Why do we need a directly elected Seanad?

The fallout from the Seanad referendum continues.  Various groups (most prominent among them Democracy Matters), political parties (notably Fianna Fáil) and prominent individuals such as Michael McDowell are clamouring for the government to introduce legislation to allow for the direct election of the next Seanad.  An editorial in today’s Irish Times makes supportive noises in the same direction, inviting the government to show some ‘flexibility’ on the matter.

To put some comparative context, the table below shows the state of play today in Europe’s 33 democracies.  (I would be grateful for information on any errors that might need correcting.)  As set out below, the facts speak for themselves.  Were we to move to a system of directly electing our Seanad, we would be pretty much a unique case in Europe (based particularly on our small population size and the fact that we have a unitary system of government).

Here are the main trends of interest:

Of the 33 democracies in Europe, 14 of these have upper houses.

Of the 14 European democracies with upper houses:

  • 5 of these are federations (so that the upper house has a distinct role in representing the interests of the states)
  • 7 are directly elected
  • All but Slovenia (population 1.9 million) have a population size greater than Ireland’s (4.7 million), and Slovenia doesn’t directly elect its upper house

What all this amounts to is the following fact: were Ireland to opt for the direct election of the Seanad it would quite literally be the only small non-federal country in Europe to do so.

The number of upper houses and method of electing


7 thoughts on “Why do we need a directly elected Seanad?

  1. Interesting table, though I think the lesson I’d draw from it is that small non-federal states simply don’t tend to have any second chambers at all. Otherwise I can’t see much of a correlation between size and election methods in non-federal states. And the question of whether we have a Seanad or not is moot at this stage (abolition is unlikely to be revisited again for a long long time). I finally ended up being deeply ambivalent on the recent Seanad referendum question and didn’t vote (first time in my life). Wasn’t much of a choice (abolition was an opportunity for reform, we got a minimalist amendment wording absent of reform instead). I’d actually be in favour of a moderately powerful suitably-constructed Seanad. But the realist in me knew that was not on offer. Even a legislatively reformed Seanad as you discuss above was (and probably still is) fairly unlikely to transpire either. Though, IMO meaningful Dáil reforms were about as likely in the event of a yes vote. I’d judge the Seanad in its current incarnation as being mildly damaging to our democracy. It performs some minor positive legislative review functions but that is probably more than counterbalanced (and then some) by its blunting effects on the accountability of our electoral system. Unsuccessful Dáil candidates have an opportunity to sit it out in the second chamber, at somewhat reduced pay, until hopefully better electoral times (the House of Lords is not abused in such a manner in the UK). The public have less opportunity to periodically carry out an electoral cleansing on their representatives.

    In the unfortunately likely absence of constitutional Seanad reform, I see a number of advantages to directly electing the Seanad in comparison to just leaving the status quo. Ideally, there would be a legislative bar on anyone who has just unsuccessfully contested the Dáil elections from then running for the Seanad. Am unsure as to whether such a legislative ban would be constitutional (almost certainly a ban running in the other direction would not be legal, the constitution is more careful about qualifications on running for the Dáil, and those eligible for the Seanad must at least be a subset of those eligible for the Dáil, but perhaps the wording is open to putting extra restrictions on Seanad membership). Even if not, then it would substantially reduce the patronage element for 43 of the seats, and unsuccessful TDs would at least have to put themselves before the people again for a potentially second kicking.

    As to the downsides, our own Taoiseach has already mentioned the “gridlock” bogeyman in resisting any changes to the Seanad status quo. Even if the absolute worst case happened and a Seanad delayed every single bill for the maximum possible length of time, 21 days for a money bill and 3 months for an ordinary bill, then it would hardly be the end of world. As I’ve pointed out previously, many countries have minimum passage times for legislation through unicameral parliaments. Luxembourg has a minimum 3 month delay from first to last reading of a bill (with exceptions for emergencies/special cases if the Grand Duke consents). Luxembourg hasn’t fallen apart yet! There would be an incentive, anyway, for any directly elected Seanad to be more responsible than that. And, even if they weren’t, so what? At minimum, bills would still have a reasonable chance to be studied and flaws spotted, unlike the situation at present where most bills (especially the more important ones) continue to be guillotined through with unseemly speed.

    In general I’d be in strongly favour of bigger more proportionate PR-STV constituencies for the Dáil. Directly electing all the Seanad panel seats would necessitate five panels with an average size of 8/9 seats (plus perhaps a single university panel of 6 seats), giving a platform for smaller parties or perhaps high-profile independents (anyway such a Seanad might be a more natural and suitable venue for independents than the Dáil). If such constituencies worked reasonably well it might eventually generate a certain impetus for larger Dáil constituencies, or at least provide an environment where small parties were more likely to survive for longer periods.

    Open competition might even improve the quality of Seanad members (though there are limits to how much I push this argument 🙂 ). It would certainly give members increased legitimacy to employ the weak 3 month delay powers they actually have.

    I’d also feel it would be pretty essential that Seanad elections be held as late as possible after the Dáil dissolution (close to the 3 months) when people have a good idea of the new Dáil composition and likely government. That would be to give the electorate an opportunity to elect non-government members to the Seanad. It’s pretty clear that electing two bicameral chambers on the same day generally isn’t a good idea. Romania and Italy are good examples from the above list with equally powerful chambers elected using similar/identical voting systems on the same day, usually resulting in a government controlling both similarly composed chambers (the supposed danger of “gridlock” then almost never transpires). The new Irish government starts with too big a Seanad head-start anyway with 11 Taoiseach’s nominees as it is. Voting after the Dáil elections would at least hold open or make more likely the possibility of voters opting for more opposition/non-aligned/independent candidates/parties to hopefully impose a little bit more accountability on the new government.

    There are limits to what one can do with the current constitutional framework. Policing of candidates knowledge/experience in the relevant panel area is almost purely perfunctory/tokenistic as it is. IMO that should be maintained. One could essentially turn the five panels into five fairly equal 8 and 9 seat regional constituencies. And just arbitrary designate one the “agricultural panel” (nod nod wink wink) and so on. There are no constitutional restrictions on who the electorate should be (or more radically one could carve up the voters into five non-geographic constituencies using some neutral personal characteristic like month or final digit of year of birth or some other suitable personal attribute).

    Overall, there are some moderate upsides to direct Seanad elections as far as I can see. I find some of the appeals to gridlock slightly hysterical (especially given the maximum 3 month delay). Other than the US case, where gridlock almost seems to have been deliberately engineered in as a design feature, it’s very difficult to find examples of significant bicameral gridlock. One reason is perhaps there are few even moderately powerful second chambers. But there are some examples even in the above list though (Australia is perhaps the most interesting example not on the above list). The German Bundesrat does tend to cause headaches for German governments, particularly later in their terms when Lander elections may have given the opposition control to the body, and where a substantial minority of legislation (anything touch on the regions) can be blocked. Germany survives though. The House of Lords has moderate powers (1 year delay) and sufficient legitimacy (despite not being elected) to exercise scrutiny to a restrained and moderate extent. The Swiss second chamber is powerful (but the whole Swiss setup is so unusual with its direct democracy and rather unique collegial seven-person executive shared between all major parties, that it’s probably not a good example either way). The Italian and Romanian second chambers are theoretically probably the most powerful of all but coordinated same-day elections removes much of the point of having them at all. The only other even moderately powerful Senate in the list is probably the Dutch one. It’s only part-time and is elected by local governments and can’t actually technically amend or propose legislate. But it can though veto almost all and any legislation though. And it occasionally does this (and can also use the threat of veto to get legislation amended or withdrawn by the main chamber). The Dutch potential for gridlock far exceeds any mere 3 month delay (but isn’t much in evidence there).

    In general, I see some modest upsides to Seanad direct elections and few downsides. The topic doesn’t excite me greatly (constitutional Seanad reform would) but on balance I’d feel it’d be a somewhat better alternative to the status quo.

  2. It is ironic that a majority of voters probably would have cheerfully dispensed with the Seanad if the case had been advanced in a measured manner and the pros and cons tested in a proper public debate. It appears that sufficient voters were so angered by Mr. Kenny’s unilateral decision to abolish an important element of the constitutional architecture so as to demostrate his deciseveness and political virility when he was under some public and internal party pressure – and his determination to follow through with this unconsidered, abrupt commitment – that, almost by default, they voted to retain an institution for which they have little affection or for which they see little use.

    So, once again, the law of unintended consequences is being played out. If the Seanad is to be reformed I would argue for another referendum to have it elected completely by county councillors – thereby removing the Taoiseach’s XI and the university constituencies. Most of those who created the economic and financial mess from which Ireland is slowly extricating itself were well-heeled university graduates. I see no reason why graduates should have the privilege of electing additional legislators when those who vote in Ireland already have a vote in elections to the Dáil.

    And, of course, the requirement to play around with reform of the Seanad gives the Government the perfect excuse to drag its feet on reform of the Dáil.

  3. It’s good to look to others for examples and lessons – but looking to others for raw “facts”, and thinking that “facts speak for themselves”, is not enlightening.

    In information theory, there is a hierarchy of data < information < knowledge < wisdom. A list of states, whether they have an upper houses and the means of election to it, if they have one, is "information". It is not "knowledge".

    Why do states have indirectly elected senates? Are they happy with them? Do they feel it works for them? And what about us? Has an indirectly elected senate worked here?

    In our own context, there is a deep distrust of the politicians and of the party-political system. That distrust is not without merit. The current system of indirect elections has produced an upper house whose composition the People are not pleased with (to say the very least about the situation). So, what's the need to look abroad and say that "facts speak for themselves"? Can we not speak for ourselves? Do the "facts" of foreign experience outweigh our own intellect?

    We're not happy with the result of an indirectly-elected Seanad. The directly-elected university panels have generally returned quality stuff (even if most people, myself included, feel stiffed by not having a vote). The Taoiseach's nominees – as offensive as it is to certain sensibilities – have put some deserving voices in place. But on the whole, the lot returned by indirect elections, who form the bulk for the seanad as it is now, have not been satisfactory to the People.

    So, we've learn from ill experience. We can look abroad for ideas. But the "facts" are here.

  4. The general elections in Belgium (together with the EP elections) won’t include a Senate ballot any more, the Belgian Senate will be elected by the subnational parliaments.

  5. On a different but not unrelated topic, I’ve only just realized that “Dáil Reform” is the topic for discussion at the constitutional convention this weekend (knew it was coming up but just not so soon). This is probably easily the single most important political reform subject the convention is going to discuss. I stumbled across a thread by one of the ordinary convention members on the political forum of boards.ie looking for some thoughts on the topic. So have thrown together a long and rather rambling post on the topic. I thought I’d link to it in case it might be of at least partial interest to some readers here: http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/showpost.php?p=88759162&postcount=3

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