Why I will be voting ‘No’ in the Seanad referendum

The Seanad referendum is an unfortunate distraction from the need for real and sustained political and constitutional reform. Up till now I have not expressed a view either way on the question of whether the Seanad should be abolished or not.

But on October 4 I (like hopefully many other citizens) will be going to my local polling station to vote. The question that’s been bothering me for the past number of weeks is how should I vote. And I have decided to vote ‘No’.

This is not because I think we need a Seanad (either reformed or left as it is). It is because I object to the cynical waste of time and money that the government has put into this campaign, time and money that could have been spent on true reform measures.

A country of this size and nature (as a unitary, or non-federal, state) does not need a second house of parliament. Were we starting from scratch with a new Constitution I would be among those proposing that we opt for a unicameral parliament. The suggestions by those against Seanad abolition that we could reform it and make it more influential are not realistic. A more influential Seanad is a recipe for legislative logjams and parliamentary gridlock. For a measured and detailed analysis of the quandary, I recommend my UCD colleague John Coakley’s recently published study of Reforming Political Institutions, which includes a chapter on the Seanad. In this extract (p. 108) he summarizes the academic debates over second chambers:

If a second chamber is representative and powerful, it duplicates the functions of the first chamber, with which it competes; if it is representative and powerless, it serves no useful function in the decision making system; if it is unrepresentative but powerful, it contravenes democratic principles; and if it is unrepresentative and powerless it is marginal to the political process. From this perspective, then, second chambers in unitary states fall into four categories: respectively, they are disruptive, or redundant, or obstructive, or merely ornamental.

To my mind, we’re simply better off without a Seanad. What is really needed – something that has been commented on at length over the years on this site – is radical Dáil reform. The government purports to be offering this as a quid pro quo for abolishing the Seanad, but they are not (see here for more discussion).

And then there’s the government campaign, with its Borg pictures (used without his permission), its promise of savings to the taxpayer of €20 million that we now know at best are likely to be less than half of that, and its promise of reducing the number of politicians when we don’t actually need to (see here for more discussion).

This is not the campaign of a radically reforming government: it’s a populist push plain and simple and should not be rewarded. This is why I will be voting ‘No’ on October 4.

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24 thoughts on “Why I will be voting ‘No’ in the Seanad referendum

    • No, we should not. We should simply vote on the issue on hand – not the way the campaign has been run

      Approving the government is what general elections are for.
      In between elections, we can get in touch with politicians directly and indirectly, through fora like this – until we get a well-designed and appropriate form of citizens’ initiative in this Republic, along the lines the Constitutional Convention have supported with over 80% of the members voting for it.

    • David, It’s is an irrational position to take. If you think we should get rid of the Seanad, voting Yes does that. Voting No won’t make significant Dáil reform more likely. In fact it might make it less likely as the government will tire of any reform. So punishing the government for populism might make you feel better, but will leave you worse off.

      • I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this, Eoin. I don’t think they should ‘get rid of the Seanad’. What I said was that were we starting from scratch we’d be better off without it. Whether the Seanad survives or not is not going to make any difference whatsoever. Passing this referendum (as by the looks of things it is likely to be) will allow the government to claim that they’ve ticked the ‘reform box’, when you and I both know they won’t have.

  1. I think the interesting thing about the collection of main Irish political parties supporting abolition of Seanad Éireann is they can be broadly, historically, and not so historically, classified as the Provo’s, the Stickies and the Blueshirts.
    None of these political ideologies can be classed in any way as defenders of democracy, the latter two having recently created the removal of one layer of local representation from next year.
    We do need to reform our democracy, I think we should afford representation directly to citizens in the six counties and some form of representation to the interests of our Irish born emigrants, many of whom have left having voted in 2011 for a new better Ireland, undelivered by the current coalition. Directly electing this Seanad nua and empowering it to check all government bills (including money bills) and all european legislation would provide the necessary check on the main legislature which,if not provided, through it’s abolition, may be missed by people if we get any party having a majority, or ineffective coalition.
    God help us if we reject democracy in two weeks, after all, we spent centuries struggling to obtain it.

    • “I think the interesting thing about the collection of main Irish political parties supporting abolition of Seanad Éireann is they can be broadly, historically, and not so historically, classified as the Provo’s, the Stickies and the Blueshirts.”

      Equally interesting is that those supporting retention of the Seanad ie. Fianna Fáil and members of governments that FF led in the period 1997-2011 ie. Michael McDowell (former AG and Tánaiste), Eamonn Ryan (Green Party minister) undid most the economic gains that the FG-Labour-DL government left when they lost power in 1997.
      With friends like these– the results of whose time in office has resulted in the current social, economic and fiscal crisis (see below), does the Senate need any other enemies?
      We need checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they elected or appointed, public or private, local national transnational.

      As we set about trying to rebuild trust in our way of governing ourselves, it is clear that one would not start by keeping the Senate. Voting to abolish it would clarify exactly where our political power is located, thus widening the scope of discussion on options for political and institutional reform.

      The IMF has pointed out that we now face an acute unemployment crisis.
      “Since the recession started, employment has fallen by 15½ percent, pushing the unemployment rate close to 15 percent, the share of workers unemployed for over 1 year to 60 percent, and the share of very long-term unemployed (over 2 years) to 30 percent. If involuntary part time workers and workers only marginally attached to the labor force—two groups that registered significant increases—are also accounted for, the unemployment and underemployment rate in Ireland stands at a staggering 23 percent.”
      IMF Ireland: Ninth Review Under the Extended Arrangement. 03 April 2013
      http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/cat/longres.aspx?sk=40454.0
      This arises from our Government’s September 2008 decision, on the banking crisis which an IMF report described as
      “…. the costliest since the Great Depression in terms of the economic havoc it wreaked on the country,” according to the paper by International Monetary Fund researchers … Ireland is also the only country in the world currently suffering from a banking crisis that features among the world’s top 10 worst banking crises, the authors conclude, lending weight to the idea that our banking crisis is much worse than the problems in other countries…. The researchers study banking problems under three headings — fiscal cost, increased debt and loss of economic output. Ireland was in the top 10 in all three categories.”
      lrish meltdown was world’s worst since 1930s — IMF report Irish Independent 28 June 2012 http://www.independent.ie/business/irish/irish-meltdown-was-worlds-worst-since-1930s-imf-report-26869930.html report on IMF Research Department Working Paper WP/12/163 Systemic Banking Crises Database: An Update Luc Laeven and Fabián Valencia.
      http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2012/wp12163.pdf

      Another opponent of abolishing the Seanad is former Senator Joe O’Toole who was ICTU President in 2001-2003. As a member of the then political, administrative, financial, industrial and social governing elites he expressed the view that “The ATM machine is nicely stacked up. I look forward to that spitting out money in all directions” (ITimes 15 August 2003).
      The National Economic and Social Council admitted the incompetence of the governing elites since we joined the €uro “ In the past decade, Ireland’s approach to fiscal policy, prices, costs and financial regulation were not sufficiently adapted to the disciplines of a single currency.”

  2. I disagree. The Seanad has agreed with and voted with, the government on every single issue, from the abolition of private property or more correctly a tax on where people live, to taxing our water and handing over our water supply to a private company. They signed off on cuts to our old people and they agreed to cuts to the handicapped people of this island.

    Just because Enda Kenny wants to do something does not mean it is wrong, neither does the fact that a cynical approach has been taken alter the reality that this is a chamber either voted into power or appointed by Ireland’s political elite who represent approximately 1% of the population.

    The winding up of the Seanad, as far as I am concerned, strips away a significant layer of mock democracy, that has been used as a smoke screen, to give the appearance of a semblance of democracy. When the smoke clears, after its removal, we will be able to eye ball those with the real power. In particular, ‘the cabal’ not the executive. The cabal being Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore, Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan. Then we will take it from there.

    • Im not sure how you can say Ireland’s ‘political elite’ represent 1% of the population? If we all voted then they represent everyone. You may not like their policies but they are democratically elected. Im always very uncomfortable with these blanket terms of golden circles or political elites or elites in general. Frequently, the people who make decisions affecting day to day lives of people are middle and lower ranking civil and public servants – the community welfare officer, the social worker, the revenue official, the person behind the desk in social welfare office or the motor tax office. To my mind it is a lazy cop-out from the fact that when we excluded taxes from land and property (VAT, Stamp duty etc.) the cost of our public services – public spending – was vastly outstripping income and continues to do so. All the bond holders in all the banks wouldn’t change this as a day to day scenario and basically we needed money from the ECB who said ok, so long as you pay the bond holders so there we are. All this conspiracy theory nonsense is a bit like the Bildernberg stuff or the World Economic Forum or the UN as the great conspiracy – just ridiculous. The unfortunate or inconvenient truth is that we as a nation and individuals borrowed large amounts of money to buy property in an inflated property market. everyone knew it was inflated but no one knew when the music would stop. So it did. and here we are. Get the economy back on track – I havent seen any credible alternative ot what we are doing – and lets get on with it. As to the Seanad, the removal of any institution which has the potential to be a brake on government, albeit a temporary one, is to my mind a dangerous thing. In effect we are removing one of the checks and balances on unfettered government power.

      • I am wondering why you are dragging the UN, Bilderberg stuff into this? Almost 75% of the Seanad members 72% are elected by just over 1,000 people and even then some of these 1,000 people have up to 5 or 6 votes as they sit on various voting panels. Enda Kenny’s nominees equate to 18% of the Seanad members while the votes of 150,000 graduates elect only 10%.

        I agree with you about the cost of our public services I am with Dr. Edward Walsh on this one who has stated that if we were to pay ourselves the same salaries and pensions as our counterparts in the UK then we would not have these austerity budgets as we would save according to Walsh 7.3 bn annually. The reason that 63% of people in jobs are now emigrating is sending a loud message to the government and that is you can cling on to the status quo but we can vote with out feet for a better life for us and our children.

        The Seanad voted along with the Dail to put a property tax on my house, a water tax on my water and to withdraw services from my elderly neighbours. Nothing personal then, if I vote to get rid of such an August body? Conspiracy theory? No none required!

  3. Wow! This is really, truly, incrediblly brave and courageous – a member of the gilded elite whose livelihood is largely funded from the state’s largesse declaring his intent to thwart the desires of the current elected dictator. What ever next?

    It seems too good to be true. And perhaps it is. It may be that the unelected and permanent elite has decided to maintain the status quo and to give the Taoiseach a bloody nose for seeking to change it in such an ill-considered way.

    A ‘no’ vote is a vote for the status quo, even if it is intended to express disapproval of the Government’s lack of ambition in the area of political reform. And as for changes in the functioning and procedures of the Dáil, these are for the Dáil to tackle, not the Government.

    It would be far better to spoil one’s ballot by writing “Dáil reform by the Dáil” on it. If enough people were to do this TDs might get the message.

  4. “To my mind, we’re simply better off without a Seanad. What is really needed – something that has been commented on at length over the years on this site – is radical Dáil reform.

    This is not the campaign of a radically reforming government: it’s a populist push plain and simple and should not be rewarded. This is why I will be voting ‘No’ on October 4.”

    Oh yea?

    The diagnostician refusing to take sides on starting a therapeutic procedure for something that he recognises as needing radical treatment?

    This is the kind of stance that gets academics a bad press – being too clever by half, “on the one hand but on the other” or more earthy phrases.

    Those interested in Dáil reform might be interested in a meeting organised for Tuesday next 24th September at 18.00 in Wood Quay Venue.

    The Wrong Referendum?

    Interested in how we can make our parliament fit for purpose? This public discussion on Dáil reform is open to anyone who thinks our Dáil can do more for democracy.

    The debate in the run up to the Seanad referendum has not provided sufficient space for debate on wider reform of our parliamentary structures. Regardless of the outcome of the Seanad referendum the Dáil is the key democratic organ of the state and needs reform.

    The democracy group of Claiming our Future wants to promote debate on how Dáil reform can serve an Ireland based on our five core values of equality, environmental sustainability, accountability, participation and inclusion.

    Venue: Wood Quay Venue, Dublin City Council. Access to the Wood Quay venue is at the junction of Fishamble and Essex Streets OR from Winetavern Street.

    Speakers:
    Muiris MacCarthaigh, Queens University Belfast
    Shane Martin, University of Leicester

    Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh is Lecturer in Irish Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He has long-standing academic research and teaching interests in the origins, work and reform of the Irish parliament and is author of Accountability in Irish Parliamentary Politics (2005) and co-editor of The Houses of the Oireachtas: Parliament in Ireland (2010). He has also conducted a number of commissioned research projects for the Houses of the Oireachtas. He is a member of a number of international academic networks concerned with the study of parliaments.

    Dr Shane Martin is Reader in Comparative Politics at the University of Leicester. Prior to joining Leicester, he taught at Dublin City University, the University of California, San Diego and the Pennsylvania State University and held a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin. He is an international recognised expert on parliaments and parliamentary behaviour, with a specific focus on the relationship between electoral systems and parliamentary organisation and behaviour. Recent research by him has appeared in Legislative Studies Quarterly, Party Politics, The Journal of Legislative Studies, Political Studies, West European Politics, Irish Political Studies, PS: Political Science and Politics, and Politics and Religion. He is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies and a member of the Editorial Board of Irish Political Studies (2011-) and Legislative Studies Quarterly (2012-15). He was Director of the European Summer School on Parliaments in 2010 and 2013.

    More details here
    http://www.claimingourfuture.ie/events/2013/09/24/the-wrong-referendum/

    • As you rightly point out, the real rate of unemployment according to the IMF “is a staggering 23%” and since then the IMF have alluded to an even higher rate of unemployment of 27%. How do the geniuses compiling our national statistics manage to come up with these distortionary figures of 13.6%? I suppose the same way as they were able to make mistakes of 3.6bn in the public accounts for which their boss was promoted. They set out to meticulously distort rather than elucidate.

      The murky statistics that have oozed out from all government agencies since this crisis began have been nothing short of disgraceful and 100% self serving. These are the kind of statistics that were issued before the break up of the Soviet Union. Not only is our parliament undemocratic and unconstitutional but agencies that are supposed to be independent from the executive and government departments have proven themselves to be mere appendages of the prevailing government line. Every layer of this rotten edifice that is removed either by design or accident is to be welcomed.

      In short, these agencies have lied at every hand’s turn. I regard this dishonest approach as one of active malfeasance. They have not been objective, not been independent not been honest. The ESRI is another player that can be depended on to wear the green jersey and engage in the artifice of deception. Their motivation? To slavishly hold on to their highly paid jobs and government funding at all costs, hence we get for instance, growth figures that are as rosy as possible in the distance but then have to be slowly adjusted back down to reality as reality cannot be postponed any longer. Professor Richard Tol told many of us, what we already knew, as he was packing his worldly goods into a vehicle to move to the UK.

  5. Donal, the point is, this is nothing to do with the national economy, despite repeated FG/ILP lies on how much the exchequer would save if those with a vote follow their advice on Oct. 4th.
    The fact is, as I point out above, the current coalition have removed one layer of our democratic representation, they are now proposing to rid us of another, why?
    My own opinion is we need greater representation for all Irish people, not less, regardless of where in the country, or nowadays the world, our citizens find themselves. Some time we might debate whom is actually to blame for the euro/worldwide economic crisis, it is of course equally undemocratic players.

    • Mark,
      The key issue is our trust in our way of governing ourselves without which democratic legitimacy is at risk.
      I understood your posting to suggest that the three parties supporting the abolition of the Senate have less than democratic tendencies, at least at the level of the ideology which you ascribe to the parties..
      The point I wanted to make is that incompetent governance is also a threat to democratic governance. This is the only reason that I raised the state of the economy – and not because I find the cost-accountancy case for abolition of the Seanad convincing – which I do not.

      I agree entirely that we need new organs of state to enable us to exercise our power which we transfer to our elected representatives during elections.

      Over years in this and other fora, I have suggested a series of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful. see this submission to the Constitutional Convention “Direct participation in politics”
      https://www.constitution.ie/AttachmentDownload.ashx?aid=4193c884-cf71-e211-a5a0-005056a32ee4

    • Assume that is true.
      If, like David Farrell and many others, you believe that we need political and institutional reform, why oppose abolishing the Seanad as a start of the process?

      Is this opposition to the FG led initiative a case of the best being the enemy of the good?
      Or an example of “If you want to get to whereever, I would not start from here”?

      Bíonn gach tosnú lag.

  6. Pingback: eire.com » Blog Archive » Too many bad decisions – why the Seanad matters

  7. @David Farrell
    “Passing this referendum (as by the looks of things it is likely to be) will allow the government to claim that they’ve ticked the ‘reform box’, when you and I both know they won’t have.”

    Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, I trust you will continue to work in the kind of vein you have ( eg. through WetheCitzens, the Constitutional Convention, comments on various proposals in various media) by showing that ticking the boxes (ie. changes in local government, the new FoI bill, the Seanad referendum) leaves a lot to be desired in terms of political and institutional reform on how our political power is used, monitored and controlled.

  8. I don’t think the post above embodies good logic for at least a couple of reasons. For a start, as Eoin says, the utility derived from voting no, if you do not actually think the Seanad should survive, seems doubtful and limited.

    More importantly, I don’t agree with Coakley’s analysis mostly because it appears, from the brief extract above, to work mostly by deduction from rather limited premises, ignoring genuine contributions made by upper houses and the reasons why they occur. For instance, there can be no doubt that the quality of debate in the British House of Lords, perhaps the most maligned upper house in Europe, is substantially greater than that of the House of Commons (or indeed the Dáil). Moreover, there are some crucial examples of where it has meaningfully improved legislation (take, for instance, the recent NHS bill), without being problematically obstructive or disruptive. The reason for this is indicative of why Seanad reform could be meaningful.

    The reform I have in mind is founded in a reconciliation of the two major competing principles of government: government by the best and government by the many. In representative democracies we try to marry the two, while avoiding the practical difficulties of Athenian style, by granting citizens the opportunity to elect the best amongst us to be our representatives and legislators. However, both in principle and in practice this is problematic. In principle, there arises the issue of which should take precedence: the wise judgement of the legislator or the will of the represented. In practice we see this played out in many problematic ways and much space on this site has been given to the unfortunate results.

    Hence we err far more on the side of government by the many, with the influence of the most able channelled only through the press or, on some occasions, through direct communication with legislators. I do not think these channels, particularly in the modern era, provide sufficient scope for input from those with wisdom and expertise. Amongst many reasons, this is because the skills of public representation are such that wisdom and expertise are easily obscured and marginalised by politicians in need of success and personal advancement. Moreover, there is an extremely limited quantity of space available for advocacy to the public, particularly nowadays, and it is thus doubtful that, on any important occasion, we can really expect wisdom and expertise to have the say it might warrant.

    Moreover, I think that the root cause of Ireland’s problems is our poor level of debate. We do not fulfil our role as citizens – that of holding the government to account – nearly as well as we ought, for many reasons. What our government does is not widely thought and talked about with nearly enough intellectual rigour, nor is it informed by a sufficient quantity of relevant information. To a major degree, this is irresolvable at the level of the citizen, but much can be done at the level of the parliament I think. Hence my proposal:

    We are left with one principle of government – the Platonic notion of rule by the best – that has little scope at present. Now it might well be argued that no scope should be given to it beyond that described above, or that alternative reform might provide this scope. I do not agree with the first for numerous reasons (and it is a philosophical discussion outside the scope of a limited post), but am open to ideas insofar as the second is concerned. In any case, a carefully crafted Seanad is to my mind the best avenue to pursue.

    Briefly, I imagine something like the present British House of Lords, minus the more egregious elements, like the remaining hereditary peers and the church members. Its members would include the likes of retired senior civil servants of distinction; worthies from the legal profession; business leaders; retired army officers of rank; senior academics; literary and cultural figures of significant merit and social activists of many colours. I am open to ideas about how it might be appointed – probably the greatest challenge, but I think not insurmountable – and the length of its terms (I would think life). Its role would be to enhance the quality of public debate in this country; to offer the sort of scrutiny of legislation that we rarely, if ever, see; and to have a statutory/constitutional role in the creation and reform of law through committees and amendment powers.

    Naturally, this would be an experiment. All reform is and few changes can ever be guaranteed successes, particularly major ones like the one I have in mind. One cannot deduce in advance all impacts and the possibility of the body doing more ill than good cannot be discounted. Culture and tradition are a tremendous part of how an institution actually functions and much of it develops as a result of precedents set by the first members of an institution. But I think that, insofar as we can deduce, there is tremendous potential for enhancing the well-being of the country. There are also many more potential problems than can be addressed here – I can think of dozens of things that would need to be resolved and many more potential objections that any reasonable person might offer – but I think the foundation, at least, is sound. In short, the proposal is aimed at the greatest forces standing against good government in this country – ignorant political debate and inadequate legislators – and seeks to address it by mitigating the major institutional weakness: the conflicting rationale behind our current legislative selection process. That seems to me to be a good start.

  9. David, I’m quite sympathetic to your reasons for a no vote. I honestly find it
    hard to get too motivated or excited about this vote. I think it’s a much of a muchness either way. There are plenty of reasons to vote in either direction. Most though involve some kind of conjecture or supposition about the future behaviour of our politicians (i.e. peering into the souls of our TDs and maybe it’s better off not knowing too closely their innermost thoughts! 😉 ), e.g. if the Senate is abolished then they’ll have to get on with the job of reforming the Dáil (hmmm), or if it’s kept then they’ll have to reform it (another hmmm). Personally, I’m pretty pessimistic about the prospects for reform either way. As I’ve argued here in comments to an older thread (https://politicalreform.ie/2013/06/15/wheres-irelands-party-political-earthquake-now/ ) the Seanad abolition wording itself was a golden opportunity for some reform. Instead we got a minimalist amendment wording. Though I suppose if one has a Taoiseach (who it’s evident at this stage has little vision and/or appetite for reform) sends a request off for an abolition amendment to a bunch of civil servants to think about and draft for more than two years, then it can hardly be surprising that a wording came back that could hardly be more finely calibrated to entrench the current status quo. Effectively the country is already run by a handful of ministers in conjunction with senior civil servants. I suppose why would they risk the chance of a more stroppy parliament spoiling this cosy arrangement?

    Even the proposals for changing Dáil procedures don’t amount to much. We’ve suffered yet another economic disaster (with poor governance being a major factor), we’re proposing to abolish a second chamber (with lots of time to think about alternative structures) and even the abolition referendum doesn’t look like a done deal (which one would think would have prompted the government to push the boat out a little more in terms of reforms) and yet this suite of measures is it!? That’s all, that’s the totality of what to expect?! It’s depressing. I can fully understand the rationale for your proposed vote.

    I’m genuinely not sure which way I will vote. There is a real argument that the existence of the Seanad as it is currently formulated is somewhat harmful in that it blunts the accountability aspect of our electoral system. It’s a bolt-hole for TDs who lose their seats to hang out in until the next election at somewhat reduced pay. Not sure I buy the argument that this consequently strengthens (particularly via the patronage of the Taoiseach’s 11 appointees) the whip system. There’s plenty of patronage to go around and this will remain the same (state board positions etc. etc. with no sign of this being meaningfully reformed). I’m sure loyal TDs who lose their seats will continue to be looked after one way or another. But it does blunt the ability of the electorate to give TDs a kicking. That has to be set against any small positive role the Seanad has in terms of legislative review. I can fully understand those who might vote yes on this basis. The money arguments are neither here nor there for me. The government’s reform plans are essentially quantitative rather than qualitative, almost purely about numbers (a bit more of this, a bit less of that), not about *how* things are done. I wouldn’t mind paying a bit more tax or tolerating more redundancy if I thought better governance would result.

    I do find most of the arguments against bicameralism, as such, to be weak. They usually amount to an appeal to some kind of false dichotomy. In terms of the spectrum of political systems from separation of powers/gridlock (e.g. the US) systems on one side to fusion of power/efficiency (like ourselves) systems on the other, I think I’m most sympathetic to those in the middle: semi-presidential, meaningfully bicameral or even unicameral systems where the opposition have strong formal powers. Of course every possible political structure can have its shadow/dark side in the wrong circumstances. Sometimes with half-way house compromises one gets the worst of both worlds instead of the best of either! Both the sheer starkness of the US system eventually almost inevitably forces a compromise maybe at the last moment (despite all the talk of “gridlock”). There are pros and cons to Presidential systems like the US though. And there are potential pros to “efficient” systems like our own with a very tight fusion of powers. Seemingly hasn’t worked out too well so far for us though. I’d tend towards thinking that a moderate amount of grit in the wheels of state might be no bad thing in our case. There’s always the danger that such a half-way house might end up being used in a disruptive way (with the opposition not really having to live with their choices like in the starker US case, able to be obstructionist knowing that the government will ultimately override them). We might end up with a situation where perhaps such powers were used with the government not really listening to constructive opposition suggestions (despite its increased leverage to slow things down). Or the opposition merely using delay for the sake of being obstructionist (with a moderate decrease in efficiency with little upside gain). But I’d be more than willing to take the chance in the Irish case though.

    Empowering the Dáil (or giving greater formal powers to backbench TDs or the opposition) would be heading in this direction anyway to some degree (further towards the middle of this gridlock/efficiency spectrum). If the constitution was being designed from scratch I would prefer it to be bicameral. I would like *both* structural measures to empower the Dáil and a moderately powerful Senate. My hypothesis regarding second chambers is that to make a meaningful contribution they need three things to some degree: power, legitimacy and a different composition and/or role to the main chamber. Very very few second chambers have all of these properties. Our Seanad has none of them. Even the theoretically powerful Japanese and Italian Senates fall short on these requirements. The Italian Senate is elected on the same day as the main parliament using a very similar electoral system. The winning coalition automatically gets a seat bonus in both chambers to ensure they automatically have 55% of seats. The seat bonus works nationally for the main chamber and regionally for the Senate. So only on rare occasions (like now) can regional voting discrepancies ensure that the Italian Senate is not government controlled. Same for Japan. For decades the LDP had majorities in both chambers. For a long time after that, while not having an absolute majority in the Senate, governments could make a deal with a smaller party to keep control. It’s only in very recent years that we’ve had genuinely the phenomenon of “twisted Diets” (love the term 🙂 ) where the opposition controls their upper house. OK, I concede the potential for gridlock is an issue in the design of second chambers. Though this really hasn’t been an issue with the Australian Senate with only the occasional double dissolution (one of the few bodies to meet the three criteria: has almost equal power to the House of Representatives, has real legitimacy in the public mind since it was reformed to be directly elected, and its PR composition nicely complements the blunt FPTP electoral system in the other chamber). It’s safe to say it has been a success, which probably has little to do with its federal origins (though can’t say I’m a great fan of the rather tortured and unnatural form of PR-STV it uses!). And actually about 1/4 to a 1/3 of Australian ministers come from the Senate.
    The Canadian Senate, though in theory moderately powerful, falls well short in terms of legitimacy (members appointed by prime ministers for life (or at least until 75). Hence, it can’t have the confidence or mandate to exercise these theoretical powers. The UK House of Lords (though often derided) does make a decent enough contribution in its own way. It has moderate powers (one year delay of non-money bills). Its archaic and idiosyncratic nature does hamstring it in terms of legitimacy (but it does still seem to have decent enough respect in the eyes of the public to comfortably exercise its powers to a moderate, if somewhat restrained, degree). The UK establish seem to be able to largely rein in the urge to naked patronage and generally appoint senior experienced people (the quality of debate is really good there) and it certainly hasn’t turned into a waiting room for temporarily out of office MPs.

    I don’t buy into the gridlock (appeal to one extreme of the spectrum) argument. One can easily calibrate a second chamber to have as much or as little power/legitimacy as one wants. Lots of schemes have been proposed for House of Lords reform which one could use. I believe it wouldn’t be hard to constitutionally construct a useful Irish second chamber. But exactly how that belief relates (if at all) to this particular Seanad referendum isn’t very clear-cut to me though.

    • @Finbar
      “My hypothesis regarding second chambers is that to make a meaningful contribution they need three things to some degree: power, legitimacy and a different composition and/or role to the main chamber. Very very few second chambers have all of these properties. Our Seanad has none of them.”

      So why keep a major organ of state that lacks power and legitimacy?

      As I have said often enough in other fora and above, the challenge we face is the implementation of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – be they elected or appointed, public or private, local national transnational.
      Only thus can we enhance the legitimacy of the organs of state to which we transfer our power in elections.

  10. David

    I am perplexed by your reasoning, on two grounds.

    You approvingly quote Coakley’s decuctive logic, though as IconX points out, Coakley’s summary is glib and theoretical. The practical reality of a second chamber can be much more productive; IconX is right about the UK’s House of Lords. It falls into the category of “unrepresentative and powerless”; it is constituted by a bizarre mixture of patronage and heredity, so is clearly not representative. It’s powers are now very very limited, but it can perform a valuable role in scrutisnising legislation. There is a long-standing debate on whether to make it more representative, which i believe could improve it; but despite some weird quirkiness, it serves a valuable role. In the UK, the debate is about reform; there is no significant voice seeking the abolition of the second chamber. So your reliance on Coakley seems misplaced.

    My second concern is that if we look at Coakley’s dismissal of a body which is “representative and powerless”, then we can readily apply that label to the Dail. One of the tightest whipping systems in any developed nation is combined with a stitched-up set of rules on speaking time to make a chamber which is almost useless for scrutiny. On top of that, a clientilist political culture leaves most TDs with little time or energy for policy issues.

    So the “representative and powerless” Dail is as useless as the Seanad. So why not abolish the whole of the Oireachtas, and just directly elect a Taoiseach?

    We can probably both agree on the answer to that one: any government needs scrutiny, both to keep it honest and to keep it wise. More eyes help avoid corruption, and they also help avoid honest mistakes. Scrutiny is the core role of any Parliament, anywhere, and in Ireland we need a lot more of it, not less.

    A reformed Seanad could be a huge part of that process. There are two conventions which apply in varying degrees to most upper houses: 1) that their members have long terms, to free them from the immediacy of the electoral cycle; 2) that they try to include people with experience and expertise, regardless of whether those people are representative. The mechanisms for achieving those two goals varies, but those twin aims are prevalent.

    Imagine a Seanad which was reconstituted. Not hard to imagine the restructuring. Break the link to Dail elections, to give it some enduring identity. Clear out the political wannabes by banning any Senator from ever again serving in the Dail or even the European Parliament. Reform the academic electorate to include graduates of all 3rd-level bodies, and welcome the expertise repeatedly brought to the Seanad by academia. Allow a limited number of ex-ministers to be appointed for long periods to bring their experience to the chamber.

    Reform the vocational panels so that they cease to be a councillors’ crony system, and become a means for genuinely bringing on board the wealth of expertise in our professions and businesses, and voluntary sector. Instead have a few senators elected directly by councillors, and some senators popularly elected. Add a few ordinary citizens selected by lot, as is done with citizens’ juries.

    That Seanad would be a radically different place to the current crony’s club, but merely reconstituting it would be inadequate. Why not give it the role of pre-legislative scrutiny, as currently done by committees in the Scottish Parliament? That could radically improve the quality of legislation. It could be invaluable with European legislation which currently gets almost no scrutiny at all.

    Why not give it the power to examine govt and councils and the public service, in depth? A Seanad scrutinising the implementation of policy could have helped to avoid many of the operational disasters in our public service.

    Above all, Ireland has not suffered from lack of representation. What it has lacked has been an open and reflective culture of political debate which can take a longer view of the shape of the country. A reformed second chamber could do that job brilliantly … but instead of trying to fix a potentially valuable vehicle, you want to write it off.

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