Do we need Seanad Éireann?

Yesterday’s newspapers reported the launch of a paper on the Seanad by a new group (@SeanadReform) campaigning for reform rather than abolition of the second house of the Oireachtas. The government remains committed to holding a referendum on the issue late next year.

Seanad Éireann: Open It Don’t Close It sets out a compelling case for why Ireland needs a second chamber of parliament, and how the existing house – its role and membership – could be easily changed without the need for constitutional reform. The reports authors are: Senator Feargal Quinn, former tánaiste Michael McDowell, former Senator Joe O’Toole, political commentator Noel Whelan, and Senator Katherine Zappone.

The most innovative proposal in the paper relates to the system for electing Senators. Simple legislative change could allow for the creation of a system of popular direct election – involving all citizens – based on functional, rather than territorial, constituencies. There are also interesting suggestions on how the Seanad could have more influence in the scrutiny of legislation, and how the chamber could be given a significant role in EU scrutiny – all of this without the need for constitutional revision. Finally the paper’s authors refute the claims made over the great cost of the Seanad to the public purse.

As the paper notes, the origins of the Seanad abolition proposal was in a speech of Enda Kenny’s in 2009, which was followed by a Fine Gael policy document – New Politics – published in March 2010. (This unfortunately now seems no longer available on the Fine Gael website.)

The Open it Don’t Close it paper summarizes the gist of the Fine Gael arguments in favour of Seanad abolition as follows:

  • Ireland has too many parliamentarians
  • Ireland is the only unitary (i.e. non-federal) small state in Europe to have a bicameral legislature
  • Upper houses are, as a general matter, ‘very difficult to reform’
  • Constitutional theory has moved away from bicameral parliaments
  • The historical justifications for bicameralism are reducing greatly in significance and relevance

The paper’s authors make a good stab at addressing some of these points, particularly the second one (section 4 of the paper). However, I can’t say I’m entirely persuaded.

They, correctly, point out that just 13 of the existing 27 EU member states have bicameral systems, before proceeding to present an argument (analyzed in their Figure 4a) that ‘more than five sixths of the population of the Union live in countries with bicameral parliamentary systems’. ‘This arises’, the authors contend, ‘from a desire in those systems for an additional dimension in the legislative process through which those with particular knowledge and experience can make a contribution’. Well, does it? On what basis is such a conclusion derived? Actually, all this analysis shows (yet again) is that the larger EU member states – which between them account for the greater bulk of the ‘five sixths’ statistic – have second chambers.

The paper discusses the examples of Denmark, Finland and New Zealand – the three long established democracies (cited in the Fine Gael document) that abolished their second chambers in the 1950s. The argument presented in this paper is that there were issues particular to each of these cases that made such moves understandable, but that ‘these countries are substantively different from Ireland in terms of their political and constitutional contexts’. Perhaps so in the case of the first two – but New Zealand?

Apparently, in New Zealand (see para 4.4) ‘there was widespread dissatisfaction with the chamber. For example in the period 1936 to 1950 the upper house amended just 9% of Bills from the lower house and could not claim that a single bill that originated from its chamber became an Act. The upper house was also seen as a dumping ground for superannuated politicians.’

We’re told that this ‘is in marked contrast to that of the Seanad where the Constitution provides the chamber with a clearly defined role and where one of its great strengths relates to its history of dealing with legislation.’

Later (para 5.8) we’re given more detail about this supposed marked contrast:

‘in 1997 in their work for the Second Report on the Constitution by the All Party Oireachtas Committee, John Coakley and Michael Laver provided a measure of the legislative activity of … Seanad Éireann: 
“… during the lifetime of the Seanad (from 1938 to 19 September 1995) 18% of Bills were amended in the Seanad, but Bills were rejected outright on only one occasion. (Under existing constitutional arrangements, the disputed measure was subsequently passed.)”’

Is 18% really a ‘marked contrast’ to 9%?

The basic fact remains that Ireland is one of a small and declining band of small non-federal states to have a second chamber. The Senate, as currently constituted certainly, has little role or influence over politics or the legislative process. While that could all be changed – and the proposals presented in this paper do have a lot of merit in that regard – realistically, are we ever likely to see this?

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