Real reform begins with abolition of this House

Opinion: The No campaign has failed to address the core problem, that for 75 years the Seanad has been a costly failure

Thu, Oct 3, 2013, 00:01

There is widespread agreement that our political system needs serious reform. At the general election in 2011 the four main political parties backed Seanad abolition as part of their reform proposals. Just over 82 per cent of the electorate voted for Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

In its election manifesto Fianna Fáil correctly observed that, “serious questions must be asked about the continued role of an entity which is still struggling to justify its existence after three-quarters of a century”. Party leader Micheál Martin was right in 2011; he is wrong now. In a similar vein Michael McDowell was right in 1987 when he sponsored the PD’s then radical proposal to abolish the Seanad. But he is wrong now in endorsing the conservative proposition for retention.

Elitist institution

The Seanad should be abolished because it has not proven its worth in 75 years and because it is elitist. It is chosen by 150,000 people, all professional politicians and some university graduates. They represent 3 per cent of the population. It’s an unfair system that should not be tolerated in a republic.

Those on the other side of the argument have failed to convince that the Seanad is worth keeping. They’ve warned of a power grab with alarmist images of jackboots stamping on the constitution. But they’ve failed to explain how the executive can “grab” power from a relatively powerless institution. One that for 75 years has refused to use any of the limited powers that it already has.

We’ve heard fears expressed about threatening the independence of the judiciary but without any acknowledgement that new legislative proposals would actually make it even more difficult to impeach a judge. We’ve heard regrets about the loss of the Taoiseach’s ability to nominate outsiders to ministerial rank through the Seanad. But this power has only been used twice since 1937. We’ve also been warned that the ability to petition the President to put a Bill to the people will be lost – a power that has never been used.

In recent days we’ve heard concern that voices from Northern Ireland like Séamus Mallon and the late Gordon Wilson will no longer be heard in Leinster House. But since they were appointed as Taoiseach’s nominees, in 1982 and 1993 respectively, the Oireachtas has evolved. For example, MPs from Northern Ireland now have speaking rights at the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

A lot of guff has been spoken about the Seanad’s role. Throughout the campaign we’ve heard about amendments passed by the Seanad. But most of these have been minor technical amendments and many originate from the Government, not individual Senators. We’ve also been told that the Seanad is a legislative watchdog. But where was it when the bank guarantee legislation was under consideration in 2008? We’ve been told about the quality of debate there but any viewing of its daily proceedings clearly shows that Punch and Judy politics are even more prevalent than in the Dáil.

What the No side have singularly failed to address is the reality that for 75 years the Seanad has been a costly failure. It has been the plaything of the political parties. They have used it to warehouse failed Dáil candidates and to blood future TDs. Of the current crop of Senators, 22 were unsuccessful Dáil candidates in the 2011 general election.

Those Senators who succeed in being elected to be the Dáil are undoubtedly more effective as parliamentarians when they get there. The example of Shane Ross makes this case. Already his 2½ year tenure as a TD – where he gets to question the Taoiseach and other members of the Cabinet – has been far more productive that his 26 years in the Seanad.

We’ve also heard a great deal of talk about reform. Yet, the No side has not been able to agree among themselves what this would actually look like. They back wildly differing proposals. Some favour greater elitism. Others want a directly-elected Seanad, functioning as a second Dáil, without even considering the dangers of US or Italian-style parliamentary gridlock.

Flawed Quinn-Zappone initiative

The Quinn-Zappone Bill has been much spoken of but, I suspect, little read. It is a flawed legislative proposal, and not just due to doubts about the constitutionality of several of its sections. The Bill favours retaining the elitist elements of the Seanad, including vocational panels and the Taoiseach’s right to nominate 11 members. Neither does it do anything to change the powerlessness of the Upper House.

The Seanad can only delay money Bills by three weeks and other Bills by three months. Giving it more power would require constitutional change, and the type of “constitutional vandalism” the No side shout about. Time on reform would be better spent, and would deliver greater impact, if it was devoted to the Dáil and not wasted on a Seanad sideshow.

There is nothing unusual in having a single chamber. Progressive and innovative countries such as Denmark and New Zealand have abolished their second chambers without any loss to their democracies.

Tomorrow’s vote offers a once in a generation opportunity to abolish political elitism and penalise long-standing parliamentary failure. Voting Yes is the reform option, but neither Enda Kenny nor Eamon Gilmore should take endorsement of the referendum proposal as ending the public’s desire for even more radical political reform.

Dr Kevin Rafter is a senior lecturer in media and politics at Dublin City University. He has been involved in the civil society group, One House, during the Seanad referendum campaign.

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