Chance for new politics to embrace real change
Every household and business has had to make sacrifices. The political system can’t be any different
“I came to the conclusion that the Seanad was unreformable – ten attempts at reform in its 75 years all failed”
Before the last general election, I promised the people they would have their say on the abolition of the Seanad. The referendum on Friday, October 4th, delivers on that promise with a very simple and clear choice – vote Yes to abolish the Seanad or vote No to keep it.
I made that promise because four years ago, I instigated a root and branch examination of the political system. I came to the conclusion that the Seanad was unreformable – 10 attempts at reform in its 75 years all failed – and that the political system could better serve the people with fewer politicians at less cost.
Opponents of Seanad abolition point to the weaknesses of the Dáil and argue that it’s not working properly. I agree. But that’s an argument for fixing the Dáil – not for keeping the Seanad. The reality is that it is the Dáil that has the constitutional function to hold government to account, not the Seanad.
Already, the Dáil is to be reduced by eight TDs, saving €2 million. Already, the Dáil is doing more with less, working harder and sitting longer. We are already reducing the number of city and county councillors by over 40 per cent. And if the people vote Yes to abolishing the Seanad, the number of politicians in Leinster House will be reduced by one-third.
But there is more to come. Last week, the Tánaiste and I announced further reforms to the Dáil. The amount of time the Dáil will sit for is being further extended. Additional time is being provided for legislative debate. Crucially, there is a new pre-legislative stage in the law-making process and civil society groups, advocacy groups and individuals can be invited to participate.
There will be extended involvement of Oireachtas committees in the budget process. As well as these measures, additional steps will be taken if the Seanad is abolished in the form of a further enhanced committee system and an additional pre-enactment stage in the legislative process.
Debating the laws
All of this means that the government and its officials will be rightly obliged to spend more time debating the laws they propose with the people’s elected representatives and with civil society.
This is all part of a programme of political reform that we have been rolling out since entering government in 2011. An end to corporate donations to political parties. A proper Freedom of Information Act, restoring true transparency and accountability in the State’s actions. Cuts to politicians’ and Ministers’ pay. Cuts to ministerial transport. An end to unvouched expenses. An end to severance pay for Ministers. Ending the practice of paying pensions to TDs before they are 65 and paying ministerial pensions to those still serving as TDs. Gender quotas in selecting candidates for election. These are all commitments that have already been fulfilled.
Every household and every business in the country has had to make sacrifices because of the financial crisis. The political system can’t be any different. We know that the Seanad costs €20 million a year because the commission which runs the Houses of the Oireachtas has said so. I believe that’s money the taxpayer should not have to spend on a second chamber which is no longer necessary. We can do more with less.
Right now, we are almost unique among small countries in having two chambers in our parliament. Five European countries have roughly the same population as Ireland (4-6 million): Denmark, Finland, Norway, Croatia and Slovakia. None of them has a second house. In fact no unitary state in the OECD, with a population of less than 10 million, has a second house with the exception of Ireland and Slovenia. Some of the most effective democracies in the world have abolished their second houses. All of the Scandinavian countries, for instance. New Zealand also, even though its political system is derived, like Ireland’s, from its history as part of the British Empire.
New and better politics
I believe the programme of reform we are undertaking, including moving to a one-chamber parliament, can establish a new and better politics in our Republic. One that is more accountable. More democratic. More responsive.
This referendum is about more than the Seanad. It’s about the kind of politics we want in our country. Do we want a new politics which is forward-looking and ambitious? Which embraces real change. Or do we want the old defensive politics of the past? The politics of the status quo. Where change is the enemy, to be resisted at all costs. Do we want a new politics which is less costly, more effective and more open? Which is prepared to lead by example and cut the number of politicians. Or do we want the old politics where Ireland has more politicians than other smaller countries?
Where just 1 per cent of the population elects a house of the Oireachtas. Where any taoiseach can guarantee a majority in the second chamber by appointing his friends and cronies as senators.
Do we want a new politics which acknowledges that the Seanad has never acted as a check on government, or as a balance to the Dáil. That the second chamber has no real powers and that proposed reforms will not give it additional powers. Or do we want an old politics which sticks with the failed policies and institutions of the past?
Ultimately the question before the people on October 4th is a simple one – does Ireland need a second house? The Constitution belongs to the people and it is they – not anyone in Government, in the Dáil or in the Seanad – who will decide. We await that decision.