Seanad abolition would not close the issue of bicameralism
Ireland can learn from New Zealand example
Seanad chamber – New Zealand never chose unicameralism – it stumbled into it. ... it keeps revisiting the idea of a senate. (Photograph: Alan Betson, Irish Times)
Ireland and New Zealand have much in common: similar population size; similar post-colonial experience; an inherited Westminster parliamentary model. But New Zealand abolished its upper house. Is it the perfect comparator country for those debating the abolition of the Seanad?
The Charter for Erecting the Colony of New Zealand, 1840 created the Legislative Council, New Zealand’s first colonial legislature. The council was entirely appointed and governed with the crown’s representative, the governor general. In 1852, when the New Zealand Constitution Act created the elected House of Representatives, the Legislative Council became the Upper House of the New Zealand Parliament (then known as the General Assembly).
The Legislative Council remained an appointed body, modelled on the House of Lords. Over the years it became convention for the governor general to appoint members on the advice of the prime minister. Eventually, members were limited to seven-year terms. As a result, by the 20th century, it became normal for the government to control the council.
By 1951, passing legislation through the council had become a formality and New Zealand’s upper house was abolished. That decision was based more on concerns about the value of a particular form of bicameralism than about the validity of bicameralism. New Zealand rejected its Legislative Council; just as Queensland had rejected its appointed upper house in 1922; and just like Ireland looks set to vote not on bicameralism but on the value of the current Seanad.
Since abolition the land of the long white cloud is almost unique: a democratic, unicameral, Westminster-style parliament. But while proponents of Seanad abolition hold up New Zealand as a model for Ireland, the experience there has not been an incontrovertible success.
Problematically, New Zealand politics is very centralised. Initially, the constitution envisaged a system of provincial parliaments but these were never effective and were abolished by 1876. Power was concentrated in the parliament. Many would argue that the porous state of local government in Ireland indicates that we could expect a similar result. In both states regional government will not act as a check on national government.
A further aspect to this concentration of power is also relevant to Ireland. The executive exercises significant control over the New Zealand parliament. The emergence of a clear two-party system has encouraged strong party discipline, making parliamentary revolts rare. Of course Ireland has a wider range of parties but it also has strong party whips.
In fact, abolition of the Legislative Council was supposed to be one part of wider reforms. In 1950 the centre-right National Party government established a Constitutional Reform Committee. It reported in 1952 – one year after the Legislative Council had been abolished.
A new senate
The committee recommended a new senate of 32 members nominated by party leaders in proportion to their strength in the House of Representatives. The 1952 report was rejected by the parties in the House of Representatives – they had just seen off one upper house and weren’t about the create another. But the idea of New Zealand returning to bicameralism simply won’t go away.
In 1990 the Nationals again proposed an elected senate, this time with 30 members. A Senate Bill was even prepared. However, the debate about the senate became tied up with a referendum on changing the voting system from first-past-the-post to the mixed-member proportional system. In the end the senate question was not put to a referendum. In 1992 the New Zealand Business Roundtable commissioned Richard Epstein to produce a report on unicameralism versus bicameralism. And as recently as 2010 the influential New Zealand Policy Unit of the Centre for Independent Studies proposed the readoption of a bicameral parliamentary structure (again in the context of abandoning the mixed-member proportional system).
In truth New Zealand never chose unicameralism – it stumbled into it. It rejected the Legislative Council, which was undemocratic and ineffectual. But it keeps revisiting the idea of a senate. It has yet to settle on a model which gives effective government with sufficient checks on government power. New Zealand is not a model for constitutional reform.
If New Zealand has anything to add to the debate it is this: abolition is easily done but difficult to reverse. If we abolish the Seanad in the belief that reform will come down the track we will not see a reformed Seanad emerge from the dust. And where’s the guarantee of a reformed Dáil?
Fergal Davis is a senior lecturer at the Tobin Centre
of Public Law, University of New South Wales