Why @simonharristd makes the case for a #seanref #No vote much stronger #Seanad

The Seanad Chair
The Seanad Chair

As a firm believer in Seanad reform – and consequently a trenchant opponent of Seanad abolition – the Sunday Independent’s Millward Brown poll showing the No to Abolition side gaining further momentum is gratifying.

The past few weeks have hardly been great for the No side. Fine Gael has been pretty active on the airwaves over the Summer break, while Sinn Féin’s opportunistic decision to campaign for a Yes, having vehemently opposed the Government’s proposal in both the Dáil and Seanad, hasn’t helped the No cause either.

All this makes the increase in the pro Seanad reform level of support all the more re-assuring. Not that the poll suggests that the campaign is done and dusted. Far from it.

More than almost any other, this Seanad abolition policy, is the lone brain child of Enda Kenny. Though there seem to be no research papers, discussion documents or policy positions he can produce to justify the origins of this initiative, he is the man behind it and he has more to lose by its defeat than anyone else.

While Labour nominally favours abolition, its TDs and Ministers can reasonably see their policy obligations as fulfilled by the holding of a referendum. Don’t expect to see many of them working too hard for a Yes to abolition vote. Indeed, as the Labour Chief Whip has indicated, at least half the Labour parliamentary party may actually work for a No vote seeing it as the best way to secure a popular mandate for Seanad reform.

One of the two authors of Labour’s 2009 position paper on Seanad reform, Junior Minister, Alex White has not commented on the issue much, while the other author, Joanna Tuffy TD has indicated that she will be campaigning for a No vote.

The worrying shift in the poll numbers make it necessary for Fine Gael to up the ante over the weeks ahead.
Given that the main shift has been in the group who describe themselves as favouring reform expect to see Fine Gael focus its attentions there and try to convince them that a Yes vote is a vote for reform.

We already had a glimpse of this approach last week via its neophyte Wicklow TD, Simon Harris’s speech at the Parnell Summer School.
Harris advanced the argument that abolishing the Seanad counts as reform and gives power back to the people as it means the single remaining chamber of the Oireachtas: the Dáil will be 100% elected by the public.

Harris’s reasoning seems to hinges on the statistic that the number of people registered to vote in Seanad elections, under current legislation, is around 156,000; about 5% of the approx 3.1 million entitled to vote at the February 2011 Dáil election.

What Harris misses, however, is that this 156,000 (Councillors, Oireachtas members and NUI and TCD graduates) is defined in legislation – not the Constitution. Everyone in the North and South could be given the right to vote with the passing of an Act by the Dáil and Seanad. Indeed the Seanad has already voted for such a piece of reform with the Second Stage vote on the Quinn/Zappone Seanad Reform Bill.
The extension of the Seanad franchise to all is now completely within the gift of Deputy Harris’s colleagues on the government benches.

The only real obstacle to such a real reform is the Taoiseach’s obduracy in insisting on Seanad abolition instead of reform.

Though not central to the argument it is worth noting that the 156,000 figure is probably an understatement as it just counts the NUI and Trinity graduates who have registered to vote. Many 100s of 1000s more are entitled to vote by virtue of their graduation.

The other problem with Harris’s reasoning is the idea that the answer to existing disenfranchisement is more disenfranchisement. It defies all democratic principles to propose removing someone’s voting rights when you have it in your power to extend them.

If you were to apply Deputy Harris’s quirky logic to the campaign for women’s suffrage a century back you would determine that the way to ensure equal voting rights for all was to remove the vote from men so that the two genders were equally disadvantaged.

The very legitimate criticism that not enough people are entitled to vote in Seanad elections is properly addressed by giving everyone the right, not by removing it.

I would hope that Deputy Harris’s espousal of a position that is the absolute antithesis of reform is informed by loyalty to his party leader and desire for advancement rather than by belief in the argument itself.

If it is the former then the case for reform is all the greater, if it is latter then it is time to worry.

Ends

Scrap the #Seanad? No, we need a new, revamped one more than ever

Sorry for being late in posting this – it is my Herald column from last Friday, May 24th, on why the the Government’s plan to abolish the Seanad is as far from reform as it is almost humanly possible to get 

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Democracy Matters! Campaign
Democracy Matters! Campaign

Next week the Government publishes the legislation that paves the way for a referendum on abolition of the Seanad later this year.

Last week the same Government supported a proposal from independent Senators not to abolish the Seanad but to reform it.

So how can they advocate two such contrary positions within two weeks of each other?

The answer is simple – abolition is not as simple and straightforward as originally thought. It does not mean just rubbing out a few words in the Constitution: it will require about 75 individual amendments.

The origin of all of this is a Fine Gael knees up back in October 2009. That is where Enda Kenny made the surprise announcement that he planned to scrap the Seanad. His new policy came as a surprise as only three months earlier his policy was that it be given greater powers and become a forum on European issues.

So what happened over those summer months, when neither the Dáil nor Senate were sitting, to change Enda’s mind? Nothing it seems, apart from being upstaged by Éamon Gilmore and growing criticism within Fine Gael of his leadership.

Enda needed a soft target – and the slow, lumbering Seanad obligingly painted a nice big un-missable bull’s eye on its own backside.

While it is difficult to present an argument for retaining the Seanad as it is: with most of its members elected just by TD’s and Councillors, that is not the same as saying that we do not need some form of a Second House of Parliament.

Despite its faults, the Seanad has served the country well. It has been a champion of reform and minority rights in a way the Dáil has often not. To quote the President, Michael D Higgins from a 2009 Dáil debate: “historically, the Seanad has been the place where there has been legislative innovation.”

Indeed it has, even with its antiquated system of having 6 seats elected by University Graduates and the Taoiseach nominating 11 members. It has allowed many voices and views from outside the political mainstream not only to be heard but to have a say: from W B Yeats to Seamus Mallon to Éamon de Buitléar to David Norris.

The value of having a second chamber to revise laws and give proposals further scrutiny can be demonstrated with one simple statistic. Since 2011 the Seanad has made 529 amendments to 14 different laws passed by the Dáil with inadequate scrutiny.

Without a Seanad or Second chamber those defective laws would have passed on to the statute without correction.

In today’s Ireland we need more scrutiny and oversight – not less. Abolition strengthens the old system. It means fewer new voices. The answer lies in reform, not abolition: open up the system, don’t close it down.

We need a reformed Seanad that makes those in power accountable. We need a reformed Seanad that has a gender balance. One where all of us, not just an elite, get a vote, including people in the North and those forced into emigration.

These basic, but effective, reforms could be made without a referendum and major constitutional change. All that is required is a Government that has the will to make that change.
Enda Kenny is doing this the wrong way around. We should learn from the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harpers who told his people “…that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change… or vanish.”

We should be given the option of change.

Instead, the government will spend millions on a referendum that only offers a sham choice between keeping something that we know is not working as well as it could and handing its powers and resources over to a Dáil that has proved itself less than capable of holding Government to account.

Have we learned nothing from the crisis?

Do we want to fix the system or merely consolidate it?

My latest column in Friday's Herald
My latest column in Friday’s Herald