Seanad filters democracy and should be abolished
Opinion:Our political system needs to change and that change will be worthwhile but difficult. However, in meeting that challenge, the reform of the Seanad as a viable political entity is a bridge too far.
It is clear that Seanad Éireann has a PR problem. Viewed as outdated, elitist, irrelevant and powerless, the essential connectivity between the elected and the electorate is questioned and the limited franchise is justifiably criticised.
The panel system from which most Senators are elected is certainly curious: for example the agricultural panel elects 11 members but the cultural and educational panel only elects five, illustrating an emphasis that is unbalanced and in tune with a different era.
However, it is unfair to paint the Seanad as the only entity which is unrepresentative of Irish society.
History has shown that politics is tailor-made for someone like me: male, white, Catholic, middle-class, able-bodied, settled and heterosexual. Dáil Éireann remains 87 per cent male, overwhelmingly white, Catholic, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied and from the settled community.
Is it any wonder that the vast bulk of legislation and budgetary measures disproportionately appease those who also fit into that demographic? It is still people like me who rule, and who have always ruled this State.
We must deal with the reality of this disconnection within Irish politics. A glance at the turnout in the last number of elections tells a sorry tale. The general election in February 2011, a mere three months after the arrival of the International Monetary Fund, had a turnout of only 70 per cent.
In Australia the dynamic of compulsory voting is a fascinating one. Political activism adds the same weight to the rich as to the poor, the young and the old, the powerful and the weak. If that were the case in Ireland, politicians would not pander to the type of lowest common denominator discourse we have heard too often in the past.
Allocation of resources
This discussion about allocation of resources is a crucial one. Research has shown the influence of early childhood expenditure has the longest, most profound and positive influence on an individual’s life and potential. However, we have neglected this area because perhaps the political imperative is to concentrate on those with voting power.
The Hart and Risley report in 1995 showed the vocabulary differential in three year olds from different backgrounds can be as high as 66 per cent. One in three children from disadvantaged areas has basic literacy problems. One-quarter of mothers in some deprived districts suffer from maternal depression.
We have too often neglected the needs of poorer children, and targeted investment was not made because there was limited political advantage. This is the cost of political disconnection, and the cost of an unrepresentative democracy. This is where our reforming zeal must be concentrated.
The role of the Seanad as scrutiniser of legislation could readily be taken on by an empowered Oireachtas committee system. There should be scope, as per the strategic policy committees of local authorities, to co-opt members of civic society to advise and give voice to the concerns of different interest groups.