So what to do with the Seanad? It now seems certain that there will be referendum on the (very complicated) proposal to reduce the parliament from two to one chambers.
Leaving aside the practicalities of same, and disregarding whether after what promises to be a bruising abortion battle in the first half of the year and the prospect of another stiff budget in late 2013 the coalition really wants to go to the mat on this issue, what are the options for the upper house?
First, there is a widespread view that the Seanad is at best dysfunctional and at worst irrelevant. The most recent poll suggested that by a fairly large majority the electorate would see it as the latter, with 55% suggesting it should go.
Second, the option being put to the people is likey to be a single issue : yes or no to have the seanad retained. But this I might suggest is to oversimplify the issue. From leaving things as they are to complete abolition there is a wide range of options. Reform, which cannot I think come from within the existing structures, should be attempted before abolition.
Lets recap: the seanad can only delay legislation on bills, it can initiate legislation, and it has a most curious makeup. Of the 60 members 6 are elected by the graduates of two of the universities, even though the provision exists to extend this franchise; 11 are direct appointments by the Taoiseach, and 43 are elected by panels. For more details on these see the Seanad website
This brings me to my reform proposals, drawn from nothing much more than 48 years living in the country and watching with amazement the antics of the elected members.
- Widen the electorate. At present the electorate to the Seanad is extremely limited and wildly unrepresentative. Recall that there are 43 members elected by “vocational panels” To most people this is of course both opaque and an affront, as these panels are political panels regardless of their presupposed idea to represent various vocations. The electorate of these panels consists of county councillors, dail and Seanad members. For all the gross unfairness of the two university graduate constituencies at least they represent tens of thousands of people – 15,000 voted in the University of Dublin election and 33,000 in the National University election. By comparison the electorate for the panels is about 1000. People who are county councilors and who are graduates from the two universities thus have 7 votes for the upper house. And politicians wonder why the ordinary public hold them in some certain contempt? Widen the electorate. Make it universal. Indeed make it open to all who hold Irish citizenship regardless of location.
- Make it work. Its hard to have confidence in a house designed to act as a watchdog and oversight on the lower house when it doesnt. Its hard to recall the last time a Seanad voted down a Dail proposal. So if it wont do that make it work some other way. Make all newly proposed secretaries general of government departments and all CEOs of companies either owned by or in which the state has more than 33% stake appear before the Seanad, to ask and be asked hard questions. Make their appointment contingent on a positive vote.
- Break the link with the Dail. At present there is a widespread belief that the Seanad is a place where old politicians go to vegetate, failed Dail candidates go to ruminate on a renewed Dail run next time round, or else where aspirant Dail members cut their political teeth. In the same way as we broke the link between membership of the oireachtas and of county councils, we can and should do so for the two houses of the oireachtas. Make it impossible for anyone who stands for election to one to stand for election to the other within a 5 year period. This would force politicians to choose
- Make it last. Part of the problem it seems to me is that the Seanad is tied to the electoral cycle. This provides its reputation as a soft landing for rejected Dail candidates, which I suggest could be broken. But lets go further and break the link more, with a standing electoral cycle for the Seanad as 4 years. This would , I suggest, free the Seanad to do what it is we want it to do.
- Keep it on its toes. One of the nice things about the US system is that it has frequent elections. This at least in principle allows a regular and real pulse to be taken of the nation. Lets import this and have the electorate judge the seanad and the government by extension, with 1/4 of the members up for election every year. And no, this needn’t be a massive undertaking, our way of electing is archaic at best…but thats another issue.
- Give it teeth. If we are to have a second, upper house, then it has to be able to do more than delay legislatin. Let it have power to throw out bills and to make serious amendments.
- Make it serious. Although in theory the cabinet can contain Senators it very very rarely does. If the Senate is serious make 1/3 of the members of the cabinet be required to be from same. This would of course be feasible only if we at the very minimum allowed universal sufferage.
- Make them ours. This ridiculous corporatisim, whereby members are , mar dhia, elected to represent the interests of vocations, might have made some sense in the 1930s. It makes zero sense now. Widen the constituencies when we widen the electorate. Lets have a national and a diaspora constituency, where we have (say) 45 members in the national and 15 in the diaspora. Above all abolish the ability of the government to stuff party placemen and the forgotten into the Seanad. For every decent independent Taoiseach nomination there are a dozen who would make caligulas horse seem like Gladstone.
- Make it a prize. If the upper chamber is to be anything it should be reflective and thoughtful Lets make any Irish citizen who achieves an externally validated major prize a member for a term. What prizes? Lets start with the Nobels and the Field Medal (the nobel of Math). Lets consider others, such as chess grandmasters, or Schock prizes in logic, or an Oscar…. Lets make the Seanad reflect both our desires and our achievements.
Im sure there are dozens of other good ideas floating about. One of them is not a blanket abolition.