I’m disappointed with the result of the referendum on Seanad abolition. There’s no point now in detailing once more why I thought this would have been a good idea and a worthy reform of our political system. The result was not what the polls predicted, and while polling firms might have found it difficult to estimate likely voters, there also was a definite swing against us. With this short time to consider the result, I think the blame for that most likely rests with the Taoiseach and his closest advisors. When he announced this in 2009, I thought (or hoped) it was a sign that he was truly embracing an element of radical and substantial political reform. Yet during this campaign, he did not show the confidence to explain and defend it to voters. I know of people who were leaning in favour of abolition but who voted against because they did not believe he should be rewarded and credited with such a change if he would not stand up for it. If it were a long-held party policy, or an initiative of another minister, it would have been fair enough to have delegated it to the director of elections, as usually occurs at referendums. But he was the one who reintroduced this to the political conversation in 2009. As the leader of our government, Enda Kenny should have explained clearly and plainly the merit he saw in this.
Party members were let down by this. A defeat in a poll is never a pleasant experience, and this is one that could have been avoided. The internal conversation and debates should have started long before the summer. And party members should have been involved in formulating our arguments. There is a time and a place for focus groups, but the political instincts of motivated and interested members should be respected and sought. We ran with poor campaign messages. The largest party in the country could never have credibility talking of the benefits of fewer politicians. The discussion of cost does have a place, but it should not have been the starting point. Not to mention some embarrassing stunts, which are probably all right as moments of levity during a campaign, but not when they become key pieces of it. We needed a wide-ranging and targeted campaign, one that showed from the start that it was a position of substance and principle, that stood up to scrutiny, based on solid research.
Fine Gael needs to learn from this. We didn’t learn from the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries; here we are two years later with practically an identical margin against. Reform that requires constitutional amendment needs to be framed in a way that appreciates and addresses the legitimate suspicion the public have when the executive seeks to alter the arrangements in the constitution.
In the RDS count centre this morning, a non-aligned campaigner said to myself and a member of a different party that for people like us, it was a tribal matter. It wasn’t that for me. Had Fianna Fáil or any other party proposed this, and Fine Gael been against, I would still have publicly supported this. I am not right now disappointed for Fine Gael that we as a party have suffered a defeat in a poll. I am disappointed in Fine Gael, and I things change have to change.
And to those who opposed abolition, well done on a well fought campaign.
All we can determine from yesterday’s result is that the voters wanted to keep a second house. We should now think carefully and critically about how its 60 members should be selected and what their role should be.
On 20 November 1957, Independent TD Dr Noël Browne proposed a Private Members’ Motion, “That Dáil Éireann is of the opinion that Seanad Éireann as it is at present constituted should be abolished.” The motion was seconded by Independent TD Jack McQuillan (Browne and McQuillan were to found the National Progressive Democrats in 1958).
Browne continued on 27 November. On 4 December, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera instead proposed a commission to examine the method of election for senators, and Noël Browne reluctantly accepted this compromise, saying “we shall accept that position as making the best of a bad job and wish the committee to be established every success”. (Credit to John O’Dowd of UCD’s School of Law for initially pointing me towards de Valera’s response)
Browne did serve as a Senator for the University of Dublin from 1973 to 1977, as many do between time in the Dáil when they lose their seat, but bar taking account for inflation, much of his 1957 speech stands as true in today’s debate. I have reproduced this speech in full.
That Dáil Éireann is of the opinion that Seanad Éireann as it is at present constituted should be abolished.
In moving this motion it is necessary to go over some of the history associated with the formation of the Seanad and its subsequent career. This is the second time that a motion of this nature was moved in this House. On the previous occasion, however, the motion simply asked for the abolition of the Seanad as it stood. It was moved by the present Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, and behind him he had the backing of an effective majority, with which, there was no doubt, he intended to implement his will.
I do not intend to go into the reasons why the then Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, insisted on the removal or abolition of the Seanad but I shall draw to a very considerable extent on many of the very cogent, telling and compelling arguments which he used at that time in order to try to persuade the House to agree that a Seanad as such or, indeed, any Second Chamber at all was neither desirable nor necessary in a democratic society. As two Independents, it is quite clear that we cannot depend on the great overwhelming majority of a Party. Possibly because of that it should be possible to get a more reasoned argument from both sides of the House, to have the motion considered in a non-Party way, and, if possible, allow the Deputies to express their viewpoint independent of the Party Whip.
To those who feel that the Seanad is serving a useful purpose as it is and do not want to have it changed, I would very much like if they would put forward their arguments and try to justify their belief. I should not like to treat the House in the positively boisterous way in which the Taoiseach, Deputy de Valera, treated it away back in 1934, when he put the onus entirely upon the Opposition to prove that the Seanad was required. He said in Volume 52, column 1809, of the Dáil Debates:—
Much later than initially intended, these are details on the proposals on political reform which were carried by vote last Saturday week at Young Fine Gael Summer School, on 9 July. Some themes run through these, of distinguishing clearly between the roles of elected representatives at a local and at a national level.
The most notable call was for the party whip to be relaxed for non-budgetary votes. This was to be on our agenda before Denis Naughton lost the whip for his vote against the government on Roscommon hospital, but the incident served as a concrete example in people’s minds. My own reasoning is that for debates in the Dáil to mean something, there should be times when those speaking should be trying to convince others, and genuinely hope to change their fellow TDs’ minds. There are times watching TDs traipse in to vote by party line on an amendment to a private members’ bill, and then by the same numbers on the new motion, that we may as well have trained monkeys to press the right button. With a government majority so large, this is the perfect opportunity to allow TDs have a say for themselves.
In an effort to strengthen the role of county councils, we passed motions calling for the abolition of town councils, and to remove the right of Oireachtas members to be treated as county councillors at a local level. The latter provision would clearly delineate the distinct roles of local and national politicians, and could be achieved simply by amending the Local Government Act 2003, deleting Section 3. It wouldn’t eliminate TDs acting locally, but it would reduce their capacity to do so.
A motion opposing the government’s proposal on gender quotas was carried. While the participation of women in politics in Ireland is incredibly low by European standards, t is a very blunt instrument, that does not address the deeper structural problems limiting participation. There are ways around it too, such as parties adding women to the ticket where there are already established TDs.
The only proposal that would require a referendum was to lower the age of office for all positions to 18. I can’t imagine a rush of young adults rushing to be elected, but throughout history, and in different countries, there have been those who have led at young ages, whether William Pitt, Michael Collins or Alexander the Great. As any candidate has to be nominated and seek a popular mandate, the constitutional bar seems unnecessary.
This is a full summary of the votes in this political reform session of summer school:
- Young Fine Gael believes that Town and Borough Councils should be abolished. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael believes legislation should be brought forward to outlaw members of the Oireachtas making official representations at council level on behalf of individual constituents. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael calls for the voting age for local elections to be lowered to 16. – Defeated
- Young Fine Gael calls for the electorate to the presidency to be extended to all Irish citizens, with voting in embassies and by postal vote across the world. – Defeated
- Young Fine Gael calls for a universal age of 18 for eligibility to serve in political office. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael opposes the Governments position on the introduction of gender quotas whereupon a political party will have its funding reduced if it does not have a minimum number of female candidates. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael calls for the whip system to be relaxed in the case of non-budgetary votes. – Carried
Political reform was an issue in this election, unusual in any case, and perhaps surprising given the state of the economy. But I think people realized that part of the reason the country found itself in the position it did was because of poor political institutions which came inordinate power to the executive and the lack of check on its decisions. All parties proposed changes on political reform, and as the two parties likely to form the government, Fine Gael and Labour, got scores of 74 and 68, the two highest scores, from the Political Reform Scorecard, there is no excuse not to expect changes here.
Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot
Already we’ve names mentioned for the position of Ceann Comhairle, as something to be divided in the spoils of government. But in the New Politics document, Fine Gael have called for the Ceann Comhairle to be elected by secret ballot by all TDs, as is the case with the Speaker of the House of Commons in Westminster. It can’t be done straight away, as the first order of business in a new Dáil is the election of Ceann Comhairle. But Enda Kenny could propose someone while declaring that he intended to appoint them as a Minister of State, someone who would be credible as an interim Ceann Comhairle. Within the first month, the standing orders could be changed, the interim Ceann Comhairle would step down, to be replaced by secret ballot.
A role for all TDs
A few times on Saturday and Sunday, I heard radio commentators ask Independent TDs what the point was of them in the Dáil if they would not hold balance of power. A Dáil election forms the legislature, which has a function in its own right, apart from being a sort of electoral college to elect the executive. Backbenchers, whether government or opposition, should have more power and part of this means being able to propose motions or legislation in private members’ time and reasonably expect that it will be open for a free vote of the Dáil. There are many issues, like stag hunting, which shouldn’t be considered a matter of a confidence vote but a free vote of all members.
In Britain, it is an embarrassment, but not the end of the world, if a government loses a vote it has proposed. Given the majority this government has, and the fact that there will inevitably be backbenchers unhappy with certain government proposals, this could be an opportunity to relax the party whip system, so that it wouldn’t be seen to be such a big deal if they were vote against. In Britain, when they had a vote last year on the introduction of deferred payments for college fees, there were members of both government parties who voted against or abstained.
Fewer but stronger committees
There have also been proposals to strengthen the committee structure, to give it greater powers of scrutiny over legislation and over appointments to state boards. Though Fine Gael intends to give permanent Constitutional recognition to certain committees, the structures could be put in place before such a referendum. The number of committees could be reduced and then strengthened in their power. A distribution of chairs by a d’Hondt or rotational system would reflect the diversity within the Dáil. It is fair that the positions in executive, at cabinet or junior rank, to be composed only of those who have formed the government, but that isn’t undermined by sharing this in the legislature. In the US House of Representatives, the current Chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy is the radical Republican presidential hopeful, Ron Paul, who would like to shut down the Federal Reserve, something that made Majority Leader John Boehner wary of his appointment. Imagine if Shane Ross or Joe Higgins were to chair our own Banking and Financial Regulation Committee.
There were many other proposals on political reform proposed by the two incoming government parties, these are just a few of them that have most relevance to the Dáil itself which could be started straight away.
While out dropping leaflets for Paschal Donohoe in Drumcondra today, and having listened to John Gormley on This Week earlier, thoughts of electoral reform came to mind. In his closing speech of the Dáil, Gormley announced his proposal to move to a mixed-member system, which they have in Germany, where half the TDs would be elected by a national list and half the TDs in single-seat constituencies. This system certainly has its merits, though I’m not sure it would entirely eliminate some of the problems we have at the moment.
For example, Gormley himself in that same interview provided an excellent example of the problem with how things are now in his discussion of his view on the proposed Poolbeg incinerator near where he lives. But such a conflict of interest would not necessarily be solved under his proposal. It would if the Minister for the Environment had been elected by the national list, but if he were the TD for Ringsend, he would be as reluctant, for both personal and political reasons, to approve an incinerator as in the current circumstances.
I also think a city as small as Dublin could be more integrated at a political level. Should politicians based in Ballsbridge not be familiar too with life in Drumcondra? Through working in as relief staff in Dublin City Public Libraries, I’ve had an opportunity I’m glad of to get to know many of the city’s suburbs. Though mostly in Pembroke Library, I’ve spent a little bit of time in nearly every branch in the city.
The area covered by Dublin City Council elects roughly 20 TDs. What if these were elected in a single constituency, which for practical reasons of ballot size would use an Open List System rather than STV? Voters would select a party, and then pick their preferred party candidate from across the constituency. If Fine Gael got 30% of the vote across Dublin, the six most popular Fine Gael candidates would be elected. Candidates who were exceptionally popular locally might make it, but candidates would ultimately be compelled to find a wider focus than neighbourhood issues. TDs would also be less likely to feel the political impact of a decision affecting their own local community if they were appealing for votes from party supporters across the city. The micro-level of politics does deserve attention too, but this could be left to local authorities.
Dublin City is only an example here, across the country merging constituencies to have regional lists, as they do in Portugal, would put focus on parties’ separate manifesto commitments, while maintaining geographical diversity in the Dáil and accountability of individual TDs.
Dan O’Brien recently presented a segment on RTÉ’s Aftershock programme advocating fundamental political reform, with a move towards a mixed-member electoral system, where half the TDs would be elected by list, and a separation of the executive and the legislature, where TDs who take up ministerial positions would vacate their seats and be replaced by someone on their party list.
I would be wary of any such major cultural change in our electoral process. Our method of electing TDs by the single transferable vote is popular here because it gives voters maximum choice between parties and candidates.
This system has been blamed for the clientelism of Irish politics, because of how it encourages intra-party competition and the development of personal bailiwicks by TDs. The electoral system does play its part, but I believe that it merely exacerbates the problems which we would have in any case as a result of the weak role of elected representatives at both the national and local levels.
The most meaningful power the Dáil has is after an election when electing a Taoiseach, and thereafter in maintaining a majority for the government of the day. There are many other functions which the legislature could be granted, in proposing and drafting legislation and overseeing state bodies and quangos. Fine Gael’s New Politics document, which should be read with enthusiasm by anyone truly interested in the chance of political reform, proposes many such measures, such as emulating the 10-minute rule from Westminster. This is a provision allowing backbench MPs to propose their own legislation once a week, and MPs have been known to camp outside the parliamentary office to get their proposal onto the agenda.
We should aspire to a situation where those of ability would see a value in their role as a legislator, rather than merely as a stepping stone to climb the ranks of ministerial office, where currently the only power lies. Take someone like Ivan Yates, who retired from the Dáil in 2002 to go into business life, when the short-term prospects of a return to government looked slim. With a greater role for parliamentarians, he might have stayed in politics. It is not the electoral system that has caused TDs to see themselves as local politicians rather than legislators, it is just that is the only role that is left for them.
Any improvement of the powers of the Dáil should be coupled with a strengthening of local government. Citizens should feel that their voice can be implemented on local issues through their local councillors. Just as nationally the executive has an inordinate amount of power relative to the legislature, at a local level the significant power rests with county managers. Giving local politicians might also give them the profile that the public might sooner turn to them, leaving their TDs to the business of Leinster House and representing the larger interests of their constituencies.
The Liberal Democrats, and before them the Liberal Party, have long found themselves coming up against the difficulty of Britain’s highly disproportional first-past-the-post electoral system. The Tories have also suffered, because of the various spreads of the three parties across different constituencies. In 2005, the Tories won more votes than Labour in England, but less seats.
This time around, there is a serious prospect of Labour coming third in vote terms, but far ahead of the Lib Dems in seats. Electoral Calculus currently predict that Labour will be marginally behind in vote share, but will get 133 more seats than the Lib Dems. This will prove for the Lib Dems the best case for electoral reform. The best they are likely to get is the alternative vote, STV in single-member districts. This would still be far from proportional, but there is a strong affinity for many of having a single MP who they can call their own.
A Lib-Dem-leaning voter in a Conservative-Labour constituency would often have voted for whichever of the larger parties was their reluctant second choice. This year, there is a strong case for them to vote Lib Dem, as the greater the level of disproportionality, the stronger the case of the leadership of the party will be in any government negotiations for a more strongly proportional electoral system, which Chris Huhne is today raising against David Cameron.
Here’s John Cleese in 1997, on how voters’ perception of the Lib Dems’ chances is really their biggest obstacle.