Defeat of Seanad Referendum may be only hope of achieving real political reform
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The Seanad is a ‘luxury we can no longer afford’ and its abolition offers the Irish people an opportunity to ‘make a radical difference to our political system’.
So say, respectively, Minister Richard Bruton, Fine Gael’s Director of Elections for the forthcoming referendum and his Deputy Director of Elections, Meath TD, Regina Doherty. The great delight of such vacuous spin is that it’s so easily turned on its perpetrators. For example: this government is ‘luxury we can no longer afford’ and its removal would ‘make a radical difference to our political system.’ Or the Dail; or the Fine Gael Party; or even Mayo, God help us! – there’s no end to the uses to which such phraseology may be put.
Bruton’s rationale, according to the FG press statement, runs as follows:
‘· Reduce the number of national politicians by 30%
· Save €20 million per year which can be spent on other important services, and
· Bring Ireland in to line with nearly every other small progressive democracy like Sweden and Denmark’.
The choice facing the Irish people is a ‘simple one’, the Minister said as he launched Fine Gael’s campaign.
That ‘€20m in savings’ claim was torn to shreds in less than a week by just about anybody and everybody. In the Sunday Independent, former Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, summed it up as a ‘monstrous lie’.
The more even-tempered political scientist folk over on politicalreform.ie have also been dissecting Bruton’s various claims and finding them wanting: ( See this post, among others: http://politicalreform.ie/2013/07/15/if-the-seanad-is-to-be-abolished-then-the-government-must-explain-properly-why/. )
Regina Doherty’s suggestion that abolition is justified because the Seanad makes no ‘meaningful contribution’ to our democracy and because she’d never heard of it herself before 2007, was ably demolished by respected columnist, Michael Clifford, in the Irish Examiner. In terms of meaningful contributions to democracy, the same (or worse) might be said of the Dail, Clifford suggests. Ms. Doherty had effectively made the case for abolishing the Dail.
Ms. Doherty is also on record during the recent abortion debate as claiming that the universally imposed ‘three line whip’ system provided a ‘protection’ and ‘comfort’ to backbenchers like herself when faced with difficult issues. (You really have to wonder what such people are doing in politics if they want to avoid making decisions and need protection of the ‘whip’ to save them from the wrath of those whom they were elected to represent in the first place?) It’s acknowledged as a political fact that the three line whip system lies at the root of many of the problems in the way in which successive Irish Governments preserve their immunity from being held to account in any way by Parliament. ‘The ‘three line whip’ is a sure-fire passage to enshrining bad policy in law. The universal use of the whip system by party leaders and by governments in Ireland is out of line with any other comparable liberal democracy, and profoundly undemocratic. But reform of that element of the system would not require any referendum; just a simple change of procedure. Ms. Doherty obviously doesn’t ‘do’ irony.
The third leg of the Bruton stool – that we’re out of line with other small unicameral liberal democracies in having an Upper House at all – is also a dubious proposition. What such unicameral states tend to have is a highly developed system of local government, in which the things that really matter to the quality of daily life of the normal citizen, and services such as health, education, social welfare and environment, are determined and delivered, and taxed, at local/regional level. Funnily enough, we had traces of that in the local government system which we inherited from the British. But these were eradicated early on in the lifetime of our independent state. As a result, we have one of the most atrociously inefficient, ineffective and powerless systems of local government to be found anywhere among western-style liberal democracies. In the absence of effective local government, and excessive centrality of all policy decisions, an Upper House which at least provides some mechanism of ‘checks and balances’ on the proposals of government is essential to the democratic process.
None of this would matter very much if this referendum was the logical end of a process of parliamentary (and local government) reform. Far from it. What the Referendum Bill proposes as a replacement to the constitutional functions of the Seanad is already sounding alarm bells. It’s all too vague, and where it’s specific it’s obvious that all the current worst aspects of executive dominance by the Cabinet of the parliamentary process will be augmented and enhanced. For instance, there will be no mechanism to ensure a second reading of Bills proposed by government; the concept of legislative ‘delay’, regarded as essential to properly functioning democracies, simply disappears. Further, the existing stranglehold of party leaders on membership of parliamentary committees – of which we have already witnessed some disgraceful examples of chicanery and political partisanship in the course of this Dail – will become absolute. So much for the notion of parliamentary committees picking up and performing the legislative scrutiny function of the Seanad.
The argument ‘if we vote to retain the Seanad, nothing will change’ holds little water either. As the referendum debate unfolds, it is already clear that this Government proposal to abolish the Seanad is fundamentally flawed and based on disingenuous and vacuous contentions. If the proposal is carried, our democracy will be the worse for it. If defeated, however, there will, at last, be real pressure on this government to fulfil the political promise of ‘radical reform’ on which it campaigned in the 2011 general election. Indeed, it may be our only hope of meaningful political reform.