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Cutting crossbench MPs’ staffing would be a setback for democracy

My experience as an adviser to Peter Andren – perhaps the first of the modern-day wave of non-party MPs to arrive in Canberra – suggests Labor’s planned cuts to the staff of independents will be a backward step for our democracy. It will also be a serious blow to the more collaborative approach to politics so many Australians have been yearning for.

I had the privilege of serving as an electorate officer and ultimately as chief of staff for Peter from 1996, when he was first elected, until 2001. As the independent member for Calare, in central-west New South Wales, he won wide respect during his 11 years in parliament.

Peter sadly passed away in 2007 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. If he were still with us today, I am sure he’d sympathise with the government’s desire to rein in the ballooning cost of running our federal parliament, which now costs taxpayers well over A$1 billion each year (including MPs and staff), according to the latest budget.

But I’m also certain he would be concerned at the way independent MPs are being forced to bear a disproportionate share of these savings – and particularly by the government’s apparent failure to understand the workloads of independent MPs.

Photo of Peter Andren
Independent MP Peter Andren speaking in parliament in August 2006. Alan Porritt/AAP

The workload an independent is fundamentally different

Serving as an independent MP is fundamentally different from being elected as a member of a major political party. It requires substantially different levels of support. Anthony Albanese and Peter Andren may have entered the parliament at the same time – when John Howard took power in 1996 – but their experiences as MPs could not have been more different.

For a start, every independent MP needs to form their own position on every piece of legislation, amendment, division, motion and matter of public importance, and every report tabled in parliament.

Major party backbenchers, by contrast, generally have the luxury of relying on the policy, legislative and tactical advice provided by their party machines.

They don’t need to put anywhere near the same effort into the day-to-day work of parliament. Their ministers or shadow ministers and their offices prepare standardised briefings, parliamentary and media speaking points. Party backbenchers rely on these and are expected to follow them.

During Peter’s time in parliament, it was common for members of both major parties to ask him privately what they were voting on as they filed in to follow instructions from their party whips.

During the previous parliament, according to recent media reports, each independent MP was allocated up to two senior advisers, two junior advisers and four electorate staff.

That increase on pre-2019 numbers recognised the complexity of dealing with a full suite of legislation while serving the needs of local constituents through the important pastoral and advocacy work occurring in MPs’ electorate offices.

This compares to a typical party backbencher who is entitled to four electorate staff, most of whom are based in electorate offices, rather than parliament house.

Read more: The teal independents want to hold government to account. That starts with high-quality information

A significant cut

Labor’s proposal would see each independent’s staff profile return to something like the complement Peter Andren had more than 20 years ago – one adviser and four electorate staff, on account of Calare’s large geographic size.

In other words, Labor is proposing a 75% cut in independent MPs’ higher-level staff. These are the people who often hold degrees in law, politics, economics, finance, public policy, communications and public relations and provide the MPs with vital support.

It is difficult, from available data, to track changes in parliament’s legislative workload over the last 25 years.

But the following statistics for the House of Representatives give a sense of the mammoth task the new wave of independents are likely to face:

  • average number of bills considered each year 1996–2021: 206

  • average number sitting hours 1996–2021: 850 hours

  • average number of divisions 1996 to 2021: 168

  • number of bills presented during the 2019–22 parliament: 484

  • number of bills considered in detail during the 2019–22 parliament: 89

  • government amendments moved during the 2019–22 parliament: 1189

  • opposition and non-aligned amendments moved during the 2019–22 parliament: 366.

Independent senators in the current parliament will face even heavier workloads than their colleagues in the House of Representatives. That’s because the balance of power situation sees its committees far more active and influential, while contested bills and amendments are often debated line-by-line.

Read more: Governments usually win a second term. But could the new Labor government be an exception?

When I worked for Peter, our resources were inadequate for managing both his electorate and parliamentary duties.

We dealt with an average of around 6,000 constituent inquiries each year – a number that is probably much higher now for many independent MPs given the advent of mobile phones and social media.

I remember the enormous challenges I faced as Peter’s chief of staff, which included:

  • seeking to be across all the legislation and policy matters relevant to his electorate

  • keeping up with parliamentary debates and divisions late into the night

  • supporting his committee work

  • preparing speeches, questions, letters, bills, media releases and dealing with the resulting inquiries

  • managing his dedicated team of electorate staff and volunteers and

  • advising on constituent matters, which could become very complex and time-consuming.

It was a challenging, fascinating, exciting and rewarding job, but not one you could perform well without countless hours of unpaid overtime.

No substitute

It’s been reported the government expects independent MPs to draw more on the services of their own electoral staff and the parliamentary library, which will receive a boost in funds.

The parliamentary library is a wonderful resource, staffed by outstanding researchers with expertise across most policy areas. We drew heavily on its services and those of the clerks of the House of Representatives and Senate.

But these general parliamentary services, while vital, are no substitute for giving each independent MP their own in-house capability to participate fully and effectively as “legislators” in the true sense of the word.

Whether or not independents hold the balance of power in the House or Senate, the care they take reviewing legislation and amendments improves the quality of our democracy.

Time and again in recent years, the painstaking work of Senate committees and independent senators has delivered better legislation.

Read more: Could Australia's new independent and Green MPs be key to better trans-Tasman relations?

With the budget deficit now so large, there may well be a case for scaling back independent MPs’ and senators’ advisory staff to some degree.

But any decision needs to be based on evidence about the level of support required. That evidence should be examined by an independent review that consults MPs of all persuasions and ensures that savings are shared across the entire parliament.

There may also be potential to achieve efficiencies by centralising routine aspects of the policy, legislative and procedural advice available to independents, while ensuring each MP retains enough in-house capability to perform their legislative duties.

Once any new resourcing levels are in place, their continuing adequacy should be reviewed every three years.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not made on behalf of or represent the views of the University of Sydney.

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