Elected by all from representative panels to hold authorities to account – Katherine Zappone
Real reform of our system of government will not be achieved by abolishing the Seanad. Senator Feargal Quinn and I, along with colleagues from the Seanad Reform Group*, believe that the public should be presented with an alternative to the government’s near-sighted approach of ‘abolition or retention’. The focus of public debate has now shifted to the question of ‘reform or abolition’. We achieved this change by publishing a consultation document that engaged civil society with the possibilities for real reform.
We have used that consultation and our own research to develop a radical piece of legislation that would transform the Seanad in the way that it is elected, who is elected, what powers it holds and how it does its business. A reformed Seanad has the potential to ensure that politics in Ireland is not a closed shop. It has the possibility to empower ordinary people and to give them a voice and a real opportunity to affect the implementation of policy and legislation.
The focus of the Seanad Bill, put forward by Senator Quinn and myself, is on the transformation of the Seanad. It is not an attempt to save the House in its current form. The effectiveness of the old Seanad was diminished, because it was under-representative of the people and did not serve the best interests of the people – both the majority and minorities.
Now is not the time to reduce the scrutiny of our laws
Our Bill puts forward a number of innovative proposals. The current limited and elitist electorate would be dispensed with in favour of universal suffrage. Those in Northern Ireland who wish to vote in Seanad elections would have the opportunity to do so, as would Irish citizens living aboard. The new Seanad would achieve a gender balance of 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men.
The candidate nomination process would be opened up by dispensing with the special role for Oireachtas members. Nomination by popular support and by local authorities would be provided for. An increase in the number and range of nominating bodies would provide candidates that are representative of a broader sample of Irish society.
These new voices and expertise could constructively and positively hold the policies and ideas of the Cabinet, the Dáil, the political parties, and the regulators to greater account. The bill outlines new powers for the Seanad across a range of areas. These include the power to scrutinise draft EU Regulations and Directives, statutory instruments and ministerial appointments to public bodies, to name a few. The new Bill offers a way to radically open up the Seanad without the need for a referendum.
The government is scrambling for any cogent argument against Seanad reform. No rationale was given for the exclusion of the issue from the Constitutional Convention other than the government’s resolve to hold an abolition referendum. Paradoxically our reform bill was accepted by the government when it was presented in the Seanad. This is a welcome development in the debate and reinforces the fact that closing the Seanad is not justified.
The cost argument does not hold. The Seanad currently costs less than 110 million annually. It provides a vital system of checks and balances on the power of the executive and the Dáil majority. Seanad Eireann is an integral arm of the governance of this country as laid down in our Constitution. Now is not the time to reduce the scrutiny of our laws.
The question of Seanad abolition will be put to the electorate shortly. An ad hoc group of people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies who share a common commitment to political reform has now formed a campaign for Seanad reform called ‘Democracy Matters: Open It, Don’t Close It’. A small group of concerned individuals is organically evolving into an expanding public campaign directed by people from across all political, demographic and ideological hues with one thing in common: to promote a robust Irish democracy through a reformed Seanad.
*The Seanad Reform Group was established in early 2012 by Senator Feargal Quinn, Senator Katherine Zappone, Michael McDowell, Joe O’Toole, and Noel Whelan.