Thursday 21 November 2019

Seanad is an affront to a democracy in dire need of attention

While the status quo will not suffice, there is hope for a new type of elected Seanad, writes John Crown

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has recently reaffirmed his intention to put the issue of Seanad abolition to a referendum.

Support for abolition appears to be strong, and while the somewhat quirky and atypical composition of the current upper house seems to have prompted speculation that a reformed version might still have something to offer, my own belief is that the people, disillusioned with politicians, and concerned with wasteful public spending, would, if confronted with this simple choice, abolish it.

My own position is clear. If the choice is maintenance of the status quo or abolition, I too will support abolition.

Why? It is because I believe that the Seanad as currently constituted is an affront to democracy. Our parliament should be comprised entirely of elected representatives who are chosen by their fellow citizens. Our current upper house gives an anachronistic partial suffrage to the graduates of two of our universities, appointment rights for just over one sixth of the seats to one person (the Taoiseach), and allows professional politicians to pick the rest. The result is a chamber which is dominated by aspirant Dail members, unsuccessful Dail candidates and sundry party loyalists, sprinkled with academics of varying degrees of eccentricity.

Some brilliant Irish citizens such as Oliver St John Gogarty, WB Yeats and Garret Fitzgerald have graced its halls, but it must, however, be admitted that it has had only a modest impact on Irish public life.

Some have argued for reform rather than abolition. According to this argument there is something intrinsically valuable about the business of the chamber. I find these arguments unpersuasive. Notwithstanding the fact that individual pieces of legislation have been improved as a result of Seanad debate and amendment, the Seanad is correctly viewed by most as a largely ineffectual, highly inefficient use of scarce public money.

I do, however, believe in, and will campaign for, a more fundamental constitutional reform, reforms which if implemented would involve both of the houses of parliament.

Why is such reform needed? It is because the Dail as currently selected and constituted is also failing to provide optimal national government. Seanad abolitionists should consider the reality that those who bear principal responsibility for the current financial disaster were not found in the Seanad, but in the Dail and Cabinet of the day.

And as a result of our multi-seat PR model, we have a cohort of parliamentarians whose energies are primarily devoted to the local issues that facilitate re-election. Even party colleagues, who should be seen as ideological allies, become bitter constituency rivals. As a result we get parochialism and personality-driven politics.

I would like to see a powerful lower house elected on either a national or regional list system of the type seen in continental Europe. Such a system would retain the proportionality of representation that we rightly esteem so highly, while allowing us to choose out national politicians on a national basis. I would also favour the option of executive appointment of expert ministers from outside parliament.

One of the weaknesses of a national list system is that local communities can feel a disconnect from the process. I would favour a new Seanad, elected by universal suffrage on the basis of traditional constituencies. The new body would have investigative and oversight responsibilities, and a mandate to scrutinise and amend legislation from the Dail. The total number of parliamentarians should be kept at or below the number in the current Dail.

While we have good reason to be cynical about politicians, we should revere democracy, and thank heaven daily that we do not live under one of the uniformly gruesome alternatives. Democracy however, can wither, and needs constant attention. Ours needs some right now.

Professor John Crown is a consultant oncologist who was elected to the Seanad on the NUI panel

Sunday Independent

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