Seanad an indefensible institution that should rightly be abolished
Arguments by the No campaign of a 'power grab' by the Dail just don't stack up, writes Colm McCarthy
Published 29/09/2013 | 05:00
The arguments in favour of a single-chamber parliament are compelling. Having run the Irish economy into the buffers twice in a generation, the Irish political system, including the system of public administration, needs radical change. The referendum next Friday on the abolition of the Seanad needs to be seen as one step in a broader process of streamlining a system that has failed too often.
Second parliamentary chambers are often found in large federal states, including the USA and Germany, and in countries which need somewhere to park a landed aristocracy, such as the United Kingdom. Neither of these considerations arises in Ireland and most small European countries get by with just one parliamentary body. New Zealand, a small country which also inherited a Westminster-style political structure, abolished its second chamber back in 1951. Some smaller countries never had two chambers; others abolished them as a positive political decision, including Denmark in 1953, Hungary in 1960, Sweden in 1970, Turkey in 1980 and Croatia in 2001. There is no public uprising in any of these countries demanding the restoration of an upper house.
It is easy to understand why so many senators are campaigning to keep the Seanad, a handy part-time job for many and a stepping-stone to the Dail for others. There are quite a few TDs who fear for their seats when the next election comes and they too can be forgiven for seeking to retain the safety-hammock in the Seanad that might console them in defeat. But these are purely personal perspectives. While the No campaign has raised a series of supposedly principled objections to Seanad abolition, every one of them is without merit and no attempt has been made to justify the retention of the Seanad as it stands, since the institution is indefensible. It has also defied reform despite 10 separate initiatives since it was founded.
A principal plank in the No campaign is the implausible notion that it can be "reformed" into a democratic body, elected directly by the public, acting as a second check on government additional to Dail Eireann. If next Friday's referendum is defeated, there is zero chance that the Dail will agree to downgrade itself in this manner. The process of political change will come to an inglorious end, with the Seanad limping on indefinitely in its current unsatisfactory form. Faced with the prospect of actual change, the conservative forces in Irish politics invariably start chanting "reform", which means setting up a committee to look into the matter, slowly, and with no resulting action. A No vote is a vote for no change.
Second parliamentary chambers are relatively harmless, though a waste of money, provided they are powerless. If the Seanad could somehow be conferred with real constitutional powers and democratic legitimacy as the No campaigners assert, the outcome would be a real shambles, not just a waste of money. There is every likelihood that the government would regularly lack a majority in the second chamber, and that the two would be in conflict, refusing to legislate. At present, it does not greatly matter, given the limited powers of the Seanad, if the government of the day loses its Seanad majority. This rarely happens anyway, since 11 of the 60 Seanad seats are in the gift of the Taoiseach. But countries with two powerful parliamentary chambers, including the USA, Italy and Germany, often face political paralysis when the two chambers conflict.
The accusation that the abolition of the Seanad represents a "power grab" by those who command a Dail majority does not stack up. The Seanad has no power to grab. If it were to be conferred with additional powers and legitimacy, there would a dangerous division of democratic authority with a weakened Dail. Nobody advocating this course appears to have thought through the consequences.
Another spurious argument for retaining a "reformed" Seanad is that the Dail is irretrievably defective and the Seanad provides some kind of check on inevitable Dail mistakes. This is a counsel of despair, since it assumes that no improvements to the Dail are possible. It is also internally inconsistent, since its proponents will not defend the existing Seanad, which unlike the Dail they presume to be capable of effortless upgrading. Why keep two parliamentary chambers when it has been shown in many other countries that effective representation and governance can be delivered with one? The correct reaction, if your washing machine keeps breaking down, is to get it fixed, not to keep a second dodgy appliance in reserve.
In a panel discussion on Matt Cooper's Today FM programme on Thursday last, former Tanaiste and PD leader Michael McDowell, a prominent No campaigner, advanced the rather desperate notion that the Seanad was needed in order to protect the civil rights of citizens. It has no functions whatsoever in that regard and never had. Civil rights are guaranteed in the Constitution and vindicated every day in the courts. Countries without second chambers, including Norway, Sweden and Denmark, have civil rights to beat the band.
The cost of maintaining the Seanad is estimated, not by the Government but by the civil servants who administer Leinster House, at around €20m per annum. This is the direct cost of personal expenses and salaries for senators and their assistants, office accommodation, the continuing accrual of pension entitlements and the various support services. However, this figure does not cover the full cost of supporting a second chamber. All Oireachtas members, including apparently legions of former members, enjoy free car parking in the precincts of Leinster House. In central Dublin parking spaces cost up to €3,000 per annum.
Officials in government departments and State agencies must devote an appreciable amount of their time (and our money) to processing representations on behalf of "constituents" from those senators nursing Dail ambitions, a sizeable number. But senators are not supposed to have constituents. They are not elected from geographical areas but rather are supposed to represent a national perspective.
While the cost saving is worthwhile in itself, it is not the core issue. Abolishing the Seanad is another brick in a much larger wall of political and administrative change. The financial crash of 2008 has been followed by a sharp decline in living standards, tax increases, cuts in social programmes, a trebling of unemployment and the return of large-scale emigration. But this was not an asteroid strike from deep space, it was a rerun of the severe mismanagement of the Irish economy in the late 1970s and 1980s. The political and administrative system has failed twice in a generation and while external factors have played a role, it is fatuous to pretend that Ireland's crises have not been home-grown to a large degree. If the system of politics itself is deficient, then it needs to be re-engineered and all the main political parties identified changing the political structures as a priority in their 2011 election manifestoes. With the exception of Fianna Fail, all of the main parties are supporting a Yes vote in Friday's referendum.
Scrapping the Seanad will help to clear the decks for the completion of the change programme in Dail Eireann, which has already begun. The oversight of the executive arm by the Dail needs to be improved and the Government has begun to renovate the committee system. There have been other useful steps. The number of junior ministers has been reduced and the number of Dail deputies is being cut to 158 from 166. Local government has been streamlined: there are fewer councillors and fewer councils. The Government has announced plans to strengthen the freedom of information legislation and to require political parties to run more women candidates.
The changes under way have concentrated on the role of elected public officials, in government and in parliament, but there have been failings too from appointed officials in the civil service, in regulatory bodies, in State agencies and in local government. If next Friday's referendum disposes of the distraction of Seanad "reform", this ought to clear the path to modernising the political and administrative institutions that really matter. But should the referendum be defeated, it will be interpreted as evidence of the conservatism of the electorate and a victory for sticking to the old ways. The real risk from a No victory is a return to business-as-usual in Irish public life.