Objections to a wider franchise for the Seanad based on fallacies
Opinion: The Constitution is clear that the Dáil will remain the dominant House
The Bills proposed by Katherine Zappone, among others, have been vetted for constitutional compliance. Photograph: Alan Betson
At one level it is welcome that at least in some political parties and corners of the media a substantial debate has begun on the practicalities of widening the electorate for Seanad Éireann. This debate comes at an important moment, because amending legislation will have to be enacted sometime this year if there is to be sufficient time for any changes to be given effect before the next Seanad election, most likely early in 2016.
The Taoiseach seems set against universal suffrage for the Seanad. This week he told the Dáil that he would bring heads of a Bill to Cabinet extending the franchise for the university seats. It is an opportune moment therefore to confront some of the supposed obstacles Enda Kenny and some commentators suggest stand in the way of widening the Seanad electorate to include all adult citizens.
The first untruth to be nailed is the suggestion that expanding the vote for the university seats to include all third-level graduates amounts to real reform or that it is an adequate response to the recent referendum’s outcome. This would affect only six of the 60 Seanad seats.
Extending a Seanad vote to all third- level graduates without simultaneously giving votes on other panels to all voters would merely turn that which is currently elitist into something divisive. The Taoiseach’s proposals would mean a third or more of those in most households or social gatherings would have a Seanad vote while the others would not, solely because they did not get the opportunity to go to college.
It would be more democratic and less discriminatory to expand the right to vote in Seanad elections to all, on a panel of their choice
, and it would also give almost all senators a genuine and direct mandate.
The second suggestion that needs to be nailed is that the Constitution does not provide for or envisage universal suffrage for election to the Seanad. This is simply incorrect nonsense. When the Constitution was drafted there was some discussion about a wider Seanad franchise. However, the decision was made to leave it to the Oireachtas to decide how the Seanad should be elected. It is worth reiterating that Seanad voting eligibility is set out in legislation, and the separate Bills put forward by Katherine Zappone, John Crown and most recently Fianna Fáil have been vetted for constitutional compliance.
The newest inaccuracy touted is that the cost of direct elections to the Seanad would be prohibitive. This echoes the dishonest argument made by the Government about the cost of retaining the Seanad. Elections always come with some costs and to expand the electorate on the university panel would cost money. Surely it would be more cost-effective and democratic simply to extend Seanad suffrage to all voters registered for Dáil and local elections and have them choose a Seanad panel on registration.
These costs would be significantly reduced if the Government established the long-promised permanent independent electoral commission. Such a commission could maintain the electoral register to provide for simultaneous registration for a Seanad panel. Seanad and Dáil elections cost millions because the exchequer funds free postage of separate items of election literature for each candidate to every voter. Providing for a single item containing details of every candidate would dramatically reduce the cost.
Another inaccurate proposition is that a directly elected Seanad would inevitably lead to the majority of senators coming from established political parties. This is based on an assumption that only parties could get candidates elected in such large constituencies. Irish precedents point to the opposite. The very large TCD and NUI panel electorates have almost always elected Independents. All current university Senators are Independents, apart from Labour’s Ivana Bacik, who began her Seanad career as an Independent.
The suggestion that any tendency of the Irish electorate to favour Independent candidates in national elections other than Dáil elections is confined to university graduates is disproved by the levels of support for Independents in recent presidential elections. Mary Robinson was elected as an Independent, albeit with a Labour-led campaign. In the 2011 election Independents led until the last week – first David Norris and then Seán Gallagher.
There is every likelihood that groups, causes and organisations other than political parties would be better at organising supporters to register and vote on specific Seanad panels. We would then see farmers’ associations organise to win seats on the agricultural panel, unions seeking to do so on the labour or education panels, etc, on their relevant panels.
Curiously, those arguing against a directly elected Seanad assert without any basis in fact that giving it a universal mandate would be futile because it would replicate the Dáil. They simultaneously argue it would lead to stalemate as it potentially would not have a government majority. The functions of the Seanad, while significant, are tightly constrained by the Constitution, which clearly makes the Dáil the dominant House.
The other fallacy is that somehow seeking or achieving Seanad reform distracts from the need for reform of the Dáil. On the contrary the impetus for changing the Upper House spotlights the need for change in the Dáil too.