In ancient Rome there was a political office called the Censor. His role was to act as a check on the membership of the Senate, to periodically oversee its membership and ensure that it was comprised of those eligible to be therein. He had the power to disbar, if someone didn’t meet the property franchise, if they had bribed or cheated (actually, been convicted of…) or were of insufficient moral fibre. We might, in this state, consider reintroduction of the office, with a twist.
We have twin problems in Ireland. At one level we are, it seems, literally incapable of governance. The Irish Water farrago leaves me literally lost for words. What can be said that has not already been said? But it is only one of many areas. Take Higher Education funding.
Everybody, literally, in the oireachtas, agrees that the present level is not enough. Most agree that the rot set in when the fees were abolished, for high minded reasons, resulting in the higher education budget being in large part a political decision. Higher education costs in the short but repays in the longer term. There have been several reports and commissions into funding, all of which have given a range of more or less politically difficult but socio-economically do-able solutions. None are particularily attractive to diverse communities but the nature of dealing with limited budgets is that compromise happens. Nothing has happened. Water, and this is all I will say about it, costs much more in the short term and pays off much slower than higher education. In a fit of highmindedness (ok, naked political opportunism and cravenness) we have abolished fees but promise a commission. See where this is going?
Then take planning. Since the 1970s we have known the broad outline of the problems underlying our successive serial shocking failures on housing and land costs. But nothing has been done. Rural-Urban balance, the sorry state of fisheries, the over reliance on and capturing of official mindsets by FDI, the list is long.
Overseeing this we have an oireachtas. We can be too critical of this institution and by extension ourselves. Ireland has a long history of democracy, and has shown itself to be remarkably immune to the virus of neo-fascism oozing across Europe. We have a thriving and perhaps hyperactive representative culture. We elect a lower house, in the main, that reflects ourselves, perhaps a tad more conservative but that may not be a bad attribute in a parliament. The problem arises with the upper house. This is not at all representative. It should, in a properly functioning bicameral setup, be holding the lower house to account. This happens even in the UK with the house of lords. But not here
A large part of this is down to the way the Seanad is elected. A larger part is down to how it is ignored. To take the first – we have three electorates. One is the incoming Taoiseach of the day who appoints 11. This was designed by Dev to ensure a majority therein. Another is the graduate body of the NUI and TCD. A third are, in effect, county councillors and other bodies. The latter is really where the corporatist roots show through, as successive governments have decided to keep very unrepresentative the electorate for the panels, as they are called, the constituencies for the Seanad.
This need not be so. The 7th amendment to the constitution in 1979 allowed for all university graduates to have a vote. There is no constitutional bar to allowing voters to declare themselves as meeting the criteria of “knowledge and practical experience” under the five panels (culture, agriculture, labour, industry and public service). If you are a graduate and elect to be on one of these as a voter, then you lose your vote on the university panels. Here we can see the censor is needed. Lets have an office, a small one, that checks to see if one is indeed possessed of “knowledge and practical experience”. This doesn’t have to be onerous – say for Public Administration show you worked in the local health board, for culture you got a medal at a feis, for agriculture you live in the countryside, and so on. Lets democratise the Seanad.
Having democraticised it, we then need to use it better. Lets have the Seanad act as a standing committee that examines the proposed appointees to senior state boards as to their knowledge and attributes for appointment. There is a very welcome proposal to have a parliamentary budget office, to examine, calmly and in a non political manner, proposed bdget and spending ideas. That could report to and through the Seanad. Lets have them quiz ministers and senior civil service and external experts on proposed technical aspects of legislation. Lets have them bring in people to Lets have them debate the budget calm in the knowledge that they cant vote it down. Let the Seanad take much of the committee work of the Dail. A democratised but national list system upper house as proposed here can take a lot of the constituency heat out of the debates. It should be less party political and so should be able to take the lead in dealing with the less joined up bits of governance. Poor governance leads to suboptimal economic performance. We have a way, if we have a government of whatever hue that wishes to make a start on at least identifying some of the gaps.
Long version of column in the IrishExaminer, 30 April 2016