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Unknowing knowns: the Seanad

Open it, don’t close it: it does good work, tempers the executive, could represent the marginalised and doesn’t even cost that muchKatherine Zappone 

 

Let’s start with what we ‘know’. The Seanad is expensive, supposedly costing us in the region of €30 million a year to run. The Seanad is nothing but a talking shop. Getting rid of the Seanad can and should be done at the stroke of a pen.

Except, of course, all these things we ‘know’ are wrong. Let’s start with that last point. To get rid of the Seanad would require 75 separate amendments to be made to the Constitution. Entire articles would have to be deleted.

We have already seen the amount of time and expense that has been incurred to get a relatively uncontroversial concept like children having human rights included in our Constitution. This is not a strong reason for retaining the Seanad, but it is a very good reason for thinking this through more carefully.

I, along with my colleagues, Senator Feargal Quinn, former Senator Joe O’Toole, former Tánaiste Michael McDowell, and political commentator Noel Whelan, have published a consultation paper on Seanad Reform entitled, ‘Open it, Don’t Close it’. This proposal makes the case for retention and radical reform of Seanad Éireann through legislation. It sets out the kinds of changes that would enable Seanad Éireann to finally fulfil the role envisaged for it by the designers of the Constitution.

Going back to that list of things we ‘know’, as a member of the 24th Seanad I have witnessed the many positive and innovative contributions the Seanad has made in legislative terms over the last 18 months alone. They are as follows:

Senator Feargal Quinn initiated his Construction Contracts Bill which it is hoped will be passed before the end of this year. This Bill would ensure that contractors are paid what they are due and introduce an adjudication process for dispute situations.

Senators Crown, van Turnhout and Daly, drawing on their unique and professional expertise, have put forward the Protection of Children’s Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012. This Bill, if passed, will save lives.

Senator Averil Power introduced the Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill 2012, to afford protection to lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers and engaged a range of sectors of civil society in our public deliberations. Although defeated, the Bill made a significant contribution towards equality for gay and lesbian people.

Senator Ivana Bacik undertook immense work on the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011 and ensured its historic passage earlier this year. This Bill will make a very significant contribution to the participation of women in politics and will consequently increase the vibrancy and health of our democracy.

In my own case, I have had the opportunity to get a number of amendments and recommendations accepted by both the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Finance so that laws related to taxation benefits and laws regarding conditions for citizenship provide equal treatment between civil partners and married spouses (Civil Law [Miscellaneous Provisions] Act 2011; Finance Bill 2012).

The Seanad is fulfilling its legislative function particularly with regard to the generation of new laws and it could do more. Professor Michael Laver, expert on the theory and practice of politics, has made the argument that there exists a potential transformed role for the Seanad if it were to be elected directly and if its remit were to be extended to include significant responsibilities such as the oversight of EU legislation.

Calls for abolition of the Seanad refer to the 11 reports published on the role of the Seanad as support for their position. But none of these reports call for abolition. They all call for reform. These reports are evidence of inaction on the issue. There was no follow-up, no implementation.

This inaction may be due, in part, to the fact that these documents focusing on Constitutional change and big schemes for Constitutional change have seldom been implemented. Political reform in the form of legislation could be implemented within months if desired.

Our group of Seanad reformists have already begun this process and have set about drafting the Seanad Reform Bill 2013. The precise format of the Seanad Reform Bill 2013 will very much depend on the outcome of the consultation process we have initiated.

 

As part of this process we recently held a meeting of former and current Seanad members. We will continue to consult with party leaders, nominating bodies, and other civil society organisations. We hope to publish a general scheme for the Bill before the end of the year and a draft Bill in early 2013.

It is important to emphasise what can be achieved by way of legislation. It is possible to make the Seanad more democratic and representative of the knowledge and expertise our citizens hold. We can, for example, dramatically expand the electorate entitled to vote in Seanad elections in accordance with the one-person-one vote system. It is a sobering thought that the electorate for the vocational panels in 2011 was 1,092 people.

We can change how candidates are nominated to stand for the panels by initiating a dramatic expansion of the nominating bodies. Currently, the Administrative, Voluntary and Social Services Panel includes only 14 nominating bodies. Given the growth in expertise of the voluntary and community sector over the years, the potential involvement of these organisations as additional nominating bodies could allow non-mainstream voices to become part of the Seanad.

Participation by marginalised communities in our formal political structures is a goal that could be achieved by way of Seanad reform. The University Panel could also be transformed and rendered less elitist by entitling all third level graduates to vote.

Residents of Northern Ireland or the Irish abroad could be permitted to vote for some or all of these seats.  We are putting forward a transformation of the organising principle of representativeness.

Abolition of the Seanad does not best serve the people or the democratic process. Removing one third of the Oireachtas system would probably mean that the powers of the Executive and the Dail would be increased and ultimately left unchecked by the balance of a second chamber.

That brings me to the last of the things we ‘know’. The Seanad is not that expensive. It costs less than €10 million a year to run, not €30 million. And we have outlined how that figure could be reduced still further.  That’s why we have launched a consultative process – so that we can learn what people really think, so that we do not make the mistake of relying on what we ‘know’, and so that we can start with what is true.