News Analysis

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The Debate: Should we scrap the Seanad?

Published 13/09/2013 | 05:00

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Colm McCarthy and Joe O'Toole give their views

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Yes says Colm McCarthy

Keeping the status quo and calling for 'reform' will again go nowhere

The principal plank in the campaign to retain the Seanad appears to be some notion that it could be recycled into an alternative check on the Government, additional to Dail Eireann.

Aside from anything else, this would require a new constitution: the Government is accountable to the Dail, drawn from its members and appointed by them.

If the existing Seanad is an indefensible waste of time and money, as the Yes campaign insist, a more powerful, separate-but-equal Seanad, directly elected, and fighting for authority with the Dail, would be a nightmare.

Many large countries, but only a few smaller ones, have two-chamber parliaments.

Where both chambers have significant powers, there is regular stalemate, as happens periodically in the USA and is currently paralysing government in Italy.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to win the September 22 election for Germany's lower house but may not have a majority in the Bundesrat, a second chamber with significant powers.

Some German political commentators have been speculating that the election will not produce a decisive approach to the Eurozone's problems for this very reason.

Two-chamber systems work well, if one is powerless.

But what is the point of a powerless second chamber?

In the Irish version it provides a cross, in Michael McDowell's elegant phrase, between a creche and a retirement home for aspirant and defeated Dail deputies.

Deputies fearing defeat at the next election are naturally anxious to preserve the fall-back of the Senate.

But the electorate should object to the defeated Deputy Bloggs popping up weeks later as Senator Bloggs, courtesy of the party machine.

To argue the current ineffectiveness of the Dail in support of retaining the Senate is bizarre.

It is logically equivalent to purchasing a second and unreliable old banger because the one you have keeps failing to start on winter mornings.

Better, and cheaper, to fix it. The oversight of the executive by the Dail needs to be improved and the Government has begun to expand and empower the committee system.

The number of junior ministers has been reduced, the number of Dail deputies is being cut and the overall size of the national political establishment brought back into line with other small European countries.

Local government is being restructured and the freedom of information legislation is being strengthened.

There are many other tasks. In particular the new Department of Public Expenditure and Reform needs to come up with urgent measures to create a modern civil service fit for purpose.

Progress has been too slow under some of these headings but disposing of the distraction of Seanad 'reform' will clear the way for modernising the political and administrative institutions that actually matter.

If the referendum is defeated, the result will be interpreted as an endorsement of business-as-usual in Irish public life.

On both the left and the right, it is fascinating to observe the number of, in their own estimation, 'radical' commentators who wish to retain the Seanad.

These include the barrister and former Tanaiste Michael McDowell, a radical of the right, and 'Irish Times' columnist Fintan O'Toole, a radical of the left.

Faced with the prospect of real change, the creation of a single-chamber parliament that might actually work, these radicals want 'reform'.

At the last count, there had been 10 reports on reforming the Seanad since its foundation, none of which led to anything. Reform, as practised by Ireland's deeply conservative radicals, means avoiding any actual change.

Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein are campaigning for a Yes vote, but many of their senators are, openly or covertly, backing the other side. So are several backbench government TDs, particularly, it would appear, amongst the Labour ranks.

Some of these senators and deputies may be convinced that Ireland needs two chambers, but the conflict of interest is plain.

The Dail deputies covertly campaigning for the retention of the Seanad clearly take comfort in the availability of a safety-hammock in the upper house, should the voters call time-up at the next election.

The annual cost of running the Seanad has been estimated, not by the Government but by the civil servants who administer Leinster House, at roughly €20million per annum.

This figure is, however, not the full cost of the second chamber. Officials in government departments spend an appreciable amount of their time (and our money) handling queries and representations from those senators nursing Dail ambitions, a sizeable number.

All Oireachtas members, including, apparently, legions of former members, enjoy free car-parking in the precincts of Leinster House while in central Dublin, parking cost up to €3,000 per annum.

But the cost saving, though worthwhile in itself, is not the core issue. Abolishing the Seanad is another brick in the larger wall of political and administrative change. No wonder it is being resisted!

No says Joe O'Toole

Proposal is a shameless and unconstitutional bid by Kenny to amass more power

Having spent the last five years trying to repair the damage and pay the price for one politician's snap decision, you'd expect governments to have learnt a lesson.

No fair-minded person could do other than conclude that the Seanad – in particular its election system – is elitist and undemocratic. That is undeniable. Some of us have been singing that tune for more than 20 years. Indeed, it was for that same reason that Fine Gael set out some years ago to reform Seanad Eireann.

The party had consulted widely and made progress until Enda, without consultation or discussion, did a handbrake turn and announced that he would shut it down. Another snap decision. A jackboot taken to the Constitution for the sake of a power-grab.

Now, in a crude attempt to move this on, the Government offers the people the opportunity of sacking a few politicians, and instead of keeping the Seanad and fixing it they propose to abolish it. This referendum is presented as austerity for political classes. Enda promises to do more with less.

Yeah, right. Like he promised to reduce the number of TDs by 20, but the backbenchers told him to get lost. So that question will not appear in next month's referendum.

We've seen report after report proposing reform of the Seanad. Each raised our hopes, but none has been implemented. They remain as doorstoppers in government departments. Why? Because, unfortunately – or maybe very cleverly – the Seanad has never been allowed the power to reform itself: only the Dail can do that.

And why would they? The last thing any government and its unelected advisers want is an awkward Upper House where, in the words of the Constitution, senators with "experience and knowledge" query, challenge and scrutinise government policies and legislation.

The idea of a Seanad that would not remain in the maw of political parties is anathema to governments. The truth is that the Seanad has been suppressed and kept as a creature of governments. It has been weakened to the point of being unable to do what the Constitution envisaged. Not surprising, then, that the current lot can point at the Seanad and sneer: "Look, it's useless, let's get rid of it."

The Seanad Reform Bill before the Dail and Seanad offers a vote to every citizen north and south; it reaches out to Irish passport-holders abroad and ensures gender balance of senators. It could all be done within a few weeks and would not require a referendum.

It would be a perfect example of a civic forum building a bridge between the people and the political establishment. It would also remove the Seanad from the curse of the whip system which is destroying Irish politics.

When you think of it that way, is it any wonder the Government ran a mile from it? After all, this is a government with no tolerance of opposing points of view. People who disagree are sacked.

THE government campaign is full of misinformation, innuendo and untruths. It suggests, for instance, that a reformed Seanad would simply replicate the Dail, despite the fact that the Constitution prevents that possibility. It also points to the fact that the Seanad has rarely, if ever, turned over a Dail decision, despite the fact that the Constitution ensures the Seanad should never pervert the will of the people as determined by the Dail.

The role of the Seanad is to bring to bear on government policies and legislation the expertise and knowledge of experienced people nominated by ordinary, non-political groups in Irish society.

Next month is baby and bathwater time. The bathwater which needs to be dumped is the current Seanad electoral system. The baby we need to rescue so it can grow and flourish is the Seanad as enshrined in the Constitution.

The Seanad we have was messed up not by the people or the Constitution but by the Dail that dreamt up the current appallingly undemocratic and impenetrable Seanad electoral system. We have a chance next month to send it back to the Government and Dail and say "do it right this time".

Joe O'Toole is a founder member of Democracy Matters, which is campaigning to retain and reform Seanad Eireann

Irish Independent

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