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.