If you want to see political reform, write it in on your ballot paper
Opinion: It is a measure of how disillusisoned we are that the Government’s cynicism no longer shocks us
We could be having a very different referendum on Friday, October 4th. We could be voting on reform of the Seanad, with the possibility that if reform proposals were rejected, the Seanad would face abolition.
Instead, we are being offered the possibility of abolishing the Seanad, or nothing. No reform will ensue if the proposal is rejected, the Government has blithely informed us.
It has been a plank of the Government campaign for abolition that no meaningful reform of the Seanad has been attempted so far so, therefore, no reform is possible.
One would think they were sitting impotent on the Opposition benches. One would think they had no responsibility whatsoever, in this incarnation of the Government or in any other government in which they served, for the fact that meaningful reform has not happened.
Instead of this shallow, cynical offer, the Government could have expended time and effort on imaginative reform.
As a political philosophy, it boils down to this: We are not going to offer you reform now, because neither we, nor anyone else, has ever done so before and, anyway, we can’t be bothered.
It is a measure of the disillusionment with our democratic system that people are not even shocked or outraged by this attitude.
Yet we are supposed to swallow the notion that the same Dáil, which failed to even offer reform of the Seanad as an alternative, is serious about Dáil reform.
So the Dáil, or rather the Government, which could not summon the energy to reform a Seanad with weak powers, is going to miraculously develop the desire to reform a body with strong powers?
One only has to look at recent events to see how real that alleged reform will be. Sitting for additional hours is a sop. The Dáil sat for ridiculously long hours during the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill – to what end? Was there any difference whatsoever in what the Government pushed through after all the extra hours?
Similarly, there is the proposal to grant additional powers of oversight to Dáil committees. The kind of outrageously cynical window dressing that went on during Oireachtas committee hearings on the same Bill should show us how real that scrutiny is likely to be.
Not to mention the fact that the Taoiseach decided to remove members of his own party from committees because they displeased him by voting according to their conscience.
It was savage, punitive, and effective, because it won plaudits from much of the media for Kenny’s decisiveness and ruthlessness. Few seemed to see or care that it meant yet another boundary had been breached, and that it reinforced once again the idea that committee chairs or membership are in the gift of people who already have too much power.
Still fewer seemed to notice that a Government that announces another anti-bullying measure for our education system every few weeks is operating a political system where attempting to bully into submission those who do not agree with it is an everyday tactic.
In recent times, anything that threatens government power, or even threatens to make it vaguely uncomfortable, disappears.
Take the Constitutional Convention. Its members voted overwhelmingly in favour of citizens’ initiatives, whereby citizens who could collect a sufficient number of signatures would be able to initiate referendums and influence the legislative agenda.
There has been a deafening silence since about that measure, just as a proposal that citizens should have a direct role in the selection of presidential candidates quietly disappeared.
Yet other measures passed by similar majorities of the Constitutional Convention have been welcomed effusively, because they chime with a particular Government agenda.
The Seanad may have significant problems at the moment but it is a part of our democratic system in which contrary voices are unafraid to speak out.
As the whip system grows ever more draconian, that freedom of expression is badly needed.
The case for abolition rests on populism, not long-term thinking. By giving us a choice that is no choice at all, in other words, abolition or nothing, it displays contempt for the electorate.
I grew up in a household where voting was viewed both as a precious right and a duty. My parents would have been horrified at the idea of anyone spoiling a vote.
Therefore, I don’t suggest this lightly. However, I think anyone concerned about the unhealthy centralisation of power should choose No to abolition, and then write “Reform” on the ballot.
It will be set aside for later examination and, as any fair-minded scrutineer could only find there was a clear intention to vote No, it will in all probability be counted in that way.
But a significant message will have been sent to an administration that wrote in its programme for government: “Our aim, when our legislative and constitutional changes are implemented, is that Ireland will be a transformed country.”
Vote No to Seanad abolition, and by marking “Reform” on the ballot, send a message both about the kind of transformation we fear, and the transformation for which we still hope.