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Published: Connacht Tribune, 16 May 2013

Like a city bus, you spend on age waiting for one and then three arrive together. So it is with the Seanad, for which three proposals for change have arrived on the scene: a referendum for which the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has no mandate and would cost €90 million Euro to run; and two reform Bills, the second of which would make the Seanad more active in scrutinising legislation and more assertive in holding government to account, as well as more representative.

Significantly, the reform option would ensure the €19 million that would be needed to run the referendum could be spent instead filling potholes, buying new books for school libraries, or providing a new primary care centre. Any of those, or any cash-strapped public or social service, would make better use of such largesse. Why spend it on a referendum offering a false choice?

The great problem with the Taoiseach’s proposal, aside from the cost of running a referendum, is that voters would be given only one choice: retain or abolish the Seanad. They won’t be asked if they would like to see it reformed, much given much less given the chance to vote on a package of reforms.

And at a time of austerity, when the people have been laid low and the currency of politics and politicians laid even lower, sure, would it matter all that much if 60 senators were wheeled to the guillotine?

Maybe it wouldn’t – if the government wasn’t so dominant, if the Dáil wasn’t so dysfunctional, and if the promised political reforms were giving us powerful, independent Parliamentary Committees capable of holding ministers and civil and public servants responsible and accountable.

But that is not what we are getting. If anything, the government (or certain cabinet ministers) are becoming even more dominant, the Dáil even more dysfunctional due to a thumping great majority for the government parties, and Oireachtas Committees less assertive and independent as a result. Beyond cutting the number of TDs from 166 to 158, there is precious little evidence of reform.

Reforming the Seanad is the first step – and perhaps the last chance – to put our parliamentary democracy on a firmer footing and begin to restore the currency of politics and politicians. Abolishing the Seanad will do nothing except further concentrate political power and provide cover for a bureaucratic monster that would then only have the Dáil to treat with contempt.

After 11 reports advocating reform, some people have come on the pitch with the first-ever, full legislative proposal to make the Upper House more representative, more active in scrutinising legislation, and more assertive in holding government and public administration to account.

Proposed by Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn, the Seanad Bill draws heavily on the Seanad Electoral Acts of 1937 and 1947 – and on a Consultation Paper, which was published and put out for public comment in September 2012, and takes account of submissions received. The Bill was down for debate in the Seanad this Wednesday but at the time of writing, it’s not clear whether the Government will try to vote it down or nod it through for discussion by an Oireachtas Committee.

However, the Government would be unwise to dismiss this proposal out of hand without offering very good reasons for rejecting what is a very significant progress of package of reforms.

The new Bill opens up the Seanad to a wider electorate, including every person entitled to vote in other elections, to people in Northern Ireland who are eligible for Irish citizenship, to Irish passport-holders abroad, and to all university and third level college graduates. In other words, no special role for TDs and Senators in the nomination process, and no exclusivity for NUI and TCD graduates. It provides for a more open and inclusive Seanad whose membership could have an equal number of men and women, and where the nomination process is also opened up for nominations by popular support and by local authorities – again no special privileges given to TDs and Senators.

Anyone nominated by 500 people registered to vote in a Seanad election would win a nomination and any candidate securing the support of four local authorities could also stand for election.

And it confers a range of additional powers on the Seanad in areas such as the scrutiny of legislation, the examination of public appointments and the holding of inquiries. The new powers include:

  • The power to scrutinise draft EU regulations and directives.
  • The power to scrutinise secondary legislation.
  • The power to scrutinise Ministerial appointments to public bodies.
  • The power to hold limited forms of public inquiry where evidence is recorded and findings of fact are made only where those facts are uncontested.
  • The power to inquire into the need for new legislation.
  • The right of the people to force the Seanad to debate an issue of national importance where it receives a petition with 1,000 signatures.

This Bill may not be perfect but it could not be so imperfect that it should be dismissed out of hand.

In opening up the nomination and election process to the people, it removes an unconscionable privilege from the hands of incoming TDs, outgoing Senators, and City and County Councillors.

In making the role of the Seanad clear and explicit, it charts a meaningful and valuable course for the Upper House without undermining the authority of the Dáil as provided in the Constitution.

And in providing for the election of equal numbers of men and women, and limiting salary of a Senator to half that paid to a TD, it closes down the opportunities for career politicians, while opening up the chance for expert, experienced, committed outsiders to make a positive, independent, valuable contribution to the great challenges facing our state.