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.