Opinion

What Is A Backbencher?

– Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy
09 Mar 2015 12:02
What Is A Backbencher?

– Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of Japan through the Candidates’ Manual School’s programme.

 

Welcome back to Parliament 101.   Last week we considered the role of the Opposition in Parliament.   While it was not highlighted then, hopefully you noticed that the concept of an Opposition depends on its relationship to the Government.

The Opposition gets it name from being against the Government of the day. If you keep this in mind, you will see why last week I called the backbench the most “parliamentary” part of the Parliament.

In an earlier column, Parliament 101 pointed out that the seating arrangements in the Parliament were not random. The seats, traditionally called “benches”, that are closest to the despatch box in the centre of the chamber are reserved for Government ministers or Opposition shadow ministers.

The seats behind the front row of seats are filled by MPs who do not hold any of these executive-related positions. So the MPs who sit on these “back benches” have been known collectively in the Westminster parliament as “backbenchers”.

What makes the backbenchers more parliamentary than those MPs sitting on the front benches?

It might stretch your memory but, to answer this question, you have to go back to the very first Parliament 101 and recall the division of governmental powers between the Executive and the Legislature.

In systems like the US, the powers are separated almost completely. However, in Westminster-based systems like Fiji’s Parliament, the Executive and the Legislative powers are fused together in important ways that make it difficult to tell the two roles apart.

But the backbenchers are the one group of MPs where there is no confusion in roles. They are parliamentarians and they are not identified by any Executive role.

This is why they can justly be described as the most “parliamentary” part of the Parliament.

Notice that this explanation creates another question. Why shouldn’t the Opposition shadow ministers be regarded as backbenchers also? After all they do not actually have any real Executive duties.

The answer lies nearly two centuries in the past; a few decades before the terms frontbench and backbench first came into use.

At this time, all those who sat behind the Ministers and all those on the opposite side of the chamber were just Members of Parliament. They may not have agreed with each other politically but they did not have a clear differentiation between them in roles other than not being Ministers.

Two things happened to change this state of affairs. The opposing MPs began to formalise themselves as an organised Opposition. Once structured in this way, the Opposition modelled its activities along the lines of an “alternative Government”. This pattern became even more tightly disciplined when political parties developed toward the end of the 19th Century.

As a consequence, the Opposition members who had responsibilities as alternative ministers sat directly opposite the Government on their front benches.   And, by extension, those in the Opposition who did not have a seat at the front sat behind on the Opposition’s backbenches.

Parliament 101 will look at the significance of some of these distinctions in some detail over the next two weeks when we consider the frontbenches on both sides of the parliamentary chamber.

However, this week we will continue to reflect on the significance of the term backbench and what it means in practice today.

In Fiji today, formally there is only one backbench. This is on the Government side. Every Opposition MP has an assigned shadow ministerial responsibility so there is no Opposition backbench.

That being said, because the Opposition MPs do not have official duties in the Executive arm of Government, they actually carry out many of the same duties that backbenchers fulfil in any parliament.

Since backbenchers do not have Executive duties, they can spend their time more fully parliamentary responsibilities.   These range from legislative duties through scrutiny of the Executive to representational activities.

Backbenchers can have an important role in ensuring that legislation is of the highest standard by participating the development of draft bills in the party room and in the debates on legislation in the chamber.

While we normally expect the Opposition MPs to carry the critical debate on the Government’s proposed legislation, the Government’s backbench can have a significant role to play in making sure the bill is ready to go into the chamber for debate.

The Government’s backbench can help the Ministers avoid tunnel vision by being active in the party room making sure that draft bills are likely to enjoy community support. This may also assist a busy Minister resist being captured by his or her Department by providing additional perspectives from the public.

Backbenchers are, of course, representatives and have very import roles to play in ensuring constituency concerns are raised in Parliament. Ministers have an enormous range of demands on their time. Thus, the burden of keeping in touch with the electorate falls more heavily on the backbenchers.

Backbenchers need to have open doors to allow the Government to be aware of grassroots concerns and problems. These might be expressed informally to the Ministers responsible on in the party room. There are also formal opportunities that can be used by backbenchers including initiating a debate on a matter of public importance or claiming a place in an adjournment debate.

However, if the Parliament is to exercise its responsibility for scrutiny of the Executive, committees are where this constitutional supremacy will be exhibited practically. The onus is on backbenchers therefore to look after the fundamental interests of the Parliament against the Executive.

Undoubtedly, their service on committees is the most significant role that backbenchers play as parliamentarians. As a general rule, Ministers cannot serve on committees because a principal purpose of most committees is to oversight the Ministers and their departments or to review their proposed legislation.

By convention, Standing Orders and practice, the distribution of places in parliamentary committees is determined by the party strengths on the floor of the Parliament.   This means that Government backbenchers have a majority on virtually all parliamentary committees.

If parliamentary committees are to work effectively, they will need the backbenchers to do their homework and to be mindful of their responsibility to protect the integrity of Parliament.

To conclude, while the role and activities of backbenchers are frequently under-valued, they are very central to the effective operation of the Parliament. Arguably, modern parliaments cannot do much of the work of the parliament without engaged and active backbenchers.

Having established something of the origins and roles of the parliamentary backbench, over the next two weeks, Parliament 101 will consider the other benches – the frontbenches on both sides of the chamber also known as the Ministry and the shadow ministry.

 

Welcome back to Parliament 101.   Last week we considered the role of the Opposition in Parliament.   While it was not highlighted then, hopefully you noticed that the concept of an Opposition depends on its relationship to the Government.

The Opposition gets it name from being against the Government of the day. If you keep this in mind, you will see why last week I called the backbench the most “parliamentary” part of the Parliament.

In an earlier column, Parliament 101 pointed out that the seating arrangements in the Parliament were not random. The seats, traditionally called “benches”, that are closest to the despatch box in the centre of the chamber are reserved for Government ministers or Opposition shadow ministers.

The seats behind the front row of seats are filled by MPs who do not hold any of these executive-related positions. So the MPs who sit on these “back benches” have been known collectively in the Westminster parliament as “backbenchers”.

What makes the backbenchers more parliamentary than those MPs sitting on the front benches?

It might stretch your memory but, to answer this question, you have to go back to the very first Parliament 101 and recall the division of governmental powers between the Executive and the Legislature.

In systems like the US, the powers are separated almost completely. However, in Westminster-based systems like Fiji’s Parliament, the Executive and the Legislative powers are fused together in important ways that make it difficult to tell the two roles apart.

But the backbenchers are the one group of MPs where there is no confusion in roles. They are parliamentarians and they are not identified by any Executive role.

This is why they can justly be described as the most “parliamentary” part of the Parliament.

Notice that this explanation creates another question. Why shouldn’t the Opposition shadow ministers be regarded as backbenchers also? After all they do not actually have any real Executive duties.

The answer lies nearly two centuries in the past; a few decades before the terms frontbench and backbench first came into use.

At this time, all those who sat behind the Ministers and all those on the opposite side of the chamber were just Members of Parliament. They may not have agreed with each other politically but they did not have a clear differentiation between them in roles other than not being Ministers.

Two things happened to change this state of affairs. The opposing MPs began to formalise themselves as an organised Opposition. Once structured in this way, the Opposition modelled its activities along the lines of an “alternative Government”. This pattern became even more tightly disciplined when political parties developed toward the end of the 19th Century.

As a consequence, the Opposition members who had responsibilities as alternative ministers sat directly opposite the Government on their front benches.   And, by extension, those in the Opposition who did not have a seat at the front sat behind on the Opposition’s backbenches.

Parliament 101 will look at the significance of some of these distinctions in some detail over the next two weeks when we consider the frontbenches on both sides of the parliamentary chamber.

However, this week we will continue to reflect on the significance of the term backbench and what it means in practice today.

In Fiji today, formally there is only one backbench. This is on the Government side. Every Opposition MP has an assigned shadow ministerial responsibility so there is no Opposition backbench.

That being said, because the Opposition MPs do not have official duties in the Executive arm of Government, they actually carry out many of the same duties that backbenchers fulfil in any parliament.

Since backbenchers do not have Executive duties, they can spend their time more fully parliamentary responsibilities.   These range from legislative duties through scrutiny of the Executive to representational activities.

Backbenchers can have an important role in ensuring that legislation is of the highest standard by participating the development of draft bills in the party room and in the debates on legislation in the chamber.

While we normally expect the Opposition MPs to carry the critical debate on the Government’s proposed legislation, the Government’s backbench can have a significant role to play in making sure the bill is ready to go into the chamber for debate.

The Government’s backbench can help the Ministers avoid tunnel vision by being active in the party room making sure that draft bills are likely to enjoy community support. This may also assist a busy Minister resist being captured by his or her Department by providing additional perspectives from the public.

Backbenchers are, of course, representatives and have very import roles to play in ensuring constituency concerns are raised in Parliament. Ministers have an enormous range of demands on their time. Thus, the burden of keeping in touch with the electorate falls more heavily on the backbenchers.

Backbenchers need to have open doors to allow the Government to be aware of grassroots concerns and problems. These might be expressed informally to the Ministers responsible on in the party room. There are also formal opportunities that can be used by backbenchers including initiating a debate on a matter of public importance or claiming a place in an adjournment debate.

However, if the Parliament is to exercise its responsibility for scrutiny of the Executive, committees are where this constitutional supremacy will be exhibited practically. The onus is on backbenchers therefore to look after the fundamental interests of the Parliament against the Executive.

Undoubtedly, their service on committees is the most significant role that backbenchers play as parliamentarians. As a general rule, Ministers cannot serve on committees because a principal purpose of most committees is to oversight the Ministers and their departments or to review their proposed legislation.

By convention, Standing Orders and practice, the distribution of places in parliamentary committees is determined by the party strengths on the floor of the Parliament.   This means that Government backbenchers have a majority on virtually all parliamentary committees.

If parliamentary committees are to work effectively, they will need the backbenchers to do their homework and to be mindful of their responsibility to protect the integrity of Parliament.

To conclude, while the role and activities of backbenchers are frequently under-valued, they are very central to the effective operation of the Parliament. Arguably, modern parliaments cannot do much of the work of the parliament without engaged and active backbenchers.

Having established something of the origins and roles of the parliamentary backbench, over the next two weeks, Parliament 101 will consider the other benches – the frontbenches on both sides of the chamber also known as the Ministry and the shadow ministry.

Response to Reader’s Question:

Vinaka to “man in the street” who asked via the office, “Is the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources duplicating the work being done by other authorities on the issue of rezoning Shirley Park in Lautoka?”

The Work of Committees
Parliament 101 cannot provide the sort of answer that the questioner might wish since we cannot know all the circumstances in this current case.   However, we hope a more general comment will suffice regarding the routine disagreements that arise when parliamentary committees look into the exercise of executive authority.
Committees are an extension of the Parliament’s role as the “grand inquest of the nation” because they are a microcosm of the Parliament.  Thus, committees can inquire into any matter that the Parliament directs to them.  Executive authorities may not like the exposure that committee inquiries bring but that is their function – to scrutinise, inform and ensure transparency.  However, their powers are generally limited to reporting their findings back to the Parliament.  They cannot duplicate executive acts because they do not have executive powers.
Parliament 101 plans to return to the role and powers of committees of inquiry in more detail in a later column.




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