Short-sighted to vote against reform

The Seanad may not beperfect, but the binarysolution presented bythe Coalition deprivesthe country of a vitalinstitution, says Conor O’Mahony

WE are told many things about the Seanad. Some of them contain some truth, some do not.

Certainly, not all of them can be true at once. For example, we are told the Seanad is elitist, but we are also told it is a refuge for aspiring and failed TDs. That is a strange kind of elite, and means that the Seanad is no more and no less elitist than the Dáil, since its ranks are filled from the same pool.

We are told the Seanad is bad because it is undemocratic, since most of its members are appointed or elected by politicians rather than the electorate at large. It is rarely pointed out that those same politicians — namely, the Taoiseach, TDs, and councillors — are elected by us. We know when we elect them that they will have this power, in much the same way Americans voting for their president know that he or she will have the power to appoint unelected members of the cabinet. It’s part of the deal.

Americans don’t claim that this process is undemocratic. If they did, then, in the language of the Seanad abolition campaign, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry would be dismissed as failed presidential candidates seeking refuge in the office of secretary of state. Maybe we don’t want to do business that way, but to claim that it is undemocratic is a gross simplification.

What we are not told often enough is that the Seanad, even with all its flaws, adds real value to our political system. True, it falls short of its potential, but it does far more than nothing, and it could do much more if it were reformed.

It is well known that TDs who compete in multi-seat constituencies spend inordinate amounts of time on constituency work — much of it very valuable, but some of it quite trivial. Senators, by contrast, are in a position to focus on the task of being national legislators.

Seanad debates generally only make the news when a senator makes an ill-judged statement or outburst. The mundane but essential task of carefully scrutinising and improving legislation tends not to make for good newsreel clips and headlines. In the past two years, senators made more than 500 amendments to laws before they were enacted — but of course, we are never told about that.

Critics will argue that I am overstating the impact of Seanad debates — that the Seanad has little real power, and all the important decisions are made in the Dáil. However, apart from the hundreds of amendments that are made to legislation in the Seanad each year, I would argue that there is an inherent value in the debate itself, even where no amendments are ultimately made.

The passage of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill illustrates this point. Given how little debate occurs in the Dáil, where the majority of bills are guillotined, we need all the debate we can get in our legislature.

In any event, even if you think that the current Seanad is useless, we don’t need to settle for it. We could design a better one. This could take many different forms, and could occur with or without constitutional change, depending on the form adopted. The problem is that reform isn’t an option the Government wants to give you. It is a straight ultimatum: Abolish the Seanad, or keep it as it is.

The Government won’t even refer this complex issue to its own constitutional reform body, the Constitutional Convention. Its justification for this is that a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad was promised in party election manifestos, and so the people have already decided that they are not interested in reform.

However, the possibility of reforming the Seanad received precisely zero public debate during the election campaign. In fact, the Seanad was scarcely even discussed within Fine Gael. Abolition was a sudden and personal proposal of Enda Kenny’s that surprised even his own party. Since the Seanad was just one issue among dozens in an election campaign dominated by economic issues, the notion that reform has already been considered and rejected by the electorate fails to withstand even minimal scrutiny.

The people deserve better than to have a gun held to their heads. They deserve the chance for all the options to be fully explored and deliberated upon. These should include both reform and abolition of the Seanad; meaningful Dáil reform; and whatever constitutional changes might be necessary to achieve these ends. It is true that proponents of a reformed Seanad do not currently agree on a model of reform, but that’s precisely what the Constitutional Convention is for.

Choosing whether to reform the Constitution, and then choosing the best option from a menu of reforms, is just what it has been doing all year.

If, after full consideration, the convention decided that abolition is the way to go, then that would be deliberative democracy in action. A yes vote now would short-circuit that deliberative process and deny the people the right to even consider reform. If, like me, you think the Seanad has any value at present, and could give us even more, keep that possibility alive by voting no.

*Dr Conor O’Mahony lectures in constitutional law at University College Cork. Twitter: @ConorUCCLaw

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