Posted by David Farrell, April 13, 2015
The Report of the Working Group on Seanad Reform was published earlier today (see here). It was given a limited range of options: no change, minor change, or major change (but not involving constitutional reform). In opting for the latter the working group has defied most expectations (certainly mine), and in so doing has potentially re-opened the far more important debate over the need for radical Oireachtas reform.
Among the working group’s recommendations are the following main highlights:
- To open up Seanad elections for 30 seats to all citizens voting by post (using internet technology to keep the costs down)
- The electorate to include all passport holders in Northern Ireland and overseas
- 13 of the Seanad seats to be elected ‘indirectly’ (by Oireachtas members and Concillors)
- The Seanad to be given distinct roles in such areas as EU secondary legislation, North-South ministerial Council proposals, investigating on matters of public policy interest, etc.
There is a clear injunction that this report should be implemented without delay. To that end the Working Group proposes to produce a draft Bill in the next few weeks, that it proposes should be ‘signed into law before the end of this calendar year’. And it makes an explicit recommendation that an implementation body be established ‘as a matter of urgency’ to be located in the Department of the Taoiseach with the Taoiseach in a leading role to ensure smooth and speedy passage.
Here are a few initial questions:
First, we’re not told what mechanisms will be in place to prevent imbalances across the six directly elected functional constituencies (i.e. the five vocational panels and the university seats). If citizens have the right to register for the constituency (panel) of their choice, what happens if, say, one or other of the panels attract a significantly smaller sign-up? This runs the risk of what political scientists refer to as ‘malapportionment’, a serious no-no in any electoral system.
Second, will the electorate for the indirect panels (i.e. Oireachtas members and Councillors) also have a vote in the direct election of the other 43 senators – thus giving them two votes? This would conflict with the working group’s principle of ‘one person one vote’.
Third, no estimate is provided of the cost of the proposed internet/postal ballot scheme for posting. Even with the cost saving by dispatching ballots via the Internet, this is more expensive than our usual voting method. If these proposals were to be accepted by the government, then why not at least consider a referendum in the lifetime of the next parliament to remove the requirement for a postal ballot? I realize that the working party were not in a position to make a recommendation of this sort, but perhaps this is something that might now be raised by the implementation body.
Of course, that assumes an implementation body ever sees the light of day. The mood music from the Taoiseach’s department doesn’t auger too well in that regard (see here). We’re given the usual aul guff about the Taoseiach ‘intending to meet’ with other party leaders and a suggestion that the working group ‘make a presentation’ to the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and ‘attend a hearing’ in the Seanad – all marking the familiar smells of long grass.
Whatever our views might be on the role, functions – or indeed relevance – of the Seanad, there is much to be welcomed in this Report. Despite the constraints set on the role of the working group they have opted to be adventurous rather than conservative. If their recommendations ever do see the light of day then this will have broader ramifications, because if the Seanad is reformed and made a more significant player in our political system this would impact on the broader – and far more important question – of real and substantial Oireachtas reform. If the Seanad changes then the Dáil can no longer stand still.