What are MPs’ working conditions like? Well, for a start, they work fairly long hours: 6.4 days a week for lower house MPs and 6.2 days a week for Senators in parliamentary sitting weeks, and 6.2 days and 5.8 days a week respectively in non-sitting weeks, according to one source. This includes time in Parliament and parliamentary committees, in party meetings, meeting with constituents, attending (and perhaps speaking at) community events, and doing the large amount of reading, preparation and follow-up involved in all these tasks. As well, there is more work for ministers, shadow ministers and those with specific parliamentary roles.
As well, there is a considerable travel, to and from Canberra and to different parts of their electorates, especially for those MPs whose seats are furthest from Canberra and those with rural seats. MPs tend to stay in Canberra during sitting weeks, which can be disruptive and lonely for them and their families.
There is also the stress of media and social media scrutiny, and possibly online abuse and threats that affect members and their families. The public constantly criticises MPs, and rarely has a good word for them, and, while this may often be warranted, it is clearly an occupational stress and arguably unfair for those MPs who are working hard in what they see as the public interest.
Why should voters seek to improve MPs’ working conditions?
The following are five possible reasons why voters should do this:
- As MPs are paid out of government funds, this means, in effect, that we the people are their employers. All employers should ensure that those on their payroll have working conditions that are fair, reasonable and safe, and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to MPs as much as anyone else.
- Overworked and stressed MPs, and those whose families are affected by their working conditions, are less likely to do a good job or to stay in the job for very long.
- Such conditions, together with the low regard the public has for politicians, may also deter many people of ability and commitment from standing for election.
- MPs may be more ready to listen to voters’ concerns if voters show concern for them and their working conditions.
- While MPs are in a position to improve their own working conditions, they may be deterred from doing so by the expectation of a negative public reaction to this, with possible electoral consequences, so if voters speak out on this matter on their behalf it could make a difference.
What can be done about it?
Measures that could possibly help to improve MPs’ working conditions include:
- Smaller electorates: Federal lower house seats now have three times as many voters in them as they did at the time of Federation, as the population has increased sixfold, while the number of seats has only doubled, so that means three times as many voters to represent. If MPs had fewer people to represent, they could do a better job of representing each of them and be less stressed at the same time.
- More electorate staff: While the MP is ultimately responsible for the work done, getting more assistance could make a big difference.
- More online meetings and possibly online parliamentary sittings: This would save travel time and total time spent in Canberra away from family and community.
- Changing how Parliament functions: For example, many observers see parliamentary question time as a complete waste of time, as it does not achieve what it was intended to achieve and only serves to make politicians look worse in the public eye. Abolishing this would save MPs about four hours a sitting week.
- Valuing MPs and their work: Many MPs put in a lot of hard work and do a good job, although this can’t be said for all of them. (Voters, of course, will make up their own mind on this.) If, collectively, MPs and voters can together do politics differently, then a likely consequence of this would be a higher regard for MPs, which would lead, among other things, to better job satisfaction and more people of high calibre wanting to take on this role.