Senators got leg-up before Late Late showdown

THE very least you would expect of professional politicians is that they would be able to speak for themselves and be capable of forming a coherent thought.

However, the communications unit of the Houses of the Oireachtas apparently didn’t think so of the country’s senators.

In advance of the Late Late Show debate on the relevancy of the Senate on March 20, the communications unit prepared a comprehensive 14-page briefing document for all senators.

The document provided answers to the most basic questions, such as how senators get elected, how much they get paid, how many days the Senate sits — and who the show’s host is.

On the question of pay and expenses, the document suggested the following reply: “Obviously, as in many organisations, costs vary between senators depending on the nature of the work they may be carrying out, where they live, what travel they have to do for their work and so on. The average figure for senators’ salaries, allowances and expenses is around €119,000 but many are in receipt of far less than this.”

On the question of how many days the Senate sits, the document suggested: “Last year, the Seanad sat for 93 days. While that may seem short, it does not take into account other work being carried out by members of the Seanad… So, just because the house isn’t sitting doesn’t mean that senators are not working.”

The document also suggested answers to thornier questions, such as why the Taoiseach gets the right to appoint 11 of the 60 senators, how much the Senate costs to run, and why the house is actually important.

There were a few instances during the show when senators appeared to draw on the briefing document for their answers.

Senator Donie Cassidy, who is leader of the Senate, spoke of the amount of legislation which is initiated in the house, saying: “We have now 30% of all bills being initiated in Seanad Éireann.”

The document had urged senators to state: “From 1998 to 2008, an average of 30% of all bills initiated in the Houses of the Oireachtas were initiated in the Seanad.”

Similarly, the document pointed to the fact that the Senate had proposed 1,199 amendments to legislation last year as evidence of its importance.

Mr Cassidy cited the amendments, too, albeit he gave a marginally higher figure: “Last year, we proposed 1,201 amendments to legislation.”

Another senator, Ann Ormonde, rejected the suggestion that the Senate was somehow undemocratic because of the manner in which it is elected.

Senate elections take place after each Dáil election.

As stated previously, the Taoiseach chooses 11 people to appoint to the Senate — normally failed election candidates, promising political prospects, or supporters.

For example, the previous taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, famously appointed Eoghan Harris to the Senate in 2007 after the newspaper columnist had strongly supported Mr Ahern in print and — indeed — on the Late Late Show.

Of the remaining 49 members of the Senate, six are elected by graduates from Trinity College and the NUI universities in Dublin (UCD), Cork, Galway and Maynooth.

The remaining 43 are elected by county and city councillors, the members of the incoming Dáil and the outgoing Senate.

This does not exactly seem to be the model of a citizens’ parliament. But the briefing document suggested ways of defending it.

“If you look at the electorate to our Seanad, you will find that there is in fact a direct link to local democracy,” it states. “In the main, the electorate consists of the 1,000 approx county and city councillors, together with the members of the incoming Dáil who have just been elected at the general election, and the outgoing members of the Seanad. So you see, there is a direct link back to the people through the councillors and TDs.”

In defending the way the Senate is elected, Ms Ormonde said: “Our electorate are county councillors, who are elected by the public.”

Thankfully, on the night, the senators’ borrowings from the briefing document were relatively few, and they did show they were capable of speaking for themselves.

Some even admitted the Senate was badly in need of reform and that senators were overpaid. Mr Cassidy, to his credit, acknowledged that changes were needed, and promised: “We will have meaningful Seanad reform by the end of this year.”

But then, with a single reply, he went and undid the good work. Presenter Pat Kenny questionedwhy failed Dáil election candidates who have been rejected by the public are given the sop of a Senate seat, complete with comfortable salary and expenses.

Mr Cassidy responded: “And what’s wrong with that, Pat?”

If he or other senators don’t know the answer, no amount of briefing documents in the world will help them.

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