Political representation in Australia

Rodney Smith, The University of Sydney

Marian Sawer and Gianni Zappalà (eds) Speaking for the People: Representation in Australian Politics Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2001 (330 pp). ISBN 0-522-84972-5 (paperback). RRP $32.95.

Marian Sawer (ed) Elections: Full, Free and Fair Leichhardt, The Federation Press, 2001 (256 pp). ISBN 1-86287-395-X (paperback). RRP $38.50.

Claims to political representation are often contested and always contestable. Consider the recently elected leader of the NSW parliamentary Liberal Party, John Brogden. Media commentary depicted Brogden as able to represent the young because of his own relative youth, the Labor-voting new middle class because of his stated liberal social values, the Labor-voting old working class because of his childhood roots in blue collar Balmain and the business class because the Millenium Forum, the Liberal business fundraiser, liked him. At least one commentator argued that Brogden’s proclaimed support for public schools meant that he was better able than the Carr government to represent families using state schools, since Carr’s ministers sent their children to private schools.

These claims draw on different and often conflicting measures of representation. Some rest on who Brogden is, others on what he has said, and yet others on what he has done. In the case of education, for example, media commentary compared what Brogden has said with what Carr’s ministers have done in their roles as parents. Had the commentary compared Brogden’s statements with statements on education by Carr and his ministers, or compared Brogden as a childless graduate of a private school with Labor ministers who send their children to private schools, then different conclusions might have been drawn about his suitability as a representative of families using state schools.

Competing claims to political representation do not just occur in the spin of political leadership contests and the swirl of instant media commentary. As Hanna Pitkin demonstrated in her seminal work The Concept of Representation (1967), leading political philosophers have argued inconclusively over such claims for centuries. She concludes her survey:

Political representation is as wide and varied in range as representation will allow. The most we can hope to do when confronted by such multiplicity is to be clear on what view of representation a particular writer is using, and whether that view, its assumptions and implications, really fit the case to which (s)he is trying to apply them (1967, pp. 228–9).

The essays collected in Marian Sawer and Gianni Zappalà’s Speaking for the People can be read as attempts to tease out and assess the ‘assumptions and implications’ involved in contemporary claims about the representation of various groups in Australian politics.

The first part of the book is entitled ‘Challenges to Traditional Concepts’. Few of the challenges outlined are novel. Anne Phillips defends the importance of institutions representing minority and marginalised groups along lines that will be familiar to readers of her other work. As she acknowledges in her conclusion, her arguments leave a range of traditional questions and objections unanswered. Marian Sawer surveys historical and contemporary Australian electoral and parliamentary representation, largely through the traditional lenses of trusteeship, delegation, mandates, mirror representation and the like. Former Chief Justice Anthony Mason traces the High Court’s reasoning in recent cases involving implied democratic rights in the Australian Constitution. Perhaps not unexpectedly, Mason defends the High Court’s conservative approach to defining ‘representative government’, finding its meaning in the text of the Constitution and the definition provided by the political scientist A.H. Birch in Representative and Responsible Government (1964). Birch’s understanding of representative government, as a system of government in which (only) the most powerful house of parliament is popularly elected, is explicitly rooted in British traditions. Finally, in a replay of the old direct versus representative democracy debate, George Williams defends Westminster-style representation against Australian advocates of Citizen Initiated Referendums.

Philosophers have argued over claims to political representation for centuries.

Part of the difficulty with political representation is determining which of the various dimensions of our individual and group identities we want to be represented politically at any time. Few of us could order the competing dimensions of our identities with as much certainty as that great representative Arthur Beetson, who once proclaimed ‘I consider myself an Australian first, a Queenslander second and part-Aboriginal third’ (quoted in Masters 1990, p. 9). The later chapters in Speaking for the People do, however, implicitly nominate some aspects of identity as more salient to representation than others. These are aboriginality (Tim Rowse), ethnicity (Gianni Zappalà), gender (Marian Sawer), sexuality (Sue Wills, Dennis Altman), experience of disease (Altman), disability (Helen Meekosha) and poverty (John May).

The discussions in these chapters of the problems and possibilities of representing particular identities are mostly insightful and based on solid research. Two examples give their flavour. Rowse traces the difficulties of establishing legitimate processes and institutions of representation and empowerment for Aboriginal Australians since the 1970s. One key difficulty has been the lack of fit between national representative bodies such as ATSIC and the local orientations of Aboriginal communities. Rowse persuasively argues that by pursuing a parliamentary-style electoral approach to ATSIC, governments have missed opportunities for more appropriate models based on representatives drawn from local indigenous organisations. Zappalà shows that the ethnic composition of electorates and the ethnicity of parliamentarians are both important to patterns of political representation. Anglo-celtic and minority ethnic parliamentarians represent in different ways. Regardless of their own ethnicity, however, parliamentarians with significant minority ethnic communities in their electorates have to adapt their representative styles to the needs and practices of those communities.

It is perhaps a sign of the post-industrial, post-socialist times that no chapter is devoted to the political representation of class, once a staple of debates about representation in capitalist democracies (see, for example, Miliband 1969). Early in the book, Sawer notes that very few federal parliamentarians come from blue collar occupations but she builds no arguments on this fact. Nothing in the book speaks, for example, to the recent Third Way arguments of Mark Latham that ‘aspirational’ working class Australians are looking for new forms of representation (see, for example, Botsman & Latham 2001, Latham 2002).

If the treatment of class is scanty, religious identity does not feature at all. Why should it? Because, as Marion Maddox suggests in her lively monograph For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics (2001), religion is important to federal parliamentary representation. One of Maddox’s key findings is that religion informs parliamentarians’ representation across a surprisingly wide range of issues—not just abortion and euthanasia but, for example, industrial relations, tax reform and native title. Another even more striking finding is the disagreement among the parliamentarians Maddox interviewed about where religion should and should not be a relevant consideration in representing the people. We need more research like Maddox’s if we are to understand the religious dimension of Australian political representation.

It is a sign of the times that no chapter is devoted to the political representation of class.

Discussions of representation often privilege one political institution as the special site of representation. Usually this is parliament, or more specifically ‘the most powerful’ house of parliament, as in the High Court’s definition of representative government. Readers wishing to understand the development of the distinctive combination of electoral processes that has produced Australian parliamentary representatives—the secret ballot, compulsory voting, preferential voting, the Hare-Clark system, and so on—will find much of interest in Marian Sawer’s collection Elections: Full, Free and Fair. As its sub-title suggests, the book is mostly laudatory and/or descriptive. Taken together, its chapters trace a trajectory of Australian success, from electoral experiments in the colonial period to the recent work of the Australian Electoral Commission in exporting electoral expertise to states like South Africa and Cambodia.

As most of the contributions to Speaking for the People suggest, the sites of legitimate and effective political representation extend well beyond parliament and elections to a range of other executive and bureaucratic political institutions. Zappalà and Sawer have structured their book to highlight this point. They also take it up in their conclusion. One of the unresolved questions in the book, however, is whether the political representation of groups in these various institutions can somehow be aggregated to form coherent and defensible judgements about the adequacy of representation across the Australian political system as a whole. Perhaps this is simply too difficult a question to tackle seriously. Perhaps its very difficulty in turn confirms the more modest goals for students of political representation set out by Hanna Pitkin in The Concept of Representation a third of a century ago.


Botsman, P. & Latham, M. 2001, The Enabling State, Pluto Press, Sydney.

Birch, A.H. 1964, Representative and Responsible Government, Allen and Unwin, London.

Latham, M. 2002, ‘Labor Must Reclaim the Revolution’, The Australian, 6 May.

Maddox, M. 2001, For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra.

Masters, R. 1990, Inside League, Pan, Sydney.

Miliband, R. 1969, The State in Capitalist Society, Quartet, London.

Pitkin, H. 1967, The Concept of Political Representation, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Rodney Smith teaches Australian politics at The University of Sydney and once completed a research Masters thesis on modern theories of political representation.