When I ran for election in 2011 I stated that I would campaign for reform or abolition of the currently undemocratic Seanad. This week, I am honouring that commitment by introducing a Seanad reform bill to the chamber, a bill which if passed would not only democratise the electoral process for the upper house by extending the franchise to all adult citizens, but would also make it easier for ordinary citizens to contest Seanad elections.
The current Seanad is an affront to democracy. Forty-three of the 60 members are elected to the Agricultural, Administrative, Cultural/Educational, Industrial/Commercial, and Labour panels by a constituency which is limited to politicians – ie, county councillors and members of the outgoing Oireachtas. Unsurprisingly, these seats closely follow party lines, and all 43 in the current Seanad are from the big four parties.
Another 11 members are directly appointed by the Taoiseach, and while our current Taoiseach has appointed some very worthy and accomplished non-party members to the chamber, these seats are usually seen as political gifts for political loyalists.
Paradoxically, the six seats on the university panels, correctly regarded as elitist in that their electorate is confined to graduates of the National University of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin, are the only ones with any type of "popular" mandate. Tellingly, the university seats seldom go to the parties. Five of the current six are independents.
This democratic deficit provides much of the popular antipathy to the upper house, and it is my opinion that the proposed Seanad abolition referendum, which Enda Kenny has promised will come in 2013, would likely pass handily if the people are offered a straightforward "keep as is" or "abolish" choice. Parenthetically, Brendan Howlin has already told us that the abolition will not save any money, as the Seanad's financial resources will be redeployed to Dail committees.
There is, in my opinion, precisely zero chance that Mr Kenny will offer a third "reform" choice to the people. My legislation, in the event that it passes the Seanad, would have the effect of providing that choice, by ensuring that a tacit alternative existed on the parliamentary order papers at the time of the referendum. The fact that the Reform Bill was working its way through the parliamentary system would not prevent anyone, even those who voted for the Bill, campaigning for Seanad abolition in the referendum itself. Senators who vote for the Bill are not necessarily opposing Seanad abolition, rather, they are enhancing the choice facing the citizenry in the referendum.
So what is in the Bill? In the first instance it is a somewhat limited reform, constrained by the Constitution. The chamber must still exist within the current boundaries of Bunreacht na hEireann. As a result, the panels will continue to exist, although in my reform, they will be elected by the citizens not by politicians. Similarly, we can't change the Taoiseach's right of nomination without a referendum, and in truth there are actually certain potential advantages to the latter arrangement, which could prevent gridlock between the houses, and could allow the Taoiseach the flexibility to appoint some non-TD experts to Cabinet. Certainly an economist or two might have been handy around the cabinet table in recent years.
The most important reform is the extension of the franchise. Every adult citizen will be able to vote in any "panel" constituency, but only in one of them. As with the Taoiseach's nominees, the six university seats cannot be removed without a referendum.
Instead, they will be opened up to all graduates of all universities and institutes of technology. Where someone votes in the university constituencies, they cannot vote in the other panels. Thus the unfair advantage of the graduates is erased. One person one vote, graduate or not.
Irish citizens who live abroad and who take the trouble to join the electoral register will also be able to vote via their nearest embassy.
The process of candidate selection would also be democratized. Unlike the current bizarre situation (bet you didn't know that the Vintners' Federation are a "nominating body" for Seanad elections), any citizen would be allowed to contest Seanad elections by a process of popular nomination. Candidates will need the signatures of 1,000 citizens on their nomination papers. They will thus not need the backing of a party.
To ensure that this isn't a burden on the State, the Seanad elections are to be held in parallel with the Dail elections, and any extra costs will be deducted from the expenses that political parties, and senators, already receive.
These reforms would be profoundly pro-democratic. They would give citizens a much greater, more direct say in how some of their parliamentarians are selected, from candidacy through to election.
Critically, it would also give us a cohort of public representatives who are not elected on the basis of local issues. Having parliamentarians with such a "national" focus can only be good for our country, and would provide the main raison d'etre of the second chamber. It would also give us some talented individuals who chose not to navigate the apparatus of a local party organisation. We have good precedents. Sean Barrett is a spectacular example.
Seanad Eireann is a house of parliament which was deliberately set up to exclude the people from its deliberations. We need a mechanism which allows the people to hold the executive, and the bureaucracy which envelopes it, to account. These reforms would enable citizens to make a greater contribution to our Republic.
In the recent past, the Seanad failed our people. So too did the Dail. The Dail culling the Seanad as a "reform" is like shooting your dog for not protecting your property, when it was you who let the burglars in.
The Seanad may have been asleep at the tiller, but while the boom times were getting boomier, it was in the Dail that we saw "auction" politics in all its glory.
We need to reform the Dail too, but that will require a referendum. In these pages some years ago I pleaded for a New Republic a "Dara Poblacht". It is time for change. Seanad reform would be a small first step.
Senator John Crown is a consultant oncologist and member of Seanad Eireann for the National University of Ireland.