TNT24.ie asked me to take a quick look back over the issues emerging so far in the Seanad referendum campaign. As a protagonist on the Seanad Reform side, I do not claim this to be an impartial observation, but I have attempted to make it as fair as possible.
Just over eight weeks ago Democracy Matters, the civic society group advocating Seanad Reform rather over abolition, was launched. A week later, in Government Buildings, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Éamon Gilmore published their proposed amendment to the Constitution which, if passed by the people in about eleven weeks time, will abolish Seanad Éireann following the next election.
While the Seanad referendum campaign has yet to start in earnest: it has still been an eventful eight weeks with several shots fired in anger by both sides. We are already seeing some of the key lines of argument and contention emerging between the pro and anti campaigns. The debate, thus far, has seemed largely to focus on:
This has been to the advantage of the government side abolitionists so far. The discussion so far seems to have been on the government’s terms with very little real exploration of the No side’s reform alternatives. Nonetheless, the No side have had some success punching holes in some of the government’s case to date.
Costs: This has quickly emerged as an area of contention between the two sides. Fine Gael in particular has been focussing its attention of its claims that abolishing the Seanad would potentially save the State some €20million a year. This claim has been contested by several people on the No side, including Fianna Fáil, Democracy Matters and several Senators – including some Fine Gael and Labour ones. They put the figure at €10million or below
Fine Gael says its figures come from the Oireachtas Commission and offers the following breakdown on the €20m figure:
Total direct costs of running the Seanad of €8.8m (Gross), including
members’ salary (€4.2m);
members’ expenses (€2.5m) and
members’ staff costs (€2.1m)
€2m in annual pensions costs relating to the Seanad.
The additional indirect apportioned pay and non-pay costs of supporting sections of €9.3m:
Procedural sections (€2.8m) and
Other support sections (€3m).
Not that Fine Gael always used this figure. At one stage it was suggesting an annual saving of €30 per annum, but this was subsequently slimmed down – to a figure of around €10million. In June an opinion piece appeared in the Irish Times advocating abolition under the name of the then Fine Gael back bench TD Paschal Donohoe. It did not use this €20million figure, but rather suggested the €10m per annum one saying: “…at least €50 million over the lifetime of one Dáil term. Over five Dáil terms, with pension costs and expenses included, these savings alone would have us more than halfway to paying for a national children’s hospital.”
Reform advocates point to the January 2012 testimony of the outgoing Clerk of the Dáil, Kieran Coughlan who estimated the gross annual saving from abolition would be less than €10million. If you take into account that at least 30% of that €10million goes back to the Exchequer in taxes, levies and VAT, the real annual cost of the Seanad to the taxpayer is probably between €6 million and €7 million. The €2 million pensions cost would continue for all former members and might likely increase for the foreseeable future with 60 Senators being made redundant in one fell swoop.
As for the indirect costs the Oireachtas has said that it is not possible to estimate the net actual savings and advises there would be substantial increases in pension costs and redundancy payments.
The government does not mention the estimated €15+million cost of holding the referendum. This is based on the government’s own figures for the costs of the Referendum on the Protection of Children held on the 10th November, 2012.
The whole debate on costs is probably moot. As Senator Professor John Crown has pointed out, Minister Brendan Howlin has stated that money saved from Seanad abolition will be redeployed to Dáil Committees. So there will be no net savings to the Exchequer.
Scale:The government’s next big argument for abolition is that Ireland is too small a country to have a two chambered (bicameral) parliament and to have as many national politicians as we have.
These lines has been trotted out many times with the Taoiseach and Ministers making lots of references to such similarly sized places as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand.
Reformists say that there is no direct correlation, between the size of State and parliamentary system. China with a population of over 1.3 billion has a single chamber (unicameral) parliament while the parliament of Saint Lucia (population 170,000) is bicameral.
They argue that bicameral is the norm for common law countries, such as ours – regardless of size. Indeed world’s wealthiest nations are mostly bicameral: of the fifteen countries with the highest GDP only two – the People’s Republic of China and South Korea – have a unicameral parliament.
As for the comparisons with Scandinavian countries, you are not comparing like with like. The overall structure of these Scandinavian political systems is very different from ours. In Denmark, Finland and Sweden local government is at the heart of the political system. In Sweden, for example, there are three tiers of government. These local governments can set their own local income tax. As for the numbers, contrary to having fewer politicians all these countries have more.
Relevance: Launching the government’s referendum proposal; back in June the Taoiseach questioned the relevance of the Seanad saying that modern Ireland cannot be governed effectively by a political system originally designed for 19th century Britain.
Putting the factual error on 19th century Britain element part down to the rhetorical over exuberance of his speech writer (perhaps the same one who thought Lenin had visited Ireland and met with Michael Collins), it is a theme frequently mentioned.
Does much of the question mark over the Seanad’s relevance stem from how it is elected – mainly by other politicians?
If so, could it not be addressed by extending the franchise for the Seanad and allowing every voter on the island – North and South – the right to vote in Seanad elections?
The method of elected the 43 vocational Senators is set out in law, not in the Constitution. It would not take a referendum to give every existing (and future) voter the right to vote in a Seanad election. Every voter could decide on which panel they wished to exercise their vote: Labour, Culture & Educational, Agriculture, Industry & Commerce and Administrative and vote accordingly. Everyone would get one vote – no more multiple voting.
With this one simple act – achieved by legislation – the government could do more to address the Seanad’s relevance and the issue of Oireachtas reform than with any number of referendums.
The new, reformed Seanad would be a positive response to the fiscal crisis and loss of sovereignty. The global crisis was exacerbated in Ireland because public policy and economic dogma went unchallenged. Regulators went unregulated, civil society and the party system failed to advance realistic alternatives.
Rejecting abolition and giving ourselves a new reformed Seanad is about ensuring this doesn’t happen again.