Seanad Reform & the Referenda dilemma: “Keep it, or Kick it?”

In two day’s time we will have our say on the Seanad. For those of us who vote on Friday two choices will greet us on being handed our ballot paper: No to keep the upper house of parliament, Yes to kick it.

For many defining decisions in our history a simple Yes or No ballot has captured the essence of what was proposed at the particular time: Yes to joining the European Economic Community (1972); No to changes in the voting system (1959).

Other choices, of a sensitive or complex nature, require more thought in how they are structured if they are to reflect and respect people’s views and concerns: Remember the Lisbon and Nice Treaties or, if the Government re-evaluate and re-design their proposal, a second referendum on strengthening powers of Oireachtais committees.

Is Friday’s referendum a simple one? No, I don’t believe it is.

Is there a risk that ‘popular’ claims (such as the Government’s supposed €20 million in savings to be made should we abolish the “elitist” Seanad) will distract our focus from the society-defining decisions of political reform and the sensitive, yet crucial, task of building a state fit for the purpose of serving today’s society and tomorrow’s children? Yes, I am convinced there is.

wicklowtimesYou see much and all as the Government, and others in the Yes camp, would have us believe that the Seanad is “incapable of reform” or that no other country of our size has a second chamber of parliament they are ignoring a few inescapable facts:

Firstly the Seanad is capable of reform if, and only if, a comprehensive assessment is made not only of what it does not do but also of what it could do and, for the sake of our needs both today and tomorrow, should do. There’s no doubting that alot of time, effort and tax-payers’ money was invested in reporting on – and then wasted in not implementing – Seanad reform.

Wicklow Fine Gael TD Simon Harris refers to how the last of these reports, published with cross-party support in 2004, came to nothing and questions why Fianna Fáil (and Michael McDowell) did nothing to action reform of the Seanad when in Government when they are now campaigning for a ‘No’ vote from opposition. The minor detail missing from Deputy Harris’s argument is that in 2004 neither the Credit Crisis nor Ireland’s own unique exposure were apparent in the way they are today in 2013.

Plenty has been written and said on these twin tragedies.

Without going into great detail it’s fair to say, in summary, that in the Ireland of 2004 people – myself included – were not aware of the flaws in the system: Dail subservience to the Executive; lack of national issue representatives in law-making; TD’s balancing the demands of local constituents with the chase for ministerial advancement; a Seanad with little power, few independent thinkers and too many aspiring TD’s and General Election casualties.

The list of ailments goes on. Roll on 2008, 2010 and now 2013, and still flinching at the recollection of painful lessons events have brought, we are at least aware that something purposeful, not merely ‘popular’, must now be done. To say, as Harris and others do, that the “Seanad has proved itself to be beyond reform” misses this fundamental point: It was us, the public, who were unaware of the need for reform. It was us, not the Seanad, that was ‘beyond reform’.

The system wasn’t broke, we thought, so why fix it, we shrugged.

This time it’s different. We understand the nature of the beast. We can reform the Seanad (and Dail with it) and what’s more, we now have a reason to do so. Equally simplistic and, in my view, patronising is the Government’s labelling of the Seanad as an elitist and out-of-touch institution. In much the same way as soundbites on savings and the squandering of previous reform reports play on our impulses headline grabbing ‘end elitisim’ slogans deflect attention from the greater task of rebuilding a state fit for a modern society.

wicklow peopleIs the Seanad ‘elitist’? To an extent, yes it is. The fact that election to the senate for those not affiliated with a political party can only be secured through a constituency of third level graduates is an abuse of the principles of modern democracy. That’s not to attack the contribution of senators returned by graduates of NUI and Trinity College Dublin. Far from it. Senators Robinson, Dooge, Norris and Quinn have made strong contributions for the good of society. Ironically if there was no Seanad that contribution might never have been made.

Think of how the bar would be raised if we all had the chance to elect national issue candidates with backgrounds and expertise in enterprise, financial services, human rights, education or social care of the young, disabled and elderly for example?

The fact that these representatives weren’t directly elected does not make them ‘elite’ or ‘out of touch’. What is far more elitist is the manner in which the Government effectively controls the majority of all other senators and the primacy of the Dail neuters whatever independent contribution the ‘upper’ (and supposedly ‘elitist’) chamber has to make.

The Seanad – in its current form – doesn’t do the job of representing people, making sensible laws or curbing government power. This is not because it’s somehow ‘lazy’ or merely an elitist ‘talking shop’ – it’s because it can’t. And now, ironically, at the point in our history where we are being asked to abolish it, is when the Seanad is needed more than ever.

Our country’s crisis did have something to do with the lack of politicians competent on national issues; where a TD did have an alternative contribution to make, or economic concern to voice, he was often discouraged by his party’s whip from doing so; despite the presence of broad representation from education, enterprise and the arts the Seanad’s ability to expose the flaws of Government decisions was neutered by a combination of restricted voting powers, the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees and an electoral system tipped in favour of the political interests of county councillors instead of a direct mandate from the public.
That ‘s a description of the job it couldn’t do. There’s insufficient space here to go into the specifics of the job the Seanad could or should do. There are things I feel strongly that a reformed Seanad should do, others – reader and voter alike – will have their own set of equally strong views too.

Before we kick the Seanad to the kerb let’s take a moment to reflect on the Ireland we want to live in, the type of representation we deserve and whether the simple “keep it or kick it” formula really is the answer to getting this country back up on it’s feet.

If we vote YES to abolish the Seanad we relinquish those strong feelings and aspirations – we opt to look down and backwards to the job that wasn’t done. If we vote NO we look up and ahead to the job our systems of state could, should and, with our conviction, will do for the society of today and tomorrow.

That is why I’m voting ‘No’.

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