Democracy be damned! Abolishing the Seanad a further step towards de-democratizing our society
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Right now all the indications are that Enda Kenny’s personal pet project to eliminate one of key institutions of Irish democracy, the Seanad, will be endorsed by the public in the forthcoming referendum.
The micro-politics of the debate on the referendum and some of its more substantive arguments include variously–:
- that the proposal emerged from Kenny’s personal pique, back in 2009, at being overshadowed in political performance by the Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore;
- that a ‘yes’ vote will enhance his reputation as an effective leader, whilst a ‘no’ vote may undermine his personal credibility, and by extension, reduce Fine Gael’s prospects of securing a second term in office after the next election (a hoped-for ‘first’ in that party’s history);
- that the claims of saving 20 million euro a year by abolishing the Seanad are a deliberate and demonstrable falsehood, and in any case it’s anti-democratic to put a ‘price’ on a key political institution in that way, as if democracy were a mere commodity that you can buy in a shop;
- that an elitist Seanad, in the nomination and election of whose members the public have no direct ‘voice’, is unreformable and surplus to requirements to run the state efficiently, (even though only the ‘government of the day’ has the power to reform the Seanad or any other part of the system);
- that if the Taoiseach was serious about making our dysfunctional political institutions work, he would have reformed the Dail first to lessen the stranglehood of his own government’s power over it, before decreeing that the Seanad is no longer required;
- that Ireland, as a small country, is somehow out of line in having a bicameral system, with two chambers of the Oireachtas (even though where we’re really out of line is in having such an appallingly deficient and dysfunctional powerless system of local government);
Beyond these arguments, it’s worth giving a few moments’ thought to what Kenny’s objective of abolition actually says about what’s happening in our democracy at this time and what it signifies for the integrity of our democracy into the future. In all that’s been said, and written, and read, about the referendum question, to date, that’s the core issue. Or it would be, except that it barely gets a mention.
The year before he died, the great American social scientist, Charles Tilly, wrote an essay ‘Grudging Consent’ in which he pondered the fate of democracy and what happens when the ‘voice’ of the public is no longer vigilant enough in, or capable of, holding its elected leaders in check
“Democracy is not a yes/no, on/off affair: It is a matter of degree, and the degree is virtually always changing,” Tilly wrote. “The second fact follows from the first: Democracy is reversible.”
A chilling observation: what Tilly was getting at is that depending on the times we live in – and the leaders we choose to represent us and act on our behalf, democracy fluctuates. And unless we’re vigilant about its preservation, it can be diminished by stealth until it has all but disappeared.
In times of war – as in Britain during World War II – electoral politics is suspended and ‘national governments’ formed to steer the ship of state through crisis. In our own times, in the wake of an unprecedented economic crash, Labour’s Pat Rabbitte, rather grandiosely, characterised the coalition government formed after Election 2011 as a ‘national government’. By inference then, such a government is entitled to take extraordinary measures to steer our own little ship of state through its current travails. Election promises are the sort of ‘normal’ things that aspiring parties dangle in front of the nose of the electorate, because that’s just what happens in elections, again according to Rabbitte, and which can be promptly cast aside upon assuming office. The inference to be drawn here, presumably, is that if the Government believes something is justified, then it’s justified, irrespective of any previous commitments to the contrary.
None of this is about the need for a strong government response to a state-threatening crisis. Anyone can make a reasonable case for ‘strong’ government in difficult times and that circumstances may require that promises made, whether in good or bad faith, are broken. As Maura Adshead, UCC political scientist, observed in a recent TV interview, the important thing is that a ‘balance of power’ is maintained between the Government and the other citadels of power that can exercise a check on its hegemonic control. Unfortunately, the mindset of the Rabbittes of our own political universe has nothing to do with balance and is more along the lines of: ‘Democracy be damned if it gets in our way’.
This is not to pick on Minister Rabbitte. Not one of his Cabinet colleagues came out to contradict his various pronouncements after he had expressed them. Further, the restructuring of a range of processes of government over the past two and a half years – including the establishment of the ‘cabinet within the cabinet’ EMC – suggest his interpretation must be widely shared among some, if not all, of his government colleagues.
There are patterns of behaviour emerging in this Government that should invite our concern. We now have a far greater proportion of Dail legislation ( about 55%, commentators suggest) being ‘guillotined’ by the Government – meaning that most proposed legislative amendments are cast aside without ever being reached for discussion – than has ever been previously recorded in the history of the Dail. Very important and publicly controversial Bills – such as that imposing the residential property tax – have been rushed through in four or five hours without any substantive parliamentary debate.
Lately, we have the spectacle of this Government, at its highest level, becoming embroiled in a row with the Dail Chairman, over the appointment of the Clerk of the Dail – a position equivalent to the Secretary General of a Government Department – which has always been kept within the remit of the Ceann Comhairle as a signifier of the independence of parliament from Government. From now on, we’re told, it will be a Taoiseach/Tanaiste appointment, thereby undermining the already febrile independence of parliament from Government control. A parliament which, we would do well to remember, is supposed to be holding the government of the day to account on all our behalf.
Next there’s what happened to that rump of Fine Gael parliamentarians, now known as Reform Alliance, who voted against the Abortion Legislation. They were not alone told that they forfeit any chance of being selected as FG candidates in the next general election, which is party business. They were also booted unceremoniously off all Oireacthas Committees, irrespective of their individual expertise and potential contribution, in all our interests, to the operation of those committees.
(Ironically, broadening the remit of Oireacthas Committees and increasing their independence and expertise to hold the government of the day to account, is used by Government spokespersons as an argument to justify the abolition of the Seanad).
Although it may seem a small matter, there has been a disquieting parade of blatantly obvious smears of non-government and independent deputies who might be construed, even in the most minor way, of posing a threat to the Government agenda. In the past week, the Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, gave voice to his own frustration about ‘leaks’ supposedly intended to damage his reputation and that of his office. Amid other indicators of control-freakery, and media stage-management to have the ‘dear leader’ and his Ministers always appear popular and beloved of the people, smear tactics are now being deployed in the campaign on the Seanad Referendum. New smear activity is being orchestrated against independent senators, John Crown and Fergal Quinn, who oppose the plan. (http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/enda-spared-from-croke-park-booing-29618344.html)
Further indications of creeping arrogance are shown in the suggestion that somehow or other, it would be beneath the Taoiseach to engage in a public debate on the merits or otherwise of his own proposal. The government spin on this is ridiculous. It is suggested that as a beacon of democracy, the Taosieach can’t interfere in what is, in effect, the people’s decision to keep or abolish the Seanad. In fact what people are being asked to do is to assent to HIS decision.
So fast forward a couple of years to the aftermath of the next general election, in which scenario, conceivably, Fine Gael finds itself within a whisker of being able to form an overall majority government, give or take the support of a scattering of independents of like-mind to themselves.
There will be no Seanad any longer to scrutinise government legislation and provide that all-important ‘delay’ that allows for reflection on ill-advised provisions. ( It is said that within the current Dail, 500 Seanad amendments have been accepted to government legislation, which shows how important this function of scrutiny actually is).
The proposed compensatory reforms of the Dail, watery and all they are , may or may not have been put into effect by the previous Fine Gael/Labour coalition. Not that it makes much difference since these reforms all predicate a continuation of the excessive control of the Dail by the Executive. Further, it may be assumed that Fine Gael will stick relentlessly with the three line whip system.
As for an upgraded Committee system, that will suffer from an insufficiency of non-government Deputies to operate the Committees in any substantive or meaningful way.
Since there’s no longer any ‘delay’ system on legislation, the Government will be able to ram ten Bills a day through the Dail, if it feels like it, with little or no scrutiny at all.
The powerless system of local government will be even more powerless than ever, and there will be no pressure on the new Government to lessen its own authority by devolving any power to local community structures.
Any alternative scenario, in which Fine Gael loses power and it passes to a combination other parties, does not augur any great promise of relief. Such parties of government will have been gifted an authoritarian dreamboat by their predecessors. What incentive would any of them have to change it?
In Tilly’s terms, as things stand we’ve, arguably, already entered a process of de-democratization. The abolition of the Seanad is just a further step in this general direction. The worry has to be that a strong vote in favour of abolition may greatly encourage certain sinister tendencies within the current government, or any administration that may succeed it, that brandishing sledgehammers to vanquish any ‘voice’ of criticism, whether it comes from within the political structure itself, or the media, or broader civil society, is entirely justified. Democracy be damned, indeed.