And so they’re off! The Fine Gael party today launched their referendum campaign to abolish the Seanad, with Richard Bruton in the driving seat as director of elections for the party and Regina Doherty as his deputy.
Having brought this issue to a head, the onus is now firmly on the government, and particularly on Fine Gael (given that we all know who really is responsible for this referendum question) to produce a coherent argument as to why the Seanad should be abolished. Up until now the Taoiseach’s line has been – wrongly – that abolition of the Seanad would be a major piece of political reform. To his credit, in his press statement today Richard Bruton steers clear from that silly notion.
So if it’s not ‘political reform’, then what is the principal motivation for killing off the Seanad? Well, it’s money. According to Minister Bruton the Seanad is ‘a luxury the country could no longer afford’; abolishing it would save the taxpayer €20 million a year. Now I’m sure I’m not the only observer of this particular debate to have noted a lot of variation in the claims being made over just how much money would be saved. All sorts of figures are being bandied about. If the main argument for abolishing the Seanad is a cost saving one then surely the onus is on the government to produce a properly worked up costing of the precise saving. Fine Gael has been talking about this long enough, surely by now they could have got someone to do a bit of homework on this one!
Deputy Doherty provides a second reason for Seanad abolition. As she exclaims: ‘The Seanad is shockingly undemocratic; in fact just 1 per cent of the population voted to elect the current Seanad’. Why the shock? It is well known and accepted by everyone that the Seanad’s electorate is undemocratic.
Why this is so is explained by Minister Bruton as follows: ‘the reality is that attempts to reform the Seanad in the past have failed.’ Well, yes, they have, but who is responsible for that? Here we have a wonderful instance of political doublespeak: we should get rid of the Seanad because it is (shockingly) undemocratic; it is undemocratic because it has not been reformed by successive governments (including governments led by Fine Gael) to make it democratic. Utter garbage!
Ultimately, we’re left with just one reason in favour of Seanad abolition given at today’s Fine Gael press briefing that can be said to have some credence. The plain fact is that it is unusual for a small country like ours, particularly one that is not federal (like Switzerland), to have a second chamber. Here, and only here, is the government on firm footing.
In short, first efforts are disappointing. A lot more groundwork needs to be done if this government is to mount a credible campaign to kill off the second chamber.