Abolishing the Senate does not a political reform make

Posted by David Farrell (January 4, 2011)

The silly season’s came early this year: barely two days into the New Year and a senior government minister flies a kite on abolishing Seanad Éireann. Speculation was rife yesterday that the government might steal a pass on the main opposition parties by setting a referendum question to coincide with spring election. Whether the Greens will wear yet more delay on election day that would result is yet to be seen: tweets from Senator Dan Boyle yesterday suggested they wouldn’t. But it does bring into sharp relief the question of whether the Senate should be abolished: there is a growing consensus among the main parties favouring this; it would be a populist move giving voters an opportunity to kill off an entire class of politicians; it would end Ireland’s anomalous position as one of the few small (non-federal) democracies to have a second chamber; it would save the public purse some money. It seems a clever move.

But why the rush? Other than the fact that it might delay the election (because of the need for enabling legislation) and that a dramatic gesture like this might wrong-foot the opposition, is the Fianna Fáil led government being too clever by half? In what sense will the voters reward them for this move? What about the other more pressing issues that this will have leap-frogged over, most notably the long overdue children’s rights referendum?

More importantly other than giving us a chance to give politicians a good hiding and saving some money, what actually would Senate abolition deliver (for more on this, see also here)? What is the problem that its abolition would supposedly solve? Do the proponents seriously think that by doing this they can tick the box and say they have “delivered” on political reform?

Political reform is not something to be entered into lightly, and certainly not something to rush. It needs to be taken in stages: identification of the problem(s); discussion of options for reform that are designed to fix the problem(s); and only then, if required, a referendum.

We’re still working our way through stage one. Ideas are emerging (not least on this website) among them: how to make government more open and transparent; cleaning up party finance; strengthening local democracy; making the government more accountable.

A quick cut and rush on abolishing the Senate is not the answer to our problems!

15 thoughts on “Abolishing the Senate does not a political reform make

  1. I think that the problem about the Senate is more about how it is constituted, how senators are nominated or selected, that if the people had a say in how it is elected it would be popularly tolerated and even respected more.

    Abolition is also more of a reaction these days to economic circumstances.

    Perhaps the Senate should be suspended for a time, its role reconsidered, even reinvented, during that time, say five years at first with an option to suspend annually until we reach better times?

    Perhaps an unpaid Senate?

    I think we should consider all the options before deciding on actual abolition.

    • The whole issue about the Senate is as Bertie might say nothing more than Smoke and Daggers.
      I agree with you, if the Senate were elected by the people it would be more acceptable and the ordinary joe soap might feel some ownership of it as an institution of State. As it is we just tend to see it as just another elitist body appointed by its peers rather than democratically elected arm of OUR Government.

  2. It’s clearly a combination of wrong-footing the opposition, avoiding consideration of substantive reform, throwing some ‘red meat’ to the masses baying for blood and delaying the general election. (Since Enda Kenny announced his intention to abolish An Seanad, FF has been itching to shoot his fox.) FF is doing everything in its power to queer the pitch for the new government (so that it can return more rapidly) and to shore up its core vote. The next thing we’ll hear is that it is the democratic duty of citizens to vote for FF to ensure that the Dail opposition is sufficiently strong to hold the FG-Lab tyranny to account.

    Our system of governance ensures that the tyranny of faction will always trump the public and national interest.

  3. Reform doesn’t stop with the abolition of the Senate. Everybody agrees that it is largely useless as it stands and most people agree that 166 national representatives is more than enough.

    By taking the Senate off the board we can have a better debate about reform. The Dail must continue to function while we debate reform but the Senate does not. It’s simply 60 more people with a vested interest in keeping the reforms limited.

    If there is a case for deploying 166 representatives across two chambers it can be made but it is better to focus on the real problems like the whip system and the electoral reform.

    We need a Parliament that is representative and effective. The Seanad is neither. The Dail is representative but not effective. All our reforming energy should go into fixing the Dail.

    I share the fear that they are throwing the Seanad under the bus to placate the demand for reform. But really it should prove to us that pressure works. Let’s keep it on.

    • “pressure works.”
      Let us see how far it works when it comes to apply “All our reforming energy should go into fixing the Dail. ”

      I suggest that the Dáil cannot be “fixed” without 1) separating the Government from the Dáil, by having a directly election Taoiseach who can then select Ministers from whereever;
      2) other checks and balances (to which Veronica refers in her posting in this thread) which limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they public or private, elected or appointed – so that we can have government that is both competent and moderate to enable us to use our skills and energies to open the paths to sustainable standards of living and greater justice for all who wish to live and work here.

      • The Irish postal makret should be opened to competition. Right now, we have a state monopoly. You claim that a price of 55 cent is extremely good value and is one of the lowest prices in Europe . The reason this price is so low without the service being substandard is not because our postal workers are ultradedicated supermen. It is because this price is highly subsidised. We the electorate pay the cost in two forms: the low’ price that we are directly charged and the hidden price that we are indirectly charged through taxation. I would contend that the situation as it stands is quite broke. You claim that deregulation or privatisation would benefit the lucrative urban areas at the expense of rural areas. This has shown to be untrue time and time again. Both the German (Deutsche Post) and Japanese (Japan Post) postal services were privatised in the previous decades. Neither saw a reduction of services to rural areas. On the contrary, both firms have consistently lowered prices for the consumer while expanding their areas of service. Deutsche Post even expanded into foreign makrets, and earns €63.5 billion per year as one of the most successful delivery and logistics firms in the world. Deregulation of the postal service and/or privatisation of An Post would raise employment, lower costs to the consumer, and negate the need for the government to subsidise the sector. If you intend to create jobs, save money and reduce the tax burden on the electorate, I urge you to reconsider your position concerning the Third Postal Directive. Ricky Connolly.

  4. THe next scam is going to be for the very first time ever the Seanad returning the Finance Bill back to the Dáil as a means to delay the election even further – why can’t the Finance Bill be voted through in one go because even if the opposition object to some part of it, all the government does is votes against the opposition amendment.

    The Financia Bill and the Banking Bill are going to be repealed and amended in part after the election anyway, and most of it doesn’t come into affect until April anyhow, so there’ll be a new government by then bringing in an amergency budget.

    The Finance Bill is a red herring being used by FF and the Greens to cling onto power – who would have thought that the Greens would turn out to be as corrupt as FF and be corrupted by association with FF far quicker than the PDs were, at least they held out until 2002 before they gave in to the rot, having hooked up with FF in ’89 – the Greens hooked up in 2007 and were corrupted by Sept 2008 – is that a record?

    It’s the Green Party for whom I reserve the most contempt.

  5. Has anyone in the parties proposing abolition of the Seanad asked the Seanad ‘electorate’ what they think? Gut instinct tells me that county councillors, as a body, would be none too pleased by this proposal. Granted they vote the party ticket in electing the vast majority of Senators, but even within that they have a choice and can lobby would-be Senators to secure what they want for themselves.

    While I think most ordinary members of the voting public will have no hesitation in ticking the ‘yes’ box for abolition of that institution, it hardly means that’s the end of it, does it? A new Seanad will be elected after the Dail elections and it will be up to the next government to bring forward the appropriate legislation to give effect to the referendum result. I guess that’s where the fun really starts – and the opportunity to press for genuine reform of all our political institutions. The notion of abolishing the Seanad, bad and all as it is, whilst leaving an Executive-dominated Dail unreformed to muddle on in the same way it does at present, hardly bears thinking about. Good riddance to the Senate, if that’s what people want, but our system needs more ‘checks and balances’ not less.

    • re Seanad Electorate
      It seems to me that the result of the 2009 local elections means that for the first time (those who study these matters, please correct) FF will have very few Senators anyway, based on the number of councillors elected

      Fianna Fáil 218 25%
      Fine Gael 340 39%
      Labour 132 15%
      Green Party 3 0%
      Sinn Féin 54 6%
      Socialist 4 0%
      Others 132 15%
      Total 883

      Without knowing anything about the make up of the “Others”, a first reading suggests that FF would have as few as 11 Senators, based on the 43 Senators that are elected from those nominated by the panels.
      This does not augur well for anyone trying to rebuild the party, as the Senate has often proved a base for potential TDs. So we should not be surprised that the Government parties may seek to deprive others of the same facilities!

      Even if the the emerging all party consensus on abolishing the Senate were to hold and result in a referendum decision to abolish the Senate, how long would it take for the political class to actually follow through on such a decision?

      In the 31 years since the electorate passed a provision to expand the electorate for the university seats (in the 1979 referendum on Seventh Amendment to the Constitution), nothing has been done to change enlarge that electorate despite the opportunities offered by
      1) the 1989 Dublin City University and University of Limerick Acts;
      2) the 1997 Universities Act which restructured the university part of higher education.

      As we have seen, the only people who can initiate political and governmental reform are the incumbents – elected politicians and appointed senior civil servants. This they have singularly failed to do, preferring what the late Prof John Kelly described as “Ireland’s political and official rulers have largely behaved like a crew of maintenance engineers, just keeping a lot of old British structures and plant ticking over”

      With so much inertia in political and governing classes, we citizens need mechanisms to ensure that we do not have to wait for general elections to start the processes of reform and adaptation of our way of governing ourselves.

      It is for this reason that I advocate embedding in our constitutioa a Swiss-style citizens’ initiative as I set out in in another thread two weeks ago


      We citizens also need to have the capacity, with our rights and responsibilities as citizens of a republic with a written constitution (we are not merely subjects who have liberties granted by the governing classes!), to examine what our government is doing and stop it, if/when it goes so far off the rails as to damage us – which is what is implied in the EU-ECB-IMF package

      For this, we need to embed, in our constitution, a Swedish style Freedom of Information as I set out in a posting here in June 2010 https://politicalreform.ie/2010/06/21/freedom-of-information-and-corruption/

      Without embedding such measures in the Constitution, any checks and balances of the type
      Veronica has called will be rolled back at the earliest opportunity, as was done with the 1997 Freedom of Information Act in 2002 and 2003.

  6. I’d have thought that the Junior Coalition Party’s promise to withdraw from
    Government would prevent ill-thought out ‘Reform’ measures.

    it looks like Fianna Fáil cannot even rely on a majority anymore
    but politics seems a game of Fianna Fáil smoke and mirrors
    and then same mindset that pushed decentralisation during a
    budget is doing this messing.

  7. Vincent Browne has some sensible suggestions that dovetail with many of the proposals that have been dicussed on this board:
    and the IT has a leader as well.

    I know that VB isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I found this quite sensible. He does, however, revert at the end to the usual default position of depairing that nothing will be done. This, of course, is the biggest problem. However, if elements of the political classes thought there were votes in genuine political reform, they’d be on it in a flash.

    The difficulty is to separate factional interests and policy stances from reform of the process which is concerned only with some transparent evaluation and scrutiny of these interests and stances.

    If the policy stances of the various factions are as good as they claim they should have no fears about subjecting them to such scrutiny.

    Maybe some movement could be generated if voters were to say to party candidates: “We know you want to do the devil-and-all, but if you’re not prepared to have your proposals properly scrutinised and tested by the Dail – and run the risk of having some of them amended in major ways or even rejected – then we don’t trust you as you’re probably trying to sell us another pup – that comes from a long line of previous pups”.

  8. As I mentioned on Slugger comments I think reform of the Seanad is better and reducing the size of the Oireachtas will only make it harder to find quality ministers through the electoral process.

    I like the Seanad Panels as a way to provide a policy focus to an electorate, but think the Seanad needs to have a universal franchise.

    I also think the Panel system itself needs reform so that it can adapt to changing policy priorities. My suggestions are outlined here.

    I agree with VB about reform being the priority. I also like the idea of term limits, but only for back benchers or stalled ministers (i.e a Jr. Min. can run for a third term, a Minister for a fourth, the Taoiseach for a fifth).

    I don’t like the idea of reducing the time between elections. We’d end up with a US style electoral treadmill where politicians spent more time fundraising and kow-towing to the electorate than on legislation and oversight.

  9. Donal writes:

    “I suggest that the Dáil cannot be fixed without … separating the Government from the Dáil, by having a directly election Taoiseach who can then select ministers from wherever”

    I agree that the only way to end executive domination of parliament is to separate the government from the legislature. But there is more than one way to do that.

    We could directly elect the Taoiseach as you suggest. This would mean moving to a presidential system of government like the U.S. (even if the Taoiseach is not called “president”).

    A much less radical alternative is to reform the senate. If the Seanad is 100% directly elected and made more powerful then it can become the kind of independent democratic body that the Dail is not.

    But under this plan we would also keep the benefits of a parliamentary system of government (e.g. the ability to have a vote of no confidence in the Dail to remove a failed prime minister)

    A system along these lines exists in Japan and Australia. Both those countries have parliamentary systems of government like our own, but they give parliament independence from the executive by having strong, directly elected upper houses. It seems to work fairly well.

  10. Abolishing the Seanad and reducing the number of TDs are headline grabbing, knee jerk reactions that do not reform politics. There will be no noticeable difference to how politics operates from these changes.

    The problem with Irish politics is an excessive focus on local issues. Abolishing the Seanad and reducing the number of TDs does nothing to tackle this.

    Instead of abolishing the Seanad, it should be elected using a party list system and given equal power to the Dail. This means that the entire country is one constituency and the electorate can only vote for the party of their choice. They cannot vote for candidates. This removes local issues from politics in the Seanad.

    The parties can then nominate Senators based on the proportion of the vote they get: If Labour get 10% of the vote, Labour can nominate 6 Senators. Each party now has the opportunity to bring people from outside politics into the Seanad. There should be no limit on the number of Senators that can be Ministers. This would bring outside expertise right into the heart of the cabinet.

    Independents should also be allowed run for the Seanad. If they get 1/60th of the national vote, they win a seat.

    If the Seanad had equal powers to the Dail (could actually veto and propose legislation), Senators will not use their time in the Seanad to eye up a seat in the Dail. They would not focus on local issues in a particular constituency – their constituency is the entire country.

    This is similar to how Congress in the US works. The House of Representatives (Dail) and Senate have equal power. They can both propose legislation and veto each other’s legislation. They compromise to get legislation through.

    The role of the reformed Seanad would be to focus on national issues whereas the role of the Dail would be to remain very connected to citizens on the ground. This is the best way to find a balance between local and national issues.

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