Parliamentary backbenchers

A backbencher speaks in parliament while other backbenchers look on
Only a few sitting Members of Parliament are directly involved with executive government. Most MPs are backbenchers, so-called because they inhabit the rear seats in the parliament (the ‘frontbenches’ are only occupied by ministers and shadow ministers). Backbenchers might be junior MPs, relatively inexperienced and ‘learning the ropes’ of parliament. They might be former ministers or prime ministers who have resigned, lost leadership challenges or been demoted from the cabinet. Or they might be unwilling or unsuited for a ministerial post. Nevertheless, they have a number of important responsibilities in the parliament, including voting on bills, delivering speeches, asking questions during question time and representing the interests and welfare of their electorate.

Backbenchers can be an important source of information during the process of creating laws, since they represent different electorates with a diversity of people, communities, economic and social interests. A new law regulating coal-mining, for example, would affect people in some electorates more than others. The MPs representing those electorates would almost certainly take a strong interest in the law and its development. Backbenchers obviously have less impact on law-making than a minister – yet there are a number of ways they can influence both the content of legislation and the legislative process:

By serving on a parliamentary committee. This is perhaps where MPs on the backbench can have the most impact. Committees engage in detailed scrutiny of existing legislation, hear from experts, consider public submissions and ultimately make recommendations about suggested changes to legislation. Some backbenchers with no leadership role in the parliament or their party can take a lead role in these committees, particularly on issues of great concern to them.

By participating in debate about bills. After the commencement of the Second Reading, a date will be allocated for parliamentary debate about a proposed bill. MPs can attend and speak for or against the bill or its specific parts. Their speeches are recorded in Hansard, which may be consulted by judges if the bill becomes legislation.

By suggesting amendments to a bill. During consideration in detail, MPs who object to specific parts of a bill – but not to the bill as a whole – may suggest amendments. Each amendment has to be voted on by the house but, if accepted, it will become part of the bill.

By raising a private member’s bill. Not all bills begin with the Cabinet or ministers. Any MP can introduce a bill into the parliament, with or without the support of the government. Because of this, private member’s bills are often voted down after the Second Reading and rarely move beyond their house of origin. Only 15 private member’s bills have been passed by the Federal parliament since 1901. The most recent of these was the Euthanasia Laws Act (2007), introduced by Liberal MP Kevin Andrews to overturn pro-euthanasia legislation passed by the Northern Territory. The Federal government allowed a conscience vote on the issue, rather than organising MPs to vote along party lines.

By raising suggested law reforms in the party room. This is where all MPs in a political party meet regularly to discuss matters pertaining to parliament and policy. Individual MPs can float ideas and lobby for changes to the law within their own party. These proposals may or may not be accepted and acted upon by ministers and the Cabinet.

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