Govt Oppn Oppn

Specialisation Ftbnch Bkbnch Bkbnch Ftbnch Bkbnch Bkbnch

High (4.47-6.00) 40 5

Medium (2.94 -4.46) 50 35

Low (1.4-2.93) 10 60

100 100

n=10 n=20

17 10 0 0 5

33 50 40 25 37

50 40 60 75 58

100 100 100 100 100

n=20 n=10 n=20 n=12 n=22

In debates, on the other hand, this discrepancy is much less. Opposition frontbenchers

still exhibit a greater tendency to specialise, with some 60 per cent falling in the upper levels

of the index, compared with 40 per cent of the majority party backbenchers. But the

difference disappears altogether when the Labor backbenchers are compared with the

opposition as a whole. The marked absence of specialisation in debate amongst opposition

backbenchers reflects their somewhat minor role in the chambers. As loyal foot-soldiers they

are brought into the parliamentary battle to do little more than fire grape-shot at the behest

of their superior officers. As players in the opposition team, they are expected to be observe

team rules and discipline, to fill up the gaps when speakers are required, and to limit their

contributions largely to team-sanctioned positions. A great deal of effort goes into scripting

13 For a breakdown of those who asked and those who answered in the 31st parliament, see Uhr

(1982: 51-9).


and managing these daily confrontations on the part of the whips and the chamber managers

and one of the backbencher's greatest sins is to depart from the plan by speaking for too short

a time or letting down the side and reducing morale. Backbenchers on both sic,es give their

whips an indication of the subjects on which they are prepared to speak but they are often

called upon for other duties as the whips dictate. Because of the greater representativeness of

debate than questions, the specialisation index scores for debates are used in the remaining

analyses in this paper.

An Alternative Measure of Specialisation

In order to confirm our finding of relatively low specialisation we have reconsidered the

data using an alternative measure. This method compares the contributions of participants in

debate within subject areas, that is, it adjudges MPs specialists in particular subjects by comparing them with the mean contribution of other speakers on those subjects. For

example, if the average number of speeches per member in communications is 2, 5, we might

consider a speaker who made 8 speeches in that area a specialist because that is about three

times the average. We first establish the mean of the contributions for each subject area. The

average number of contributions per area ranged from 1.0 (in aviation, the art s, sport and

recreation etc) to 5.9 (in law reform). Next, by determining the ratio of the individual's

contribution in any one area to the mean contributions of all participants in that area, we can

establish a criterion which may be regarded as a badge of specialisation. The ratios differ

widely: one frontbench opposition member spoke some 6.7 times the mean for his area; a

senator with an interest in law and order made 11 speeches which was 4.2 times the mean.

Others did not perform as consistently, some recording ratios as low as 0.3. In general, high

ratios are uncommon, most MPs' contributions falling in a narrow range around the mean.

The assumption that a specialist is one who speaks three or more times the mean, therefore, is

not unrealistic and, indeed, represents only a modest concentration of interest. The relatively

undeveloped pattern exhibited by our coefficient of variation method is reflected here. On this

basis only 13 of our sample (30 per cent) can be classed as specialists. Of these, nine have

only one speciality, three have two specialities, and one has three.

Of the specialists, nine are opposition shadow ministers or former ministers, a clear

demonstration of the division of labour necessitated in the opposition by the division of la ,ur

of the political executive and the relative unimportance of specialisation to ordinary

backbenchers on both sides of politics. Even at twice the mean, the number of `specialists' is

low, exactly half of the sample. Some subjects attract more `specialists' (at twice: the mean)

than others: there are four in agriculture and fisheries, three in industry and commerce, and


two each in communications, education, health, transport, immigration and ethnic affairs,

national security, and foreign affairs. The absence of specialists and contributions to

`economic' subjects reflects the monopoly held in these areas by the opposition inner circle -the leaders and shadow economic spokespeople - most of whom were not.part of the sample.

Not surprisingly, the parties differ in terms of the subjects they favour. For the

National party (at twice the mean) there are three specialists in agriculture and fisheries, one

in the economy and taxation, and one in law and order. The Liberal specialists reflect the

somewhat broader interests of the shadow ministry with specialists in communications,

education, law and order, national security, trade, transport, employment, health, housing,

industry, local government, immigration, and parliamentary affairs. Labor backbenchers, on

the other hand, tended to focus on communications, the economy, local government, health,

and transport. Not surprisingly, all four parties showed a marked interest in foreign affairs,

which mirrors the federal parliament's evident concern for this topic, the Liberals being more

concerned- than the remainder. The most interesting aspect of this list is the marked absence

of `traditional' labour concerns for housing, welfare, income maintenance, education, veterans'

affairs and the like. The answer, of course, is that such matters are the predominant concern

of ministers, ministers who would be hard to shift should any backbencher covet one of these

jobs. Labor MPs tend to regard these areas as simply part of the job, given the much higher

electorate focus we will indicate, and tend not to regard them so much as specialisms as

standard fare.

In general, both measures we have used show a low level of specialisation which is, as

our theoretical discussion indicated, things might be. At this point we should consider why

this is so in more detail. The sections that follow examine the influence on specialisation of

party, parliamentary chamber, representative work, age, education and gender, length of

service, and political ambition. While the focus of investigation necessarily shifts to those who

do specialise so as to consider these influences, we must remain aware that the specialists are

still only a small part of the parliament as a whole.

Specialisation and Party

That the shadow cabinet specialises rather more than other MPs should come as no

surprise. Nevertheless our suggested hypothesis for this, that responsible government dictates

a degree of knowledge sufficient to match the minister in the chamber, is only part of the

story. Many of the opposition frontbenchers indicated a desire to specialise, not just to


provoke a degree of accountability on the part of their opposite numbers but also to develop

status and authority within their respective parties and thereby have their views accepted as

party policy. Several of them were not high profile MPs on the floor, being outperformed by a

busy and sometimes noisy group of senior backbenchers no doubt keen to replace them. It was

a common view within the coalition in opposition in 1984 that the performance of the leader

and the inevitability of its return to office would ensure victory at the next election as much

as criticism of the government by the shadow ministry. (For discussion of the Liberal party's

emphasis on leadership see Jaensch 1983, Kemp 1980 and 1983, and Emy 1978.) One shadow

summed up the position in this way:

I never anticipated any real power in opposition. In opposition the power is largely negative and it's not really your role to initiate policy. That's up to the government.

As Table Four shows, there is a striking degree of similarity between the two major

parties (treating the Liberal and National parties as one). In terms of subjects covered,

coalition members focus on a broader range than their ALP counterparts but, on the face of

it, the specialisation index suggests party is not a cause of significant variation.



Number of subject areas covered and index of specialisation for debates by party, 1984.

Level of ALP LIB-NP

specialisation % %

High (4.47-6.00) 0 5

Medium (2.94-4.46) 40 37

Low (1.40-2.93) 60 58

100 100

Number of subjects % %

1-3 10 4

4-10 85 63

11-37 5 33

100 100

n=20 n=22

In fact, there are important differences between the parties which can be seen when we

look more closely at the specialisation indices of the major divisions within them (see Table

Three). The aggregation of the front and backbenches of the coalition and their comparison

with what is effectively the government backbench masks these differences. As Table Three

reveals, the opposition frontbench is more highly specialised than the government backbench

which, in turn, is more highly specialised than the opposition backbench, reflecting the

division of roles within the parliament. For the shadow ministers, specialisation is essential to

criticising the government's legislation, making political capital, and attaining influence

within the party, but it reflects to some extent the legislative programme of the cabinet.

Government backbench members are also largely bound by that programme but they have

some scope to pursue their own interests. They walk a fine line between supporting the

government in public and being occasionally critical to pursue their own policy goals both


publicly and privately. Specialisation is vital for the MP who wants to `do something' about

an issue or situation, and this may be contradictory to the government's wishes, but it is also

demanded by the executive in the sense that it is only through the backbench that it can

perceive often highly specific matters through the political prism. Government backbenchers

thus develop special interests not only to criticise their leaders but also to support them. As a

member from a marginal electorate in New South Wales observed,

You have to specialise because the government has to be able to rely on the expertise of its members on national issues.

Similarly, some opposition backbenchers saw their role as preventing interest groups

from `snowing' the party when it came to formulating its policies. It should be no surprise

that this group is the least focused of the three for, as was mentioned above, their role in

party policy-making is small and their contribution to debate is largely in the whips' hands.

This group, more than any other, preached the philosophy of the generalist, citing the virtues

of `practical experience' and noting that `it can lock you out as well as in'.

Specialisation: The Electoral Connection

In our earlier discussion we suggested that the representative nature of the MP's job is

likely to have a considerable effect on the pattern of specialisation in the legislature. There are

two reasons for this, one of which has to do with the nature of representation itself, the other

with the MP's personal preferences when it comes to interpreting his multifaceted role.

The first is the unremitting nature of the representative component of the

parliamentarian's job. Even if he would like to specialise, he is constantly required to attend

to a plethora of representative demands of , one kind or another. MPs consistently rate

representative duties highly amongst their responsibilities. It is a part of the Australian

political tradition for them to do so. Emy, Walter, and Whip each identified this role. One

fifth of Emy's respondents saw their primary obligation as being to their constituents (1974:

481), while Whip designated one third as having strong preferences for electoral over

legislative work (1977: 220). In their first year in office Walter's respondents spent `most of

their time' on electorate work which, in descending order of importance,involved dealing with

constituents' social security, welfare, immigration and other problems, attending electorate

functions and showing the party flag, and dealing with references from state MPs whose

federal counterpart is of a different party (1979: 29). A half of Walter's respondents

considered this sort of work of great importance to their political careers.


There is evidence of a similar nature in the present study. Twenty-seven per cent of our

sample thought constituency work their most important task and 40 per cent identified

`constituency skills' - knowledge of the area and its people, communication and listening skills,

compassion, patience and other psychological skills, and so on - as essential to being a good

member. That the magnitude of representative work has an impact on specialisation is

demonstrated by comparing electorates in which the range of interests is narrow with those in

which it is wide. Thus in urban and rural seats the level of specialisation is about 45 per cent

at the specialist end and 55 per cent at the other. In mixed seats, however, 86 per cent of

MPs are generalists and only 14 per cent focus their interests. Against predictions, senators

are no more specialised than their lower house colleagues. The differences are as small as 2 per

cent, too small to be significant in a sample of this size. The profile of specialisation for each

house is similar to that of the parliament as a whole. It does not appear true that senators are

divorced from the vagaries of constituency-based politics. Indeed, while exhibiting somewhat

less enthusiasm for the representational role than members of the lower house, some

considered themselves representative of an even broader range of interests, all those of their

House peers and state interests as well. 14 In the House of Representatives 40 per cent opted

for a constituency focus, 48 per cent a national focus, and 14 per cent would not differentiate

between the two. In the Senate 33 per cent adopted a constituency focus, 60 per cent a

national focus, and seven per cent would not differentiate. Senators speak on a wider range of

topics than lower house members, perhaps because of the greater opportunities in that

chamber, but the same opportunity factor ensures their specialisation profiles are similar.

The reality of constituency service is that a large part of the MP's energy must be

channelled into helping constituents with their dealings with government, rectifying abuses,

and lobbying for local interests. This is caused as much by the growth of government and

thus citizens' contacts with the bureaucracy as it is by a steady increase in the population of

electorates - the average number of electors per member of the House of Representatives being

43,600 in 1958 and 72,100 in 1980 (Pettifer 1981: 128). If the structures for dealing with this

problem are imperfect (such as, for example, a paucity of staff assistance for the beleagured

MP), his legislative role may be swamped by his representational role despite his best efforts

to act as a national policy maker (Mezey 1979: 145-58) and he may become, in Finer's words,

little more than an electoral nursemaid (1985: 290). MP's offices are not well staffed, each

having just three assistants who usually do electorate work and some basic research. When

we asked MPs the most important tasks their staff performed, the dominance of the local

14 1n

order to ascertain respondents' representational foci, that is, to whom they felt primarily

responsible, the standard question was asked (see the schedule in Appendix 3).


welfare role was immediately apparent (Table Five).


Most important work of personal staff according to MPs.

Pure constituency 43

Mainly constituency/some research 21

Pure research 14

Mainly constituency/some party 11

Mainly research/some constituency 9

Mainly research/some party 2


100 n=44

MPs who can organise their work and devolve parts to their staff, particularly electorate

duties, have greater opportunities to specialise. But there has been a resistance on the part of

governments to provide resources for a number of reasons: they are unwilling to supply the

opposition and opponents within their own party with resources which will in all probability

be used against them; it may be electorally damaging to appear to feather the nests of MPs

who, in the public eye, already appear to be too well paid and cosseted; augmenting the

legislative bureaucracy appears to interfere with the supposedly close relationship between

voters and their representatives, a carry over from the traditional liberal principles at the

heart of our political system; and, split by their political differences, MPs have not been able

to lobby effectively for improvements. Altogether, in denying MPs help with constituency

work, the absence of staff raises a daunting barrier to effective specialisation.

The second consideration of a representational nature to impinge on specialisation

concerns the role choices . made by MPs as they settle on their priorities and objectives. We have suggested that the MP whose interests lie in law-making and party policy-making is


more likely to specialise than the MP who favours representational activity. 15 This is for the

obvious reason that we have just cited - a broad range of constituency problems demands an

equally broad knowledge of solutions - and because the policy-maker needs specialised

knowledge in order to make an effective contribution and compete with other knowledgeable

participants, particularly interest groups and public officials. The propensity of the VIP's

representative focus - whom he thinks he represents - to affect specialisation is illustrated in

Table Six.


Index of specialisation for debates, by representative focus, 1984.


Level of Representative Focus

Specialisation Constituency National No distinction 7. 7 7

High 0 4 0

Medium 31 39 40

Low 69 57 60

100 100 100

n=16 n=23 n=5

We would expect those with a national focus to devote their parliamentary activity

more to a small group of subjects than those whose primary orientation is to the electorate.

As it happens, those oriented to the national stage do specialise more but the difference

between the two is at most around 10 per cent at all levels. Read in conjunction with the low

overall level of specialisation, this result suggests that the electoral connection is strong for all

members: irrespective of their personal interests, constituency work forces on them a level of

parliamentary activity of a fairly standard nature and scope. The importance of national

policy-making to most MPs cannot be gainsaid. They are in the game because they want to

change conditions in society, get things done, exercise influence and power. Three-quarters

want to make legislative and policy changes which would `make for a better Australia' and a

further 16 per cent have hopes of improving conditions in their electorates through the

15 On this point Stephens observes `...the weight given, consciously or semi-consciously, to legislative work within the totality of the political career affects the significance of subject specialisation' (1975: 39).


channels of influence only available to the federal parliamentarian. Indeed, most think they

are doing just that: 88 per cent think they have been at least moderately successful thus far.

But for many MPs these successes are most readily attained in the electorate; often frustrated

by failing to achieve the changes they want at the top level, and with temperaments best

suited to the welfare role, they turn to their constituencies for a comfortable and satisfying

role. Labor members, in particular, are attracted to this role (Walter 1979: 33). The parties

display marked disparities in the proportions of each choosing a legislative or representative

role. The coalition's members are more strongly attuned to a national or party policy-making

role (65 per cent) than the Labor members (26 per cent), a result which mirrors the division of

labour within each party which we discussed in the previous section.

The Specialists: A New Information Class?

It might be hypothesised that those who do specialise are the product of an increasingly

specialised society which places a premium on expertise.. We could reasonably expect them to

be young, have high levels of education, and more often to be males than females. There is a

common belief that political power in the bureaucracy is increasingly falling out of the hands

of established power brokers and into the hands of groups variously described as the `new

class', `yuppies', the `meritocracy' and recently `the information specialists' (Encel 1984).

Those who regret this movement are critical of these groups, usually in terms of their

unrepresentativeness of `ordinary' people. They are said to be young, highly educated, possess

specialised skills, often wealthy, articulate and skilled in the management of information.

Whatever the truth of the matter in the bureaucracy, do the subject specialists in parliament

fall within these categories?

Over the years the membership of parliament has become more highly educated and

younger (Rydon 1986: 47, 153) but these are not characteristics of those who specialise. A

surprising finding was that those without university degrees were much more likely to score

well as specialists, with almost 60 per cent of them falling into the middle and upper levels of

the index. Three-quarters of the tertiary educated specialised only minimally. This result is

unusual because a university education is likely to lead not only to substantive knowledge

(that is, some degree of expertise) but also to the use of techniques of information

management and research strategies. The reason for this result is unclear. It may, in part, be

caused by the presence in the non-tertiary group of a small group of `rogue specialists' - those

without formal educational qualifications who do only the minimum of service in the

chambers. The hypothesis that there is a body of university educated young people holding

down marginal seats and thereby being forced to be generalists does not hold water; there are,


in fact, more non-tertiary MPs in the marginals. With regard to the type of school the MP

attended it can be said that those who attended private non-Catholic schools were more

focused in their interests than. those from state schools, but not by much. Former students of

the Roman Catholic schools fell almost exclusively into the most general category.

The idea that specialists are young is also erroneous, the cohort most keen to develop

expertise being those in their fifties, followed fairly closely by the over-60s. While there is not

a lot of difference between the ages, about two-thirds of the youngest group are again at the

generalist end of the continuum compared with a similar number at the other end in those

aged 50-59. It is possible this result is connected with length of service as this variable shows

a similar pattern. Specialisation increases along with the length of parliamentary service. As

Table Seven demonstrates, there is a positive correlation between these two variables.18


Specialisation index by length of service

Level of Specialisation

High (4.47-6.00)

Medium (2.94-4.46)

Low (1.40-2.93)


< 4 Years 4 - 8 Years

14 38

86 62

100 100

n=15 n=10

> 8 Years




100 n=19

New parliamentarians are generalists to a person, those in mid-career have developed

one or two interests but still cast their nets widely, specialising no more than the parliament

as a whole, whilst those near the end of their careers tend to pursue more concentrated

interests. Of the latter group, many, disillusioned with political life, frustrated by their

inability to effect meaningful change, and with ministerial ambitions thwarted, get involved in

personal causes and issues and take the time to specialise to achieve `just one important thing'

before retirement. One such member, who thought he had had a pretty marked impact' on

16 Judge found a similar weak correlation (see p.83).


his subject area still has one or two items on his personal agenda and did not want to leave

before completing them:

I got up two amendments a while ago, and a completely new act in 1973, and there should be another before I leave; with a bit of luck I might be able to convince the caucus of my views on [the steel industry].17

Quite apart from wanting to pursue a personal agenda, there are some purely practical

reasons for this outcome. New members need time to learn the parliamentary ropes, cultivate

and master their electorates, organise staff and delegate responsibility, and generally settle

into their new roles. It is one of the unwritten rules that they will serve an apprenticeship

before attaining positions of authority 18 and not speak out unless called upon (see Walter

1979: 31). As putty in the whips' hands, they do a lot of the legislative hack work and have

limited opportunities to use the formal parliamentary procedures for their own ends.

This may also constitute evidence of a connection between an embryonic-delegate style

of representation and specialisation, not as Judge hypothesised but, as we suggested earlier,

that the delegate must be a generalist to represent the diversity of opinions and interests in

his electorate. Walter's description of the first year of the parliamentary career suggests a

willingness amongst MPs to act in ways of which the constituency would approve (1979: 31).

This does not last for long, for there is a great deal of role learning in that time, and a more

independent stance comes with increasing confidence and political successes. Congressional

and Californian neophytes exhibit a similar progression from delegate to trustee `as a result of

their growing experience in the legislature' (Loewenberg and Patterson 1979: 181).

A much less surprising result is that the specialists are all men and all the women are

generalists. Sawer and Simms (1984) have shown that women MPs are given stereotyped roles

in parliament, often in the `nurturing' fields of health and welfare. All the women interviewed

had a strong electorate focus (especially the senators) and so ranged widely in their interests.

Most said they had a special responsibility to meet women's needs for representation across

many of the areas of governmental activity.

17 Aspects of quotations from MPs have been changed in this paper to protect the identities of those


18 One third of the sample volunteered (without prompting) this norm in the interviews.


Making It To The Top: Does Specialisation Help?

Perhaps the most peculiar paradox of our findings is the contradiction between the low

overall level of specialisation demonstrated by the indices and the high proportion of members

who see themselves as specialists. Two thirds of those to whom we talked saw themselves as

specialists and affirmed the necessity or importance of specialisation to being an effective MP.

Everyone should make a choice. of a few subjects and get involved in them. It's not possible to fully understand everything in this life. A simplistic overview in my opinion is simply not a contribution to this country, (Liberal party senator)

The other side of the coin is unless you are using these specialisations to pursue an ambition to get into the ministry, there's not a lot of point being there because you can't get much satisfaction out of being a general dogsbody. (Labor party House member)

The futur:: belongs to those who prepare for it. I'm working on three to five areas. I think it's important as a new senator to get a smattering of three to five portfolios. (National party senator)

Whip and Walter also report between two-thirds and three-quarters in favour of

specialisation (Whip 1977: 295; Walter 1979: 32), although more than half of Whip's members

looked upon their fellows as generalists and without expertise. There are several reasons for

these discrepancies. One of them is the possibility of differences of meaning between MPs and

researchers. To the member specialisation might mean no more than having a few goals or

objectives, whilst the researcher has a more definite and precise concept in mind. Another is

that in a specialised world which values knowledge highly - the emphasis on merit in the

public sector, for example - there is some pressure on MPs to profess specialised knowledge on

their part and the lack of it on the part of others. It takes a brave parliamentarian to answer,

as one Labor member from Victoria did,

I am a generalist. I'm stuck with it. I've got a sponge-like mind that soaks up everything. Read it once and it is in there. I'm a lateral thinker, I find it hard to specialise.

But perhaps the most significant reason is to be found somewhere in the schizophrenic

reception given specialised knowledge by those in positions of authority in the legislature. We

have already suggested that one of the ways in which the powerful party elites manipulate the

use of knowledge and information in the parliamentary system to their advantage is by

denying the value of expertise both to advancement and as a base for authority. How effective

is this norm amongst parliamentarians? Do MPs see specialisation as essential or even helpful

to becoming a minister? There is no doubt that making it into the political executive is a goal


most members aspire to. In our sample those who wanted to be ministers outnumbered those

who did not by two to one. The almost equal division of opinion over the worth of

specialisation is shown in the following table (Table Eight).


Specialisation index by desire to become a minister, 1984.

Index of Do you aspire to a ministerial position?

Specialisation Yes No

High 4 7

Medium 39 29

Low 57 64

100 100

n=28 n=14

Those who want a ministry are slightly more specialised than those who do not but,

once again, the differences are too small to have any meaning. Specialisation is an important

tool for convincing colleagues one has the necessary ability to handle a portfolio and not let

down the side but it does not of itself ensure elevation. In all parties aspirants must show

some ability but being more able than another does not mean a better chance of making it.

Other factors - regional or state balance, factional reasons, sex, seniority, friendship - come

into play in the selection of Australian cabinets.

Expertise does endow some authority; a good grasp of the facts of any matter lends an

air of authority and weight to the MP's argument.

You see it again and again; people coming to grief in the shadow cabinet by making a generalist statement and there is someone there who has more specific knowledge who will show them up. (Liberal party frontbencher)

Unless you get on top of a subject and are in a position to persuade because you are an expert - you have authority - then you'll contribute nothing. (Liberal party backbencher)

The importance of expertise relative to other authority variables in the parliament is

nonetheless not so high as to lead too many members to seek it as a way to the top. That the


• demonstration of knowledge bestows some kudos, however slight, may be part of the reason

why MPs are so keen to own up to it whilst den y ing its presence in their peers.

Specialisation: The Minor Variables

To this point we have looked largely at the broad structural determinants of

specialisation and some of the more immediate reasons as to why politicians specialise. There

remains the question of, having made the decision to focus one's interests, how the MP settles

on a particular area or issue?

Every MP has his or her own reasons for concentrating on specific subjects. We asked

the sample to suggest the most important determinant of their interests. Nearly one quarter

nominated an earlier occupation and a similar proportion tied it to personal interest and

curiosity. Some 17 per cent cited major interests within their electorate and 15 per cent opted

for party based reasons, such as a factional choice or the need to concentrate on what the

party wanted to achieve at any given time. Service on a parliamentary committee sparked

the interest of seven per cent and of the remaining 11 per cent at least half saw their choice as

offering better prospects of advancement than other areas.19

Some MPs from both sides get involved in the `fringe' issues of parliamentary and

electoral reform because many of the social issues such as welfare are too amorphous to make

a satisfying contribution and because parliament naturally attracts a few who are interested

in tinkering with the machinery of democracy or who believe there are imbalances within the

system which must be rectified. The ALP has long pursued interests such as these. Specific

positions of authority, such as the Speakership and Presidency, were an encouragement to at

least four of our interviewees to concentrate in this area. It is noteworthy that the chairs of

parliamentary committees do not figure strongly as a reason for specialisation, probably

because, as with elevation to the ministry, demonstrated expertise in the field does not of

itself ensure preferment. As with any of the spoils of the legislature, these are in the power of

19 Stephens also found occupation and personal interest to be important factors. He identifies three broad influences on choice of subject area: pre-parliamentary socialisation; institutional pressures, particularly the operation of the Westminster system and parliamentary committees; and the combined pressures of party and constituency. See pp.17-39 and Judge (1981: 106-10).


the leadership (in the coalition) and the factions (in the Labor party).20

The electoral connection encourages most MPs to generalise but a couple chose the

opposite course, to specialise in those areas in which they were best able to deliver benefits to

their electorates. Federal MPs do not have the same opportunities to shower their home

towns with public goods such as roads, schools, hospitals and so on as their state equivalents

but they do not pass them up when they come along. One long-serving MP would have

undoubtedly felt quite at home in that most blatant of pork-barrelling legislatures, the US

Congress. He reasoned:

When I'm in a position to supply facilities, I'm interested. I'm interested in schools but not in an academic way, not in what is taught or anything like that.'

Furthermore, he demonstrated the congressperson's faith in the cue-giver:

You don't have time to know what to do so you rely on the bloke who has made it his business to know.'

The ascent to power of Mr Howard while these interviews were conducted also had an

effect on specialisation, causing some respondents to change their subject interest between the

time of arranging the interview and when it was actually carried out. This is the phenomenon

of the instant expert' known to parliamentary staff who must brief the shadow minister. As

one shadow wryly commented, one's specialisation could easily be determined by the fortunes

of war',

Two Types of Specialisation

One of the reasons we have advanced for the low overall level of specialisation in

parliament is the representational factor: few MPs specialise because they are simply too

busy within their electorates to have time for specialised legislative work. There is reasonable

evidence for this: the spread of interests in any electorate has a marked effect on the MP's

specialisation score, and senators, who we might have thought of as having fewer

20 So much so that when, in 1987, the number of parliamentary and caucus committees was substantially increased, the Labor party appeared more concerned with the division of chairs amongst its factions than the implications for parliament of the decision itself. See `Labor factions get out the long knives', The Age , 23 September 1987; `Scramble for the consolation prizes', The Sydney Morning Herald , 19 September 1987.


representational burdens than House members, in fact see themselves as only marginally more

nationally oriented and have scores relatively similar to their colleagues in the other place.

Nevertheless, there are some inconsistencies which arise on this point and need explanation.

On the face of it, a heavy representative burden might also lead, in a rational world, to more

rather than less specialisation. If the MP has onerous electorate duties, it stands to reason

that he might try to specialise in the chambers (which is what we have measured, after all)

simply in order to survive. Some of the respondents did feel that such a course of action was

necessary. Similarly, if there is a crush of representative work to do, how is it that some

members have distinct and unmistakeable specialisms? Shadow ministers, for example, fall

into this category. What is it about this group that frees them from their representative


We have suggested that part of the answer lies in the relationship between the

parliamentarian and his staff, that is, by devolving such work to their staff, MPs can devote

themselves more completely to particular interests on which they hope to have some impact

at a national level. If the MP can off-load the day-to-day work he can adopt a legislation or

policy orientation. If this is so, then is it the case that the level of specialisation in the

parliament, or, for that matter, the proportion of nationally oriented MPs, is a simple matter

of staff numbers? If MPs were given larger staffs and more facilities would they turn more to

national policy-making over local welfare work?

The answer is probably no, for a number of reasons. First, and most important, the

choice of role on the part of the MP - of policy initiator or facilitator of electorate demands -is widely held to be a function of factors specific to the individual MP, such as education and

position within the legislature, and not the nature of the legislative environment (Atkinson

1980; Kornberg 1967). As Atkinson observes institutional resources and a vigorous select

committee system seem to have little effect on making the initiator orientation more

acceptable to backbenchers...'(1980: 70). Second, there are already those in the parliament

who have demonstrated that it is possible to do both within the constraints of small staffs.

Opposition frontbenchers are each allocated a fourth staff member but this alone is not

sufficient to cope with all the electoral duties and reponsibilities that go with a shadow

portfolio. Third, rather than complementing the work of the MP, that is, performing the

electoral side of his role while he concentrates on the policy side, our research indicates that

staff mirror MP preferences. They usually do the same kind of work as the MP because it is he who sets the priorities for the office. If we consider the MPs who see their staff's most

important work as constituency related, we find that they are in fact less specialised than those whose staff perform primarily research functions, that is to say, they are not more


inclined to take on a legislative or policy role once they are `free' to do so. What actually

happens is that those who have a legislative orientation to begin with usually off-load as much

electorate work as they can and then set about specialising to acquire information and

ultimately authority.

This suggests there are two types of specialist in the legislative system: most commonly, those who try to do a bit of both electorate and policy work and opt for three or

four issues that interest them in order to be a good local member (with the added bonus that

this might help with re-election) and make a small, but personally satisfying, contribution to

national politics. And secondly, those who view politics as purely a national vocation,

believing they can make a vital contribution, which requires a combination of dedication,

energy, ambition, and specialised knowledge and which can only be achieved through the

Iessening of representational activities (which, for those heading for the inner circles of their

parties, is less important in any case because of the safeness of their seats). For the first

group, specialisation is a fact of life; for the second, it is a strategic choice to realise well-defined goals.

Those that fall into the latter group share a number of characteristics, the most

important of which is proximity to power. It should be no surprise to find `strategic

specialists' in the front ranks of the opposition and those immediately behind them, and

among senior government backbenchers. Even though specialisation does not guarantee

advancement, it certainly helps, and endows its owner with some authority and prestige. In

the government party senior backbenchers in 1984 had every reason to pursue status and

recognition in the expectation of cabinet openings. Two of the respondents were subsequently

promoted to the ministry. In the opposition the possibility of shadow ministry openings was

very real considering the likelihood of any new leader wanting to promote those who

supported him. With little or no chance of advancement, those at the edges of each party had

little incentive to specialise and, as we saw in Table Three, in general they did not.


The possibility that MPs do not need to develop expertise in specific subjects to make

decisions as representatives (to vote), or to argue their positions in the debating chambers,

raises a number of points on which we might speculate. That they narrow their interests

somewhat to fulfil the multiple responsibilities of their role is not questioned. Similarly, that

there is a need for some `strategic' specialists, frontbenchers who lead the political debate of

the day, is also not questioned. In general, however, we can conclude that there seems little

demand in our political system at the moment for parliamentarians to become experts in the


fields of inquiry to which the parliament turns its attention. This is not really surprising; it

reflects the traditional Westminster ethos of the `knowledgeable layman'. That there is no

imperative for expertise, specialised knowledge - whatever we may want to call it - in the

functional responsibilities of the parliament itself, is reflected in the resources made available

to MPs. They do not allow for the possibility of intensive research and the bringing to bear of

expertise on legislative decisions because the vast majority of backbenchers understand and

take part in the legislative process by means of the twin prisms of party ideology and electoral

expediency rather than dispassionate analysis. Although MPs often complain about

insufficient information on which to base decisions, they do not often seek eleborate policy

studies or voluminous academic reports. Their desks already see far too much paper pass

across them to establish an adequate intellectual grasp of the issues. For any issue that arises

only a few MPs require detailed information: the small group on a committee interested in an

issue, those immediately affected by or responsible for an issue such as the party oligarchies

and spokesmen and legislators who become entangled in issues they would rather avoid. That

there are also pockets of legislative activity within parliament, such as some of the Senate

committees, which require often highly specific and detailed information, is also acknowledged

but the rest usually only need sufficient knowledge to get by. Although they justify claims for

greater expertise in rationalistic terms, such as improving their ability to contribute

intelligently to public affairs, for most MPs the approach to such matters is made via partisan

assumptions and cues from other members. `Learned postures outnumber intellectual

expositions' (Emy 1974: 487).

By and large, politicians have little use for the kind of information - factual, value-free,

technical, specific, abstruse, academic, and theoretical - which research implies. MPs do not

want value-free information but information that supports their view of things. Information

that does not come with the political slant is of little value to them. Thus when we asked

MPs their most frequently used information sources, we found `researchers' and the notion of

expertise out of favour - research groups, universities, and the like. Thirty-two per cent of the

MPs indicated they would turn first for information to the reliable networks they had

established over the years - old friends, individuals within organisations in both public and

private sectors rather than the organisations themselves, trusted academics, colleagues,

pressure group representatives, and the like - in other words, those whose general opinion the

MP knows and has used before. A further 18 per cent said they turn often to government

departments and 11 per cent to ministers or their offices. Thus the information exchange

within the parliament is primarily collegial and the reliance on detailed information much less

important. Politicians deal in talk, not in paper. The question which arises is whether or not

this is a good thing? Does parliament need more `strategic specialisation', more research,


more information, more staff?

There are, of course, many points which could be raised on both sides of this argument.

We mention just two from the standpoint of improving the democratic quality of our

governance, one in favour of specialisation and one against. First, specialisation might help to

preserve parliament's declining stocks in the public eye. There is no guarantee that better

information or greater resources will provide better decisions - politics is still Iikely to be the

final arbiter of the outputs of the parliament - nor will the relative positions of power of the

legislature and the executive be changed by upgrading the level of resources or encouraging

strategic specialisation - the government majority always being the key factor - but the

appearance of reason, knowledge, and competence, might once again settle over parliament's

activities. This might be a laudable goal in democratic terms; the willingness of citizens to

abide by the decisions of their representatives being proportional to their respect for the

process of making those decisions.

The contrary view has to do with the relationship between specialisation and

representation to which we have referred at a number of points already. It has been said that

increasing the level of Iegislative specialisation would better equip MPs to make decisions,

permit greater competition with the views of officials, and generally help to combat a

tendency towards greater complexity in the policy process. But an assembly of specialists and

a purely specialised policy process would not be a desirable outcome in democratic terms

because without the lay perspective most electors would be disenfranchised and their interests

would go unrepresented. The MP as specialist would also rule out any possibility of a

delegatory relationship between MP and constituent (even if, as we have already seen, this

happens only rarely) by denying the right of any citizen to give instructions to the MP. If the

parties selected only those with some kind of expertise of use to the parliament, few electors

could stand against those whose views they opposed, or debate the issues with them.

Concerns such as these are nonetheless somewhat academic. The level of specialisation

in the parliament is likely to remain, low where there is no functional necessity that it be

otherwise, where the norms of representation in the community oppose it, where image and

appearance are often more important than reason, and where the existing leadership

hierarchies deny its value. If it is thought desirable to increase the level of strategic

specialisation, then it must surely be tied to advancement within parliament and

acknowledged to be in the MP's interests. The simplest way to do this would be to attach

both political influence and financial reward to the chairs of parliament's committees.


There will always be pressures for greater specialisation in parliament. As a number of

scholars have demonstrated (Huntington 1969; Polsby 1968; Campbell 1977) the

organisational processes of institutionalisation and bureaucratisation apply just as strongly to

legislatures as to government departments or private firms. The growth of `internal

complexity' - specialisation - is a small part of these processes. As the federal parliament

settles into its new and permanent home, the demands for greater resources, more staff, better

information, and faster computers have arisen more forcefully and more often. Our survey

suggests that these pressures have been resisted thus far, or at least that they are not of such

a strength as to make much of an impact on the parliament generally. It is reasonable to

assume that in the foreseeable future this picture is unlikely to change.



The sample was drawn from members of both houses of parliament early in 1985. It

consists of 44 MPs. This is one less than would have been desirable but it proved extremely

difficult to procure an interview with an appropriate member of the House of Representatives

from the National party. There are, therefore, slightly less than twice as many House

members as Senators in the sample. Of the initial 45 MPs approached, only two refused to be

interviewed, a fine response rate by any standards.

In all other respects the sample is representative of the parliament (excluding the

cabinet) in terms of party, education, chamber, age, sex, and length of service. Interviews

were carried out between April and November 1985. Tape recordings were not used but

interview notes were written up as soon as possible afterwards. The shortest interview lasted

25 minutes and the longest slightly more than two and a half hours.



The index of specialisation measures the extent to which a person's contribution to a

discrete subject area varies from his average contribution to each subject area. These

deviations from the mean for each subject area are summed and divided by the total number

of subject areas to give an average standard deviation. The greater the variance from this

mean, that is, the more the MP deviates on average from his mean contribution to all areas,

the more specialised he is.

A person who makes one contribution to each subject area would be a true generalist

because the extent to which he varies from the mean (his average contribution to all subject

areas)) as measured by the standard deviation (a method for measuring deviation around the

mean) would be minimal. A person who makes 10 speeches in one subject area and one in

another would be almost a true specialist because the extent to which he varies from his mean

contribution, as measured by the standard deviation, would be high.

The formula is given greater explanation in Judge 1981: 210-1.

The 37 subject areas over which MPs' contributions were distributed were as follows:

aboriginal affairs, agriculture and fisheries, aid, aviation, animal welfare, arts,

communications, consumer affairs, defence, economy and taxation, education, environment,

employment and industrial relations, foreign affairs, federal-state relations, governance

(structure of government, statutory authorities etc), health, housing and construction,

industry and commerce, police and law and order, law reform and constitutional matters,

other miscellaneous matters, local government, parliament, national security, regional

development, resources and energy, race and immigration and ethnic affairs, science and

technology, sport and recreation, public service matters, tourism, trade, transport, women's

affairs, welfare, veterans' affairs.



Interview Schedule

What are the most important tasks an MP has to perform? In other words, what is a

good member/senator actually good at doing?

What skills and abilities do MPs need to carry out these tasks?

What are the most important things you want to achieve as as MP?

Do you still have things you want to accomplish as an MP?

How would you describe your role in shaping policy in this/these areas?

How much do you get involved in parliamentary debate in an active capacity?

How important is getting re-elected to parliament in terms of the things you want to

achieve in politics?

I.- it easier to achieve the things you've mentionned through personal dealings with

departments or ministers or do you get better results going public in parliament or the media?

How often would you speak to a minister in an average week?

Do you feel the formal procedures in parliament such as debates, questions, the

adjournment and so on are of any use?

In your position can you play a significant role in parliament?

As a member of parliament, how important is it to get funds and services for your


Do you think constituents are more interested in the things you can do for them than in


your position on issues?

Some members feel that their primary responsibility as an MP is to their electorate first

and then to the country as a whole, others feel it is to their party first, and still others feel

national issues are most important. How do you feel?

Would you say there are unofficial rules or expectations among MPs, that is certain

things MPs must do and things they must not do, if they want the respect and co-operation of

their fellow members?

In your work is there any particular subject area or areas that attract a majority of your

interest and activity or do you spread your activity over a wide range of subjects?

Why have you chosen to concentrate in this (these) area(s)? Or: Did you make . a. conscious choice not to specialise? Why?

Do other MPs consult you for advice upon the areas in which you specialise?

How important is specialisation in political work?

In those special subject areas, from where do you get your most reliable information?

What are the most important things your staff do for you?

What skills or characteristics do you look for in hiring staff? In your opinion, how

influential are they over the decisions you make?

Do you think the facilities available are adequate to do the job properly?

Is the prospect of an executive position important to you?

How long would you stay in parliament if there seemed little chance of eventually

proceeding to the front bench?


How did you first become interested in politics?

When was that? As a child, a teenager, in your twenties or later?

When you were growing up, were there discusions about politics at home?

Were your parents active in politics?

What made you join a political party? When was that?

If, for some reason, you had to give up being an MP next week, what would you miss

most about the job?




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