Cabinet allowed Seanad reform Bill to advance because it had little choice
Column: Once a political system becomes dysfunctional it is difficult to alter
The Seanad chamber. “The Government decision this week to allow the Seanad Reform Bill 2013 to pass to committee stage without a vote arose for reasons of realpolitik rather than from any commitment to reform.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Events and debates this week in the Seanad and within the Fine Gael parliamentary party illustrate the complexity involved in parliamentary reform.
Once a political system has settled into patterns of function or dysfunction it becomes very difficult to alter its operation to any meaningful extent.
The Government decision this week to allow the Seanad Reform Bill 2013 proposed by Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn to pass to committee stage without a vote arose for reasons of real politik rat her than from any commitment to reform.
One of the sad realities of our political system is that the fate of Bills is decided by Cabinet on Tuesday morning rather than in the Dáil or Seanad on Wednesday or Thursday. In our dysfunctional system there is seldom the tension or excitement often seen in other parliaments about whether a vote on a Bill will be won or lost. This is largely because every week the Cabinet discusses what legislation is coming before the Dáil and Seanad, and it alone decides whether or not it will let this legislation pass.
Government TDs and Senators are then given their instructions on how to vote and they almost always slavishly comply rather than risk losing the party whip and the privileges that go with it. It is rare for the Cabinet to allow a Bill proposed by anyone other than a Minister to advance even to committee stage.
In his speech in the Seanad on Senator Zappone’s Bill Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, while insisting that the Government would proceed with a referendum to abolish the Seanad in the autumn, was gracious in his praise of the work which went into the Bill and moderate in tone when setting out reservations he had about some aspects.
Among the reforms proposed in the Bill are new functions for the Seanad in the scrutiny of draft legislation from the institutions of the EU and in the scrutinising of statutory instruments.
It also provides votes in Seanad elections for all in the Republic who can vote in local elections, for all those living in the North entitled to Irish citizenship, and for Irish passport holders living abroad who register with the relevant embassy.
The Minister’s speech was to the effect that the practicalities of all this required further exploration.
There was no hiding the fact, however, that the decision to let the Seanad Bill 2013 pass to committee stage was forced upon the Government. Fine Gael and Labour Ministers could not be sure their own Senators would vote it down so they bowed to the inevitable. Indeed, the respective leaders in the Seanad of Fine Gael and Labour, Maurice Cummins and Ivana Bacik, both spoke in the debate in terms that made it clear they strongly supported reform proposals.
The passage of this, and of a related Bill on elections from Senator John Crown, to second stage marks a breach of the rigid whip system to some extent in that the threat of rebellion forced the Cabinet’s hand. When it comes to advancing the legislation further in the Seanad or, indeed, were the Government to face similar legislation on Seanad reform in the Dáil, Hogan and his colleagues would be likely to reveal their true colours.
The Seanad Reform Bill, which I should declare I played a relatively small part in writing, serves the important purpose of showing that both the functions of Seanad Éireann and the means by which it is elected could be radically transformed through legislation without the need for constitutional change.
The Bill shows how the Seanad could be transformed into a truly effective chamber capable of assisting the Dáil in holding the government to account, if the government would only let it.
An editorial in this newspaper on Wednesday suggested it was naïve of us to think the Government would accept accountability in this way.
That may prove to be the case, but at least in the process we may manage to expose the Cabinet’s resistance to any reform which would encroach on the near absolute power it has in our system.
Interestingly, the debate on reform legislation in the Seanad coincided with a special meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party to debate the issue of reform of the Dáil. Some among Fine Gael’s large cohort of backbenchers are trying to persuade their own Government to allow the Dáil to be more effective. In so doing they may also prove to be naïve, but they are to be commended for their effort. They too are seeking to break the stranglehold which the Cabinet has over our legislature.
Thirty or so Fine Gael backbenchers turned up for the special meeting. They heard Eoghan Murphy TD outline his recently published proposals on changes to Dáil procedures. Those in the room, especially the newer deputies, expressed deep frustration with their inability to exercise their mandate to hold their own Government to account. There was apparently a general disenchantment at the reluctance of the Government, represented at the meeting by the chief whip, Paul Kehoe, to entertain anything other than the most superficial changes in the times and format of Dáil debates.
There are now suggestions that the fact that the debate around the Seanad referendum is being reframed to one about whether the Seanad should be reformed rather than abolished has prompted the Government to seek to dress up its proposal for Seanad abolition with simultaneous proposals for Dáil reform . We await the proposals with interest.Government actions to date suggest they will be merely superficial.