New research from The Australia Institute (TAI) shows that the number of constituents represented by each Federal MP has tripled since Federation and only 13 per cent of Australians have ever spoken to their representative.
The report also shows that the increase in parliamentarians has not kept pace with Australia’s population, with representation per capita halving since the 1950s.
A national opinion poll released with the report, conducted by Research Now on behalf of TAI, asked Australians about their relationship with their local Member of Parliament.
Less than a third of respondents felt confident that they would be able to speak with their local MP if they were concerned about a current political issue.
The poll also showed that only 16 per cent of respondents had written to their local MP and 61 per cent of respondents did not know the name of their local MP.
“Representative democracy is built on the idea that politicians are accessible to their electorate and will take the views and values of their community to Parliament,” TAI Executive Director Ben Oquist said.
“Seven in 10 Australians don’t feel confident that they could raise concerns with their local MP. That is not surprising given that less than two in 10 have ever spoken to him or her.
“The disconnect between members and their electorates is a vicious cycle, where low engagement leads to people valuing their representatives less.”
Half of those surveyed say that the number of federal parliamentarians should be decreased and just nine per cent say that the number should be increased.
The number of Australians that each senator and local member must represent is at its highest point since Federation.
“In 1901, there were 34,500 Australians for every federal parliamentarian. In 1951, it was 46,900. Today, there are about 106,000 Australians per parliamentarian,” Mr Oquist explained.
“It will take real leadership to break this cycle and admit that our politicians may be stretched too thinly.
“A functioning democracy is not expensive. The risk of the public losing confidence in our democracy and it becoming dysfunctional would be the most costly option.”
It seems counter-intuitive but more politicians may actually be the answer to Australia’s current democratic malaise.
Democracy in Australia is definitely struggling. Late last year, an Essential survey found that 73 per cent of Australians think politics is fixated on short-term gains and not on addressing long-term challenges.
Only 34 per cent thought politicians were good at making difficult decisions when representing their communities, and just 39 per cent thought that parliaments were effective at tackling the major challenges facing their communities.
Most people don’t want to see more politicians in Australia because they believe they are more interested in looking after big corporate donors rather than the interests of the community.
Therefore, before we look at increasing the number of politicians in our parliament we need to make sure our politicians are playing by the rules – and that starts with a federal corruption watchdog with teeth.
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced on Tuesday that the Labor Party would commit to a federal anti-corruption watchdog if it wins the next election.
Mr Shorten also told the National Press Club that his Integrity Commission would have the sweeping powers of a royal commission and would examine “serious and systemic corruption in the public sector”.
Increasing the number of politicians would give parliamentarians a smaller electorate to focus on and make it easier for voters to mobilise to influence their representatives.
An increase in the number of parliamentarians would make it easier for them to engage with – and be engaged by – the community they are supposed to represent. This would in turn underscore the value of parliamentarians, and improve public attitudes to politicians, but first we need to know that we are not just getting more of the same.
What do you think? Have you ever spoken to your local MP? Do you think Australia would be better served by more politicians?