Tuesday 25 June 2019

John Crown: Vested interests will be only ones to benefit if senators shown door

Getting rid of the upper house is a cynical ploy that won't save a cent

John Crown

Ask yourself one question as Enda requests that you abolish one half of our national parliament.

Cui bono? Who benefits?

Vested interests are pushing Seanad extinction as a smokescreen to cover their refusal to reform the Dail, reform that is desperately needed, reform that would tend to diminish their power. Seanad abolition, however, will concentrate power in their hands.

The process of politics in Ireland is broken. The evidence is in the dole queues, ghost estates, foreclosed mortgages and around empty, emigration-ravaged hearths. The principal responsibility lies with politicians, not Tiger bankers and real estate developers who acted rationally and in self-interest. While there was some corruption, the system offered them legal rewards for giving bad loans and building unneeded houses, so they did.

Elected politicians and officials were the ones charged with the task of reining in the self-interest of the bankers and developers. They failed.

Was this due to corruption? Sometimes; but the principal failure was incompetence. We had a government that had no idea how to steward an economy that was giving deadly warning signs. We had an opposition that failed to oppose disastrous policies, preferring as Fine Gael did to try and out-bid the Fianna Fail/PD/Green alliance in inflating the economy. We had no PhD economists working on the Department of Finance frontline during the bank guarantee.

Why do we have such unqualified leaders?

We elect people whose principal skill is adroitly navigating their local party constituency organisation, often aided by genetic inheritance. Most of the political energy expended in Ireland goes into a quintennial sniping match between Civil War parties with interchangeable values. The absurdity of the situation is illustrated by the fact that the bitterest rival of a Dail candidate isn't his or her opponent from an ideologically opposed party, but their constituency party colleague.

TDs act as local reps whose primary incentive is to get re-elected and whose primary currency in achieving that end is their ability to act as mini-ombudsmen between their constituents and the state bureaucracy.

The whips tell a new TD when they can speak, what they can speak about, how long they can speak for and what they can say. The motto is "survival of the dumbest". If you keep getting elected and don't offend the party, you might become Taoiseach some day, even if you never introduce a bit of legislation in your whole backbench career

Thinking is bad. It gets you booted out of the party. It suits the political leadership and bureaucrats that TDs have no parliamentary role other than to vote as they are told by the whips. There is no scrutiny, no oversight of the actions of bad Taoisigh. This is a country that has been brought to its knees by bad Taoisigh.

If Enda was a sincere reformer, he would try to increase accountability. Instead, he has shown himself to be surprisingly authoritarian, ejecting conscientious dissent not only from the party but from expert committees where party good should be subjugated to national.

His referendum would remove the oversight powers of the Seanad and hugely limit those of the President, removing the ability of a Seanad majority plus a third of the Dail to refer a bill to the President, who could in turn consult the people. Only the Supreme Court then stands in the way of bad legislation, and post-abolition a Taoiseach can, with a sufficiently large whipped Dail majority, remove Supreme Court judges (and the Ombudsman and Comptroller and Auditor General). That fellow citizens, is a power-grab.

The Seanad was designed to be a deliberative chamber that would bring life experience and expertise to parliament beyond that provided by full-time politicians. It was vocational rather than political, national rather than local. The blame for its failure rests entirely at the door of the political parties who have deliberately turned it into the accurately cliched nursing home/incubator for failed or aspirant TDs.

It needs reform, and I wrote a reform bill that would extend the vote to every citizen at home and to those abroad who make the effort to register.

Despite its failures, the Seanad has achievements. In the current term alone, 550 amendments have been made to flawed Dail legislation, including critical protections for those in the stranglehold of the banks.

If the Seanad disappears tomorrow, we will lose the only PhD economist from the finance committee, the only PhD educationalist from the education committee and the only doctor from the health committee. We will save no money (Fine Gael TDs have admitted the €20m is a lie). What savings are made will be diverted to Enda's new committees, not to hospitals.

Enda's referendum would result in less expertise in the Oireachtas, less accountability of government and no financial saving. Cui bono?

Senator John Crown is a consultant oncologist. Twitter: @ProfJohnCrown

Sunday Independent

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