By Michael Gallagher
Never in its history has the Seanad been the focus of so much attention. Is it a vital bastion of democracy without which governments would be able to trample all over everyone’s rights, or conversely an expensive anachronism draining resources that could make a huge difference elsewhere?
Probably neither. It does a little bit of good – it provides a venue where legislation might be scrutinised in a more reflective atmosphere than in the Dáil, though no-one seems to have attempted to quantify its impact. In an article in the Sunday Business Post of 1 September Senator Katherine Zappone writes that ‘members of the Seanad have tabled 529 amendments to 14 Bills that have been passed over the past two years’. That’s a bit cryptic, but even if it is saying that all 529 amendments have been passed, it leaves uncertain how many of these represented good ideas that Senators and no-one else thought of, and how many were government amendments that happened to be introduced in the Seanad rather than the Dáil. Senators also take part in Oireachtas committees, which pretty much everyone seems to agree should have a larger role than they do – but on the whole the committees, if given a more meaningful role in preparing legislation and scrutinising government, would function perfectly well without Senators.
On the debit side, it costs money, and this seems to be the main argument in the government’s case so far. However, whether this is of the order of the €20 million claimed by the government or the €7 million figure of Democracy Matters, it is a mere drop in the sum total of public expenditure. Against the cost of retaining it must be counted the cost of holding the referendum itself, which seems to be of the order of €20 million (answers, relating to the holding of the Lisbon Treaty referendums, by the Minister for Finance to written questions from Deputy Finian McGrath, 29 June 2011). And there is also a cost, harder to quantify, in the time that government ministers will spend between now and 4 October on this subject, when they could be working on the economy.
All of which might suggest that the Seanad is a body that does some good, though not a lot, and imposes a cost, though not a lot – not good enough to be worth saving, not bad enough to be worth abolishing. Perhaps it is hardly worth making it the focus of so much political activity. (Here is a link to a 2011 post giving my thoughts as to whether the Seanad should be abolished.)
However, a new and potentially alarming spectre has now arisen, that of a ‘reformed Seanad’. Opinion polls suggest that while in a straight choice between the status quo and abolition the latter would prevail, the idea of retain-and-reform is growing in appeal. Indeed, advocates of a No vote are at pains to emphasise that they do not want to preserve the Seanad as it is – a No vote, say Democracy Matters, ‘is the first step to a new Seanad’.
The reformed Seanad, as outlined by Democracy Matters, would be a directly elected body: elected not just by the current Dáil electorate but also by those in Northern Ireland who are eligible for Irish citizenship, by all Irish passport holders abroad, and by graduates of all third-level institutions (it’s unclear whether this would include non-Irish citizens, given that Irish citizens would already have a vote under one of the other headings).
What powers should this reformed Seanad have? The Quinn–Zappone draft bill is relatively modest in its proposals, suggesting roles such as scrutinising draft EU regulations and directives as well as statutory instruments, as well as ‘the power to inquire into the need for new legislation in certain areas’. Whether voters would bother turning out in significant numbers to choose the candidates whom they regard as best equipped to scrutinise draft EU regulations is doubtful, though. Far more likely that those elected would be aspiring TDs and ministers who would, as Senators, do whatever they thought most likely to secure their election to the Dáil, and that might not involve spending much time on scrutiny of draft EU legislation.
Others go further and would like to see the Seanad given more or less the same powers as the Dáil. Vincent Browne (Irish Times, 17 July 2013) argues that the lack of accountability in the current system could be addressed by ‘giving the Seanad the same powers as the Dáil, except the power to elect and unelect a government’. And Democracy Matters, on the front page of its web site (3 September 2013), seems to see the reformed Seanad as being more powerful than the Dáil – indeed, the body to which the Dáil should in some way be answerable – stating that ‘A new and effective Seanad is critical to make the Dáil accountable to a body other than themselves’. It would also have significant legislative powers: ‘A reformed Seanad means new expertise and new legislation to underpin Ireland’s economic recovery’. The range of views on the composition and powers of any ‘reformed Seanad’ suggests that if the electorate votes No on 4 October, it would not be easy to reach swift agreement on what such a body should look like, and that in practice the current Seanad would be with us for some time.
Part of the motivation underpinning the idea of a directly-elected Seanad with pretty much all the powers of the Dáil no doubt comes from despair at the deficiencies in the Dáil’s ability to compel accountability from the government. It is indeed surprising that the government has not yet set out a definite statement of intent for Dáil reform, or preferably implemented such measures already; the kind of measures discussed in David Farrell’s post here in July. Given the ‘power grab’ theme that features in the No side’s campaign, a vague promise by the government to ‘look at’ meaningful reforms sometime in the future won’t suffice.
Even so, the idea of a strong Seanad, elected at a different time and by a different electorate than the Dáil, is unlikely to be a remedy for anything except gridlock. When the two houses disagree, whose will should prevail – that of the Dáil, or of the reformed Seanad? Looking around Europe the only examples of genuinely strong second chambers are to be found in Belgium (a manifestation of federalism), Romania (close to a presidential system), and Italy. The power of the Italian Senate is one of the main reasons why left-wing governments rarely last their full term and why the Italian system of governance is regarded as one of the least effective in Europe. If the only measures that can get through parliament are ones that can command majority support from two different houses, elected at different times by different electorates, which appears to be the Democracy Matters preferred option, then only lowest common denominator measures have much chance of making it through. It might help the case of advocates of a reformed Seanad if they could point to another country that operates the kind of model they favour.
The desire for a strong Seanad is an understandable, though surely mistaken, response to the reluctance of the government to move as far and as fast as it could in giving a more meaningful role to the Dáil, or of non-government TDs to wrest such a role from the government – a role that, while not enabling the opposition of the day to thwart the elected government, would compel a higher degree of accountability and would enable meaningful input from government backbenchers and opposition TDs. A powerful second chamber has the potential to make a big difference to the governmental system – but not necessarily for the better.