If the Seanad is to be abolished then the government must explain (properly!) why

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.

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10 thoughts on “If the Seanad is to be abolished then the government must explain (properly!) why

  1. 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.

    Actually it isn’t. There have been a proliferation of op-eds and other writings and commentary from the usual suspects that the abolition of the Seanad would undermine Irish democracy.

  2. How credible a campaign do they really need, though? Three recent polls on the issue would seem to suggest that most people would like to see it abolished. Fine Gael seems to be in the comfortable position of people agreeing with them, even if their reasons aren’t very good.

    July 7th: http://www.rte.ie/news/2013/0706/460961-ff-support-up-fg-lab-down-opinion-poll/
    June 15th: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/oireachtas/majority-of-voters-want-seanad-abolished-poll-1.1429633
    June 14th: http://www.rte.ie/news/2013/0613/456490-opinion-poll-seanad-politics/

  3. is it possible that seanad saves us money? in terms of better legislation, couldn’t a report on that be done, a cost benefit analysis? i said this to someone who said that CBA’s are bunch of crock which just produced the answers the sponsors wants but I’d stil like for those arguements to be put forward, is there any reports on the like?

  4. In addition to the
    1. lack of democratic legitimacy of the existing Senate;
    2. fact that other seemingly well-governed small countries have only one house of parliament;
    3. the inertia – of Senators – over decades to ensure that even approved reforms were implemented (eg. extending the electorate for the university seats following the 1979 referendum which allowed that change to be made), the major reason for abolishing the Senate is that it can always be overridden by the Dáil, as set out in Articles 23 and 24 of our 1937 Constitution.

    Thus, the Senate did not have the power to act as one of the checks and balances on the powerful, which some Senators now claim as their function.
    It is noteworthy that these same Senators, the TDs and others who support them have not called for any change in this lack of real power for the Senate – unless I have missed something in my reading of the Bill they have drawn up.

    Regardless of the outcome of the referendum on the existence of the Senate, the real challenge we face is to devise, consider, design, implement and use checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they elected or appointed, public or private, local national or transnational.
    Some of this can be done without constitutional change. However it risks being rolled back very quickly as we have seen with Freedom of Information or the stripping of power from local authorities over decades.
    I suggest that we need to radically enhance our way of governing ourselves as a pre-condition of working our way out of the social, economic and fiscal holes into which we have been led – not once, but three times since World War 2..

    We have a lot of work to do, regardless of whether we have a Senate or not.

    • “the inertia – of Senators – over decades to ensure that even approved reforms were implemented (eg. extending the electorate for the university seats following the 1979 referendum which allowed that change to be made),”

      was it specifically the senators who failed to act on this or was it governments job to push this through

      is it possible that seanad saves us money? in terms of better legislation, couldn’t a report on that be done, a cost benefit analysis? i said this to someone who said that CBA’s are bunch of crock which just produced the answers the sponsors wants but I’d stil like for those arguements to be put forward, is there any reports on the like?

      • “was it specifically the senators who failed to act on this or was it governments job to push this through”

        It strikes me that this comment sums up the whole issue of the perspective of the Senators and also the power of the Senate.

        Judging from the issues that Senators have been concerned with over years, there is little evidence of any persistent effort to enhance the democratic legitimacy of their own positions or institution.

        If they were as independent minded as some of them now claim to be, why is there no evidence that they – as a group – pushed to ensure that the basic issue was not faced earlier? The 1979 referendum on the 6 university seats was an excellent opening to bring this whole issue to the forefront.

        Suggesting that it was “the government’s job to push this through” reinforces the view that
        1. The Senate has no power to act as a check or balance on government – even to take up an issue on which the government has been less than active ie. reform of the Senate;
        2. Senators have not shown any basic commitment to trying to overcome this built-in inertia and powerlessness.

        Not sure about the particular merits of CBA analysis in this case.
        However, I suggest that the worst return on investment is to do nothing.
        With 10 reports on Senate reform being mention, what further evidence do we need of the Senate being a case of “implementation deficit disorder”?

      • the buck stops with government, everything comes from their decision to act afaik, they failed to reform the seanad

    • Anonymous
      Despite the absence of the Government providing “transparent reasoning” for the decision to put the future of the Senate to a referendum, we as citizens have the freedom to propose discuss and advocate how we view the “organs of state” and possible reforms.
      The article in the link you provided is interesting.
      Unfortunately, it is limited in so far as it does not actually propose any checks and balances on how our power is used.

  5. Pingback: Irish Election » Defeat of Seanad Referendum may be only hope of achieving real political reform

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