An open letter on Seanad Reform

The proposal that Fine Gael policy should be to abolish the Seanad after the next election as announced by the party leader Enda Kenny leaves me in two minds. As a means to put down a marker to the government and the Seanad more generally that reform of politics must happen now or else, it is without equal. This reform can start this side of Christmas by extending the franchise beyond TCD and the NUI by legislation, and with notice of a referendum on wider reform to be put before the people by the time of the next summer recess. The choice is now very stark: reform or die.

I am quite sure that this idea will have widespread popular support amongst the public. Yet the mere popularity of an idea is no reflection on its merit. Though I understand and indeed share in the view that the charade of reform has gone on too long, I also believe that a genuine case can be made for the need for bicameral system given the enormously local focus that the current electoral system forces upon TDs. That is the work that TDs do and must do in order to be elected, and a reduction from 166 to 124 in the number elected in this way will not shift the burden sufficiently to allow major change to occur.

We should be in no doubt; the general public are debating ideas considerably more unthinkable than the mere abolition of the Seanad. If such debate continues to occur in places ignored or unheard by party politics then it will be to the detriment of us all. For the moment I would ask that the policy should be one of reform now or die, rather than die now. For that reason, I would ask that the policy to be adopted be with the proviso that it would be reviewed should substantive political reform be implemented prior to the next general election. We should say that we are planning to act but if the government were to implement, not simply announce or propose or set up a commission or look for another report, but actually implement reforms that will match the parameters of cost reduction, increased powers of scrutiny and compellability for committees as outlined over the last few days then we would be prepared to give it the chance to work. This has the advantage of throwing the focus back onto the lack of action by all the government parties and also sets an immediate clock ticking on the issue with concrete milestones that all the issue to be revisited to our advantage. If there is no move on the university seats by Christmas say then it becomes topical again, if there is no bill and referendum by the summer recess then the same. We can keep the pressure on the government at each step. Let us accept that the Seanad is now drinking in the last chance saloon but we should not be so rude as to eject it before it has finished its drink and had the chance to demonstrate, really demonstrate that it can change.

Yet as someone who stood independently for the Seanad in 2007 in large part on the issue of reform, I am minded that party members of all major Irish political parties have no substantive input into the formulation of party policy. Ard Fheiseanna of all hues have long passed into the realm of mere staged managed speaking and photo opportunities for election candidates. A process colluded in by the media who hype up the merest prospect of any real debate as a sign of in-fighting and division instead of the sign of vibrancy it really is. While a leader should and must have the right to initiate policy ‘on the hoof’ in reaction to events, no events have occurred in the last week requiring such a policy shift.

Now more than ever, we need politics to be a genuine battleground of ideas, new and, if long neglected, old. These ideas must be examined, debated, tested and contested at every step. Political parties exist because they are a means to reflect and express the collective views of their members, from the person at the branch level to the highest of our public representatives. After all, it is those members who have to argue the case for those views to the wider citizenry in the hard slog of canvassing, leafleting, and ultimately by standing as candidates for election. That is why it is necessary for there to exist some real means for their views to be heard in advance of most policy decisions. Party members, even elected representatives, should not be placed in a position of having to ‘like it or lump it’ when it comes to the adoption of policy. At the very least, the views of members should have the chance to be heard on policy.

I will say this, the fact that Fine Gael are the ones who stand to gain most in the next Seanad elections means the party can’t be accused as the government will be of changing the rules because they are going to lose out in the next elections.

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8 Responses to An open letter on Seanad Reform

  1. Joanna Tuffy says:

    Dan,

    I just want to say that I agree wholeheartedly with your second last paragraph and you have put your point about politics needing to be a battle ground of ideas very well.

    Another point that I always mean to say to you is that if the panels remain as they are for the next Seanad election, you should seriously consider contesting for one of the panels. You might be interested in my recounting of my efforts to be elected to the Administrative Panel on my blog post here:

    http://www.labour.ie/joannatuffy/blogarchive/2009/10/26/defending-the-seanad-

    Joanna

  2. dsullivan says:

    Joanna, I don’t have the budget for bottles of whiskey or DVDs of “The wind that shakes the Barley” (or Michael Collins as a mate suggested might be more appropriate for me) and given my UL background and the fact that I’ve had this as a bug bear for the last 20 years I would probably prefer to stick with the rotten borough of the university panels.

    I did give some consideration to running for one of the panels last time out and from what I can recollect contacted one or two organisations but no joy. Also, the list of organisations that can nominate people is right quare as they’d say at home, several different vintners’ organisations…really!

    I think there is a need for a 2nd chamber but not for the Seanad as it is presently constructed and if the option is leave it as is or abolition then I’ll take abolition. And there is nothing to stop the Senators introducing their own reform bill and seeking to get the support of the Dáil for it. Their survival is in their own hands.

  3. Joanna Tuffy says:

    On the bottles of Whiskey and the DVDs – nor did I and nor do most candidates. The vast majority of councillors would take any such gesture as an insult to their intelligence, they just want to be persuaded as to why one person is a better candidate to vote for over other candidates. A fair few party councillors like to vote for candidates from their party that are not the leadership’s blue eyed boys and girls. Councillors are generally good and wise people and are after all working electorally at the coal face. I take your point about the nominating bodies and I agree reform is desirable but I wouldn’t abolish the Seanad. Even as it has operated to date its existence has meant that legislation can’t be rushed through the Oireachtas. The Seanad always has a fair few independent minded people in it compared to the Dail (and I include some Senators from political parties in that category). Another point of course is that there is at least going to be a 24th Seanad and no sitting Senator with any self respect would vote to abolish the Seanad. I realise that the Dail could push through the referendum bill despite a vote against by the Seanad. But I think it will survive and I hope it will be reformed.

  4. dsullivan says:

    Well, the reference to bottles of Whiskey and DVDs wasn’t directed at yourself just that some Seanad candidates have been known to do so and been successful at it too e.g. Senator Mark Daly. And it’s not an insult to their intelligence but brings to light their motivation, most cllrs want to have voted for someone that will have more leverage with the party in power or the party apparatus than they do themselves. Having a fulltime agent as it were up in Dublin, who can call in person on in into departments or officials is very handy for a cllr. Given the clientelist nature of local elections I’m not surprised at this.

    I would accept that there are some cllrs who might vote more independently or on the basis of some national priorities but my analysis from the last Seanad counts would indicate that most independents voted for FF. One would presume on the basis that FF had formed a government and hence had the means to deliver goodies or access that independents might require. You can see this by just looking at the correlation between the strengths of FF, FG, Labour and SF and the votes they got.

    I’m also bereft of car at the moment, though it would be a hell of a way to get back into practice driving!

  5. Joanna Tuffy says:

    Dan,

    Independents probably mirror the general population – so many vote left, so many vote ff, so many fine gael. My experience is that they put some thought into it and don’t vote for goodies or access. They like people that make the effort to call to them and they like to help the underdog (just as we all do). I know of a couple of Fine Gael Senators I served with who did very well out of the Independent votes, largely because they made a huge effort to win those votes by the power of one to one canvassing.

  6. dsullivan says:

    And yet there is this odd correlation between the number of cllrs which party had and the numbers they as parties got except for FF. It’s not coincidental surely. Perhaps, I should take you up on your suggestion and try and chance the upcoming panel by-elections…

  7. Steve Rawson says:

    Dan,

    You stated:

    ……the fact that Fine Gael are the ones who stand to gain most in the next Seanad elections means the party can’t be accused as the government will be of changing the rules because they are going to lose out in the next elections………..

    While interested and well – informed commentators are fully aware of the need for Seanad reform, it really does take the eye off the ball of the urgent, and I stress ‘urgent’ need for immediate reform and modernisation of the Oireachtas with Dáil and senior civil service Government Department reform top of the agenda.

    The media have not picked up on Enda Kenny’s stance re gaining the most out of the Seanad elections etc…. In essence, this was betrayed (and it was, let’s be fair about it) as a non-consultative solo run and the Government parties and assorted embedded journalists used it to portray Kenny as an unsteady loose cannon who makes up national policy on the hoof. Kenny needs to reflect what people care about, their worries, anger, their deep concern.

    My hunch is that most voters couldn’t care less about the Seanad but they do care about unaccountability, they do care about greed and a grossly overpaid politicians, senior civil servants, regulators and bankers where there is nothing that you cannot get away with if you are properly connected. They do care about this feudalistic land-ruling class where a lack of regulation and an insidious permeation of ‘who you know’ has brought this country to its knees.

    That is why Richard Bruton’s address to the Irish Bankers Federation’s Annual Conference, went to the heart of people’s concerns for redress. Richard Bruton claimed that FG would consider the following reforms:

    • The breaking up the biggest domestic banks so that they were no longer considered too big to be allowed fail;

    • The introduction of clear banking offences with massive penalties;

    • Making reckless lending unenforceable in the courts

    • Measures to ensure that the taxpayer will in future only underwrite the good elements of banking.

    Now that, in my view, is showing example and leadership.

  8. dsullivan says:

    Stephen, I agree re: Richard’s proposal but I was seeking in this post to just concentrate on the Seanad proposals. I agree with the fact that we need a politics in which people who make decisions are held accountable for those decisions. Moreover, I would hold that at the time decisions are made that we should be furnished with the reasoning and logic that underpins the decisions. I would love for example to read what the reason was to sign the e-Voting contract just days prior to an Oireachtas committee was due to discuss it and at a time when there was no urgency about getting such a system.

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