Widening of voter pool for Seanad would be costly and futile

Opinion: International experience teaches that representative democracy is always party democracy


It’s been more than four months since the Seanad referendum, and demands for a new reformed chamber do not seem to be going away. The Government’s offer to broaden the university seats to a wider pool of graduates is seen by those calling for “real reform” as insufficient – among them Fianna Fáil, the Reform Alliance and the Democracy Matters advocacy group led by Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn.

In May 2013, Zappone and Quinn produced a Bill setting out ambitious proposals for opening up Seanad elections to all Irish citizens resident in both parts of the island as well as overseas. This coincided with another Bill at about the same time produced by Senator John Crown that also called for opening up Seanad elections. Both Bills propose universal suffrage for elections for the vocational panels (electing 43 of the 60 members) as opposed to the current practice, where the electorate comprises just TDs and county councillors. Added to the six university seats, this would mean that 49 of 60 seats would be directly elected (as required by the Constitution, the Taoiseach would maintain his/her prerogative to appoint the remaining 11 members).

There could be grounds for arguing that the reformers are wrong to suggest their proposals would not require constitutional change. Even assuming constitutional problems could be overcome, there are questions over whether universal suffrage for Seanad elections is the right move.

Scale of operations
First, what makes Ireland so special that it should need a directly elected upper house? Across Europe’s 33 democracies, fewer than half (14) have an upper house and only six of these are directly elected: the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain and Switzerland. All of these have populations larger than Ireland: the country coming closest in population size – Switzerland – is a federation, which always has an upper house to represent the federal states.

Of the 14 bicameral systems in Europe, only Slovenia (1.9 million) has a smaller population than Ireland, and it doesn’t directly elect its upper house. So while there might be some reason to question whether a small country like Ireland needs a Seanad, there is a large question over why we would need to elect ours.

Democracy is never cheap, but universal suffrage for Seanad elections would take this to another level. The constitutional requirement (article 18.5) that Seanad elections must use postal ballots would add greatly to the expense. The Government estimates the cost of sending out postal ballots in 2011 was €5.25 per voter. When you add the cost of arranging voter registration to the vocational panels, and the complexities of counting the ballots, what cannot be denied is that an election to this house would be significantly more costly than one to Dáil Éireann.

Residual party politics
For all this additional expense what would we end up with? First, the newly elected chamber would be dominated by the political parties. The world over, representative democracy is “party democracy”. Second, the new Seanad would be under the control of the governing parties of the day. Because of the constitutional requirement the Seanad election must occur within 90 days of the Dáil election, those parties winning the latter would also win the former.

At considerable expense, therefore, Ireland would be electing an upper house that has few if any powers, and a membership closely mirroring the lower house. In short, we would end up electing a “Dáil light”. Surely for those groups arguing for true political reform a more rationale way to proceed would be to focus our attention and limited resources on the House that matters.

David Farrell holds the chair of politics at UCD

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