In a Parliament of change and loss of trust, Crawford Professor Carolyn Hendriks is hoping to find ways to strengthen political representation.
She has recently been awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship for her project Strengthening Political Representation in an Era of Democratic Change. This is a national competitive fellowship scheme, and in 2023 Hendriks’ project was one of only four projects that were funded in the category of Human Society, which includes diverse fields such as political science, policy and administration, sociology, anthropology, demography, criminology, human geography, development studies and others.
“We are in a moment of significant democratic change and declining trust.”
Over the course of a 4-year research project, Professor Hendriks will undertake empirical research to build new knowledge about the dynamics, demands and practices of contemporary representation. A central part of Hendriks’ research will involve empirically researching new Members of Parliament and new Senators in the 47th and 48th Parliaments of Australia. She will use interviews and observations to uncover how newly elected officials learn to undertake their representative role, and how they evolve in the job. “By studying new politicians, we get a better understanding of what resources and capabilities we need to strengthen, and what would help them in those first years of being an elected representative,” Professor Hendriks said. Supplementing the empirical work is a national and international audit which will identify innovative ways politicians can engage with citizens, and inform programs and resources to support the representative work of politicians.
“By looking at representation from the perspectives and lived experiences of politicians we can identify viable pathways, agents and resources for reform.”
During our conversation with Professor Hendriks, we talked about her journey of becoming an ARC Future Fellow and explored the rationale behind her project. “There is growing public demand for politicians to listen and directly engage with constituents, as seen at the recent 2022 Australian federal election when many voters supported locally engaged community candidates…this is something occurring within and outside parties….in response to these demands we see many politicians seeking to build and demonstrate ‘connections to community’ through innovative constituency activities,” Professor Hendriks said.
Professor Hendriks has already witnessed new MPs actively embracing innovative methods to work with, and represent constituents, for example setting up listening posts, offering parliamentary internships, and using digital petitions on specific legislation. Exactly how these novel practices of representation are reshaping the representative tasks of modern politicians is not well understood. For example, what skills and knowledge do they demand, and how do they sit alongside other representative activities such as constituency case work and campaigning?
The research will have real-world applications too, with findings to be used “to develop new online resources for politicians and citizens to understand and strengthen connections, and ‘classroom-ready’ tools for Australian students to demonstrate the diverse ways politicians and citizens can positively work together.” More broadly the project findings will feed into a range of initiatives in Australia and abroad to boost diversity and trust in democratic institutions.
All of this is possible because an ARC Future Fellowship covers the salary costs for the Fellow, allowing them to focus at least 80% of their time on research. Most grants, by way of contrast, provide funds for the research but they do not enable academics to take extended time away from their teaching and service responsibilities.
To secure an ARC Future Fellowship, academics must not only present a compelling project but also demonstrate a strong research and publication track record . The seed for Professor Hendriks’ project was planted in early 2015 when she began researching community politics in the Federal Seat of Indi, in NE Victoria. Her publication, Citizen-led democratic reform: innovations in Indi explored how a community group mobilised an electorate to improve local representation, eventually leading to the election of Independent MP Cathy McGowan in 2013. Hendriks used this case and others in a book on citizen-led democratic repair, titled Mending Democracy: democratic repair in disconnected times, which she co-authored with Selen Ercan and John Boswell.
Having examined different ways citizens trying to mend democracy, Professor Hendriks will now turn her attention to looking at what politicians are doing on the other side of the representative relationship. In her ARC Future Fellowship project she will explicitly look at how politicians are seeking to meet growing community expectations for our representatives to actively listen and engage with constituents.
The idea to pursue this research emerged during 2019 when Professor Hendriks was at Harvard University, where she had a Senior Visiting Fellowship at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Engaging with leading scholars of democracy including Professor Jane Mansbridge and Professor Archon Fung, and immersing herself in extensive library work, enabled Prof. Hendriks to develop up a research project for the next phase of her career.
For Professor Hendriks, this was her third and final opportunity to secure an ARC Future Fellowship. She described the long hours and months of dedicated work that the 55-page application took, knowing that, in the end, it could all be for nothing. Nevertheless, she approached it with resilience, choosing not to let the fear of failure overshadow her efforts. Instead, she embraced the application process as an opportunity to clarify and refine her research ideas and objectives.
Professor Hendriks credits her success to the unwavering support she received from various parts of the ANU, particularly from colleagues at the Crawford School of Public Policy and the College of Asia and the Pacific Research Office. She is the second recipient in the Crawford School of Public Policy’s history to receive this prestigious academic fellowship.
So, you may then ask how Professor Hendriks felt when she found out. “In absolute disbelief,” she says. The announcement was completely unexpected, with the results being released a month ahead of schedule.
We’d also like to acknowledge Professor Miranda Forsyth from the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, who also received Future Fellowship. Both Professors were among nine academics across the Australian National University to receive the ARC Future Fellowship funding this year.
From everyone here at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Congratulations Professor Carolyn Hendriks, on this remarkable achievement!