In the next while, at least until after the Zappone/Quinn bill has been rejected or amended into total irrelevancy by the Dail and Ireland’s political world gets back to the actual business of governing, you might hear a bit about Seanad reform.
I’ve only ever written about my own ideas regarding Seanad reform once, and they were off the most basic kind, little more than a copycat of the American model with extra powers for the President to help balance between two equal houses. They were, perhaps, so simple because I didn’t consider Seanad reform something to get too worked up about, due to the unlikelihood of it ever happening.
But, in the week that’s in it, why not outline what my ideal Seanad, within the bounds of realism, would look like? A simple thought experiment. So, here’s NFBs second chamber.
The Seanad has, in 60 members, far too many for the function it is supposed to carry out as a slightly more dignified advisory board. I would be in favour of reducing that number, in line with electoral changes, to something in the region of 40 Senators. Seanad pay structures would be reduced to half of their current level, for all Senators new or old. Its working week will match that of the Dail.
The Seanad should be a completely elected body, with all citizens entitled to vote entitled to vote for the second chamber. The university and vocational constituencies would be abolished. The Taoiseach’s nominees concept would be abolished. They would be replaced with Senators elected by the people.
How they should be elected, or rather, where they should elected from, is a bit trickier. I would favour a simple approach, based off the current MEP constituencies (as in, the ones we currently have, not the revamped ones coming into effect next year).
Ten Senators can be elected for constituencies representing Dublin, the rest of Leinster, Munster, and Connacht/Ulster.
Other suitable alternatives can be a simple county by county basis, which would result in (having used the standing Dublin and Tipperary county divisions), 58 Senators if two are elected for each (since one each would be far too low). Or maybe one per current constituency (currently 43).
At the furthest extent, I would be satisfied with something similar to what the Zappone/Quinn bill suggests, which would be the opening up of the vocational panel to a general vote, with citizens optioning, with proof of relevance, for whichever panel they like. While I have some problems with equating franchise rights to employment, it is still a mostly level playing field, lacking the inherent elitism and preference for privilege that the university constituencies have.
Of course the only reason that is being touted as an option is because it wouldn’t require a referendum to change. If a referendum was inevitable, I doubt they’d be kept around.
As for method of voting, it might be good to allow the Seanad, this reformed one anyway, to be a place where a list system can be used in the election process, or at least a partial one. This would favour parties of course, so may not be to everyone’s taste, but it would offer a different aspect for the Seanad.
Seanad elections must take place on the same day as those for the Dail. No one person can run for both.
In terms of gender quotas, the Seanad will be subject to the same legislation that all political parties are currently subject to in regards Dail elections.
In my Seanad, its powers remain essentially the same.
There is nothing inherently wrong with what the Seanad can do after all, the problem is how much the Dail is able to put a leash on the second chamber. The Seanad can start legislation, amend legislation, delay legislation and even petition the President in regards some legislation. None of this is worthless (except for, perhaps, the delaying power).
What needs to be changed is how the Dail interacts with the Seanad and its business. The Dail needs to have a degree of mastery over the second chamber, lest we be stuck in the mire of bicameralism that so frequently inflicts chaos on multi-party systems. The Seanad cannot be totally equal to the Dail for this reason.
But, its subservience to the Dail can still be lessened. At present, a simple majority from the Dail is needed to reject Seanad amendments. Why not increase the requirement to something higher, say 60 or 66% of the Dail chamber? That would allow the Seanad to have a little more say in legislative affairs, matching its new, popular, mandate.
Beyond that, there are plenty of suggestions for new powers the Seanad could have, but I find little time for them. Senators Zappone and Quinn talk about letting the Seanad have the power to offer reviews on far ranging things like European legislation, the appointment of Ministers or something akin to the revised Oireachtas Inquiries idea. Ultimately I find that all a little pointless, since a review is essentially nothing more than just a powerless approval or disapproval, with no muscle behind it where it matters. These ideas are nothing that could not be carried out by the Dail or by committees, with the exact same effect.
There is currently legislation that states that two (and only two) cabinet seats can be given to members of the Seanad at the present time. I would advocate changing that to a mandatory state of affairs, to give the Seanad a greater voice at the top table.
There were a small number of other ideas that passed through my head while thinking about this issue, the more extreme and far reaching thoughts that I ultimately dismissed, though that does not mean that they are worth considering discussing to some extent.
The first was a merger of the two houses. An additional 40 or so TD’s, elected via the previously described methods to differentiate them from the rest, who would have all the same powers as any TD. I think I was excited by this idea for roughly 12 seconds, before realising how unworkable it was, not least because it is Seanad abolition by another name, which has, sadly, been rejected by the Irish electorate (or, at least, one fifth of it). Ultimately, we don’t need any more deputies in the lower house anyway.
The next idea was non-partisan elections, or to put it another way, ensuring that the Seanad has only independents in its make-up. This is a radical idea, one practised in only a small number of places in the democratic world, but it has some merits.
However, it’s also fairly unworkable. Parties will invariably place favoured candidates into the chamber, factionalism is inevitable in any kind of legislature, and the whole idea casts the Seanad too far against parties, who are not some inherent evil within the system. Most of the places that implement non-partisan voting are tiny island nations with no population to support differing parties or, in the case of places like the Nebraska legislature, have a non-partisan system that is totally meaningless.
Having rejected that idea, I then moved to the Presidency as an office that could have an impact on the Seanad. I reject the Taoiseach’s right to nominate Senators. That merely ensures that the government will have the majority, and they are decided by one man who has, on a national scale, a small mandate.
If we want to keep nominees, why not the President? A national mandate and already with a similar system in place with the Council of State. Perhaps with the crucial addendum that any nominees must be non-partisan, this could give the chamber an independent flavour of a guaranteed nature.
But, in the end, it’s still subject to all of the same problems as above. It’s still inherently undemocratic, the President can easily get round the non-partisan aspect as so many others have done, and it might just be a step too far for the Presidency’s powers. As it is, I ended up dismissing this idea as a worthless attempt to retain a portion of the Seanad that should not be retained at all.
So, there’s my Seanad. All of the above means that a referendum would be required, an expansive one, but it ticks all of my boxes for an acceptable plan, namely:
-The abolition of university constituencies, Taoiseach’s nominees and the vocational panels, in that order.
-Retains less powers than the Dail.
Never going to happen.