Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Seanad: Reform or Kill?

Halving the amount of examination of what Government does and removing 60 Oireachtais members from the process of oversight cannot be described as reform. It is an anti-democratic deform, stupidly sold as a big idea from a man without a trace of one.

Democracy creates not just a market place in ideas but in trust and reliability. Ideas can't be sold on lies because too many voters may realise that they are being sold a very mangy pup to make the sales pitch profitable in votes. This has not stopped the Abolish The Seanad campaign from using a much exposed lies on costs and savings to sell the very bad idea of abolishing the second chamber. No, Richard, it doesn't cost €20 million a year and what money it does cost will be spent on a newly deformed Dáil. No savings and the estimated €9m annual cost of the Seanad could be paid for 5-6 years for the cost of this referendum? Even Barbie says facepalm.

The Irish Seanad, the Second Chamber of our Parliament is an unlovely beast. Elected by county councillors and university graduates from some (but not all) universities, criticising its processes is like taking pot shots at Patrick Neary's tenure as Banking Regulator. Unlovely beasts can be still effective and unlovely constitutional beasts can be reformed.

The problem for Seanad Eireann is that some believe parliament and its procedures are effective in so far as it allows Government its immediate and unopposed will. Delay, debate or second opinion are at best fripperies not to be countenanced and may, in many circumstances amout to treasonous activity. Fettering politicians to even vestigial discussion is seen to undermine their abiility to act swiftly in their awesome wisdom.

Seanad Abolition was an idea born in opposition and desperation. In 2010, languishing behind a failing Fianna Fail in the polls, losing ground to Gilmore's Labour and widely regarded as a drag on Fine Gael's prospects, Enda Kenny needed a BIG IDEA. Without either the method, means or philosophy to find one, FG used a sequence of focus groups to probe what might work with an electorate hammered by recession. The proposal to abolish the Seanad was taken to the party's conference in Killarney but, with little ability to sell the bad idea, party hierarchs cancelled the debate on the issue when opposition surfaced and replaced it with a speech from Kenny, imposing abolition as a policy by fiat. Mr Kenny has
been chickening out of debate ever since. 

How have Irelands problems been caused by an excess of democracy, surfeit of debate or a overburden of enquiry? When the Dáil expressed it's confidence in Willy O Dea as Defence Minister despite the accusations of perjury, it was the prospect of a well informed seanad Debate that triggered his fall. The ONLY justification for abolishing the second chamber is that we need FEWER people challenging the Government in the Oireachtais. It is very hard to share that confidence in the government, that belief that it was examination of policy and implementation that led us to this tragic meltdown. 

In the English speaking world unicameral or single chamber parliaments are the exception, only New Zeeland operating on one chamber. That may help account for the fact that only one unicameral country is richer than Ireland in GDP/GNP league tables. Delay and discussion work. 

It is conservatively estimated that the Seanad saved the country €300m per annum in its oversight and examination of legislation coming from Dail Eireann. ( a figure never disputed by the abolitionists) Thus in 10 years this “radical and revolutionary idea” will cost us €2.75b. of course you may believe that the Dáil will get its legislative pants pulled up...

In the end what is most disturbing about this proposal is the base and cynical view it demonstrates of elected politics. Every single argument for abolishing the seanad is just as good an argument for abolishing the Dáil. Yes, we could appoint a commision of 12 or 8 wise minds to govern and do away with all the expensive waste. Come to think of it 1 person would run the entire show much more quickly and cheaply.... And if you think that go read Hayek's classic "The Road To Serfdom".

With this base view of politics it is hardly surprising that the proposed "reforms" of the Dáil are all methods of handing power and influence to vested interest groups and disadvantaging citizens in the legislative process. Odd too that this government believes the Dáil can be reformed ( even if their proposals to do so are pants) but that no reform is possible of the Seanad? Kenny's declaration that there will be no reform if the public vote against abolition is the futile utterance of a small and spiteful man. We are not dependent on Enda Kenny for constitutional reform.

Tomorrow we have a choice: back a base, limited view of democratic politics, sold on a lie, and hand the power of speed and silence to the cabinet or retain a working institution which we can reform. A wrong decision will leave us much more at the mercy of the idiots we elect.

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