The tone of the briefing document circulated to members of the Seanad before their recent appearance on The Late Late Show raises many questions.
Serious issues had already been raised about the effectiveness of the Senate, about the cost of running the body, and about the number of days that senators normally sit. About a dozen reports have been drafted on the need for reform, but nothing has been done.
The failure to introduce meaningful reform has brought the value of persevering with the Seanad into question, especially in the current economic circumstances. Coaching people before going on the air is one thing, but the briefing document went much further. It amounted to scripting their answers. The suggested replies went so far as advising senators about how they might jokingly evade questions.
Senators were invited on the programme to express their views, not to regurgitate the opinions of faceless advisers. Those senators who do not have the ability to think independently have no business in the Seanad and the production of the controversial document helps to highlight the institution’s futility.
It is supposed to be an upper house based on vocational lines. While there have always been some conscientious politicians who have made their own particular contributions, they have been more the exception than the rule. The Seanad has too often been little more than a sinecure, or a place of political recuperation for defeated politicians, or for those a Taoiseach may wish to promote for his own particular purposes. The Taoiseach has the authority to appoint 11 members. In recent years taoisigh have used this power as a bargaining chip in dealing with potential coalition partners.
The supposed vocational basis for the Seanad should facilitate a degree of expertise in examining legislation, but one finds comparatively few examples of really meaningful contributions to legislation in the Seanad.
There is nothing wrong with a politician asking for advice on the best or most concise way to respond to certain questions, but the views should be the senator’s. The briefing document amounted to telling senators what they should say as it scripted answers for them.
In fairness, nobody would suggest that senators such as Joe O’Toole, Shane Ross, or David Norris are stooges for anybody. But the tone of the briefing document would suggest that many of their colleagues were being told what to think and say.
The documentation amounts to an invitation for people to conclude that the puppets were being paraded on the Late Late Show, instead of the puppet master.
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