The Role of the Backbench

A few months ago I raised the matter of the First Home Buyers Grant artificially inflating property prices. Much of what I wrote has since been reaffirmed by a number of commentators and economists in the national media. Even Joe Hockey as Shadow Treasurer made similar comments a few weeks later.

But today’s comment is not an ‘I told you so’ moment. It is a reflection on what happened as a result of what I wrote.

Several media outlets contacted me after my column and during one ABC radio interview, the journalist made the none-too-subtle suggestion that as a backbencher my role was not to express a public opinion on policy but to simply reflect others’ opinions on policy matters.

At the time I thought it was a rather unusual position for a journalist to take but over the past few weeks I have had cause to reflect on what he said and the role of backbench politicians.

Naturally, a backbencher has the usual responsibilities related to constituencies, committees and the workings of Parliament. But should we really expect the backbench to simply be a nodding dog when it comes to public discussion or debate on matters of policy?

In my mind, backbenchers should be stimulating public debate by actively engaging in the battle of ideas. Sometimes this will include questioning existing policy approaches and at times, advocating for taking a different course.

Of course I know there are existing forums within political parties to discuss policy, but too often there is an expectation that we should only talk amongst ourselves rather than in the public domain.

The problem with public comments in modern politics is that any advocacy for a new approach, or a difference of opinion, is reported as an ‘attack on the leadership’ or ‘disloyalty’. Now sometimes this is a fair summation but often it is not.

The fact that disagreement is usually the key criteria that makes a backbencher’s comments of interest to the media says something about the level of political debate in this country. Rather than viewing their challenging contributions through the prism of ‘provocateur’, shouldn’t we actually be expecting our backbench parliamentary representatives to actively engage and lead public debate?

Now I am the first one to acknowledge that there is a time to speak up and a time to shut up. Ultimately, that judgement must reside with the representative. After all, they were elected to use exactly that judgement in serving their electorates.

The challenge we face, though, is that the current approach to being a public voice from the backbench means that anything not absolutely in line with party policy often causes a flurry of phone calls and admonishment from people further up the political food chain.

Frankly, I feel it is time to ensure the time-honoured role of the backbench MP to voice their opinion about what they deem to be important is encouraged rather than suppressed.

After all, a politician who has something meaningful to say but feels inhibited from doing so because of possible accusations of disloyalty is not only doing a disservice to themselves and to their electorate, but is actually compromising the cornerstone of our democracy.

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