In early October, you will be asked whether you think this is the right thing to do, when the Government holds a Referendum to abolish the Seanad.
Ireland is the only small country in Europe with two chambers of parliament. In fact Ireland is unusual in the OECD in having a second chamber as it tends to be federal states or countries with large populations that have a bicameral system of parliament.
Currently Ireland has about a third more politicians per head of population when compared with other European countries of a similar size. At a time when every family in Ireland has made difficult changes, it is only right that the political system changes too. We specifically set up a Department for Public Expenditure and Reform in order to see how duplication and unnecessary expense can be avoided. As part of this reduction in duplication I think that the abolition of the Seanad is necessary.
We would not be the first country to move away from a two chambers system of parliament to one. Other countries that have made changes to achieve political reform include Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and Iceland. In these countries they chose to abolish rather than reform their second house as it was found that the second chamber was redundant, undemocratic or too costly.
Abolishing the Seanad would reduce the number of national politicians by a third and bring us more into line with every other small country in Europe with our national representation.
Currently the Seanad is elected by a tiny, select minority; just 1% of the population elected the current Seanad. In order to vote in Seanad elections you must be either a Trinity or NUI graduate, or a sitting politician. The Taoiseach of the day then gets to nominate the final 11 Senators, a move which has traditionally been used to guarantee the second house is stacked in favour of the government.
So what exactly does the Seanad and do we really need a second chamber? The three main roles are:
1. The Seanad can delay a Bill if passed by the Dáil for 90 days (or 21 days if it’s a money bill) –
This has happened twice & in both cases the Dáil subsequently passed the Bill.
2. Up to two members of the Seanad can be members of the Cabinet – Only two members of the Seanad in total have ever been members of the Cabinet
3. The Seanad has the ability to initiate a referendum or general election – This has never happened.
So the real question is to the value of having another house examine legislation and providing oversight in our parliamentary system. At the moment it seems that any legislation is heard and debated in both the Dáil and the Seanad and goes from one to the other to be passed or rejected. And whatever happens in one house is duplicated in the other.
Concerns have been expressed by those who advocate reform about the level of scrutiny of legislation that would take place should the Seanad be abolished. However the abolition of the Seanad will take place in the context of the overall political reform that is currently underway.
The whole committee system will be radically overhauled to make it more independent and give it a greater role in the legislative checks and balances process. Sweden, Denmark and New Zealand all have committee systems that scrutinises legislation before it goes before parliament. By changing the Oireachtas committee system we have the opportunity to give even greater scrutiny to legislation. We have the opportunity to look at ways of re-viewing and refining legislation that’s already been enacted.
As part of the political reform measures we have already increased Dáil sitting days, made changes to increase the number of female politicians, effectively abolished corporate donations and we’ve implemented major reforms to local government. The abolition of the Seanad and the improvement to the Committee system is part of this overall reform to make our government work more effectively and efficiently for us.
Reform of the Dáil is underway and I believe that these reforms will produce a more accountable government. We need to reduce duplication and be more effective with less – just like every other small country in Europe.
Deputy Aine Collins is Fine Gael’s Director of Elections for the Southern Region for the Seanad Abolition Referendum