Latest reform plans would legitimise and empower the upper chamber but may never see the light of day, writes Political Reporter Juno McEnroe.
The latest plans to reform the Seanad are ambitious and far-reaching, but also grounded in research and practical solutions to dispense with the jaundiced perception of the upper house as an elitist talking shop for failed politicians.
Electing senators by popular vote, redefining their roles and extending voting rights for Seanad elections outside of the Republic are progressive proposals. Such measures would legitimise and empower the Seanad, often dismissed as a retirement home for overpaid orators.
Nonetheless, sceptics could be forgiven for scoffing at this latest reform plan given that any transformation of the house, if even agreed, might not come to fruition until after 2021.
The Seanad reform working group, set up in December, addressed (in their own words) three problems: An electoral system that is considered elitist; the absence of a clear understanding of what the house’s role is; and whether the Seanad is really a place for vocational representation.
From the outset, the group was hamstrung by having to work within the parameters of the Constitution. This essentially meant there could be no recommendations for a referendum to change the prescriptive nature of the Seanad, as set down in Bunreacht na hÉireann.
So what are the key proposals to make the Seanad more relevant and what pitfalls are there?
Half of the 60-member house would in future be elected by universal suffrage by all Irish passport holders, including emigrants and residents in the North. The argument that there should be “no representation without taxation” is commonly postulated in opposition to extending the vote to emigrants. However, the working group here points out that the Seanad has no authority over taxation and financial matters and therefore this concern would not apply.
Currently, 43 senators are elected by councillors, TDs, and senators. Under the reform proposals, 30 seats would be filled by a popular vote and elected politicians would fill another 13 seats. The latter would be elected by a mix of councillors, TDs, and senators. The 11 nominees of the Taoiseach would remain, in line with the Constitution.
Plans to open up the election of the remaining six university seats to all third-level graduates, already supported by the Government, were endorsed by the group.
Overall, these changes would in effect give the impression that the Seanad is, as a whole, more answerable to the peopl
e. Such proposals to extend voting rights on Seanad elections, albeit commendable, have been suggested before. Indeed, there have been 14 reports on Seanad reform since 1938. But little has changed.
Even Taoiseach Enda Kenny, while welcoming yesterday’s report, previously ruled out universal suffrage for elections to the upper house in late 2013.
And this is the nub of the problem for the Seanad reform group. A lot done, more to do... and little has changed over the years.
Critics say there are plenty of reasons to be done with the Seanad. In fact, there are tens of millions of them annually, that voters and taxpayers might prefer to see put elsewhere.
Another praiseworthy suggestion from the group is a secure online system where voters can download and send in their registration form, which would allow for more postal voting.
The group has checked this radical measure with UCD’s national cybersecurity centre, as well as academics and IBM. It says the method would be more secure than online banking. The move — in keeping with other modern voting systems abroad — would appeal massively to the Irish diaspora.
While all these reforms will be summed up in a draft bill, debated and discussed as agreed by Mr Kenny yesterday, and no doubt tossed around by political parties and on TV debates in the months ahead, the most obvious failure and unfortunate inevitability for the working group is that little or none of the plans will likely see the light of day (if they ever do) ahead of the next Seanad elections. This means that reforms might not come into play until 2021, when potentially the next opportunity for elections in the upper house might arise.
Mr Kenny’s spokesman would not comment on any timeframe yesterday but said the Taoiseach now wanted to “let the conversation happen”.
The group say the commencement date for the new measures would be after the next Seanad elections.
Group member and former senator Joe O’Toole admitted this was a major problem, but said there was little else that could be done given the proximity of the group’s work to the next Dail and Seanad elections in 2016. He told the Irish Examiner: “They [the reforms] would come into operation after that. If the Government wanted, they could bring forward things and have the legislation done and dusted by the middle of the year, but that could be difficult. Instead. all this can be progressed now in a special unit under the auspices of the Department of Taoiseach.
Senators and those aspiring to make it into the upper house would then have one more term before any reforms went ahead, conceded Mr O’Toole. “They’re [the current senators] very lucky to get another turn of the roundabout.”
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