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Column: Politicians love talking about change, but it's time to go beyond words and abolish the Seanad

Ireland has seen dramatic change over the last five years; how can we credibly ask all other areas of the public sector to undergo radical reform if we, the body politic, aren’t willing to do the same? asks Simon Harris TD.

Simon Harris TD

CHANGE IS DIFFICULT. People tend to get comfortable with the way thing are; it’s human nature. But Ireland has seen dramatic change over the last five years or so. There isn’t a workplace in the country which hasn’t had to change the way it operates and do more with less. Politicians love to talk about change. It’s much easier to talk about other people changing, rather than changing ourselves. But how can we credibly ask all other areas of the public sector to undergo radical reform if we, the body politic, aren’t willing to do the same?

As an island nation, we often look overseas for inspiration on how we should be running our own affairs. This, I believe, is a very pragmatic approach. We strive to learn lessons from others on how we can make our country, society and economy better. But yet, when it comes to reshaping our political system to bring it into line with international best practice, there is a distinct pushback from the establishment. This shouldn’t really be a surprise; the Government is effectively proposing to hand a third of our national politicians their P45s at the end of its term. At the very least, it would be fair to expect this to cause a few ripples.

Our international counterparts

So, how does our political system compare with our international counterparts? Six European countries have a population of between four and six million; Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Croatia and Slovakia. Ireland is the only one with a second chamber of parliament. Indeed, there has been a decisive shift towards single chamber parliaments on an international level; in the 20th century, 30 countries have abolished their second chambers.

And as a result of our second chamber, we have about a third more national politicians than the average for countries of our size. We can address this through the abolition of the Seanad, and the planned reduction in the number of TDs. There isn’t another public workplace in the country which hasn’t had to learn to do more with less over the last few years; politics shouldn’t be any different.

But this can’t just be about a crude headcount or a wish to replicate our neighbours; it should be a much more reflective process, where we consider what is actually working within our parliamentary system and what isn’t. I have yet to hear anyone claim we should retain the Seanad in its current form. This is for good reason. The Seanad is completely undemocratic; the 24th Seanad was elected by just 1 per cent of the population.

And it is virtually powerless; it can only delay, not overturn, legislation. The last time it actually did so was almost 50 years ago. Yes, the last time the Seanad used its power of delay was in 1964. All of those who claim the Seanad acts as an essential watchdog on the Government should keep this fact to the forefront of their minds.

The cost

Let us not forget that it costs about €20 million a year to run the Seanad. These aren’t Fine Gael figures, they are figures supplied by the House of the Oireachtas. Economist and author of An Bord Snip Nua, Colm McCarthy, believes the figure to be closer to €25 million. Either way, I think this is money that would be much better spent elsewhere.

It is bare facts like these about the workings of the Seanad that lead to calls for reform. In my view, the Seanad is beyond reform. Ten reports on reforming the Seanad have been published, and yet we are still left with the same ineffective Upper House. Eight of those reports were published under Fianna Fáil Governments, but the Party did nothing to change the system. Instead, Fianna Fáil is now asking us to take a leap of faith and believe the Party this time around when it talks of reform. This is despite the fact that Fianna Fáil was in favour of Seanad abolition during the 2011 General Election, saying the Seanad was ‘struggling to justify its existence’. How, exactly, has it justified its existence in the meantime?

Change is necessary

Under successive Fianna Fáil governments, our parliament was characterised by excessive holidays, a bloated Committee system and a complete lack of will to reform the system. Now, the Dáil is sitting for longer to allow more time for debate. Changes being made to Dáil Committees will make the system more open and inclusive. This will include giving outside experts and members of the public a role in the legislative process. That, in my view, is far more democratic than retaining a second chamber of parliament elected by just 1 per cent of the population.

Politicians can’t keep lecturing others about the need to adapt to our changed circumstances, without changing the way we work ourselves. But luckily, this isn’t up to politicians. It’s over to you, the voter, on October 4th. And I’m urging you to vote Yes so we can finally drag our political system into the 21st century.

Simon Harris TD represents the Wicklow-East Carlow constituency

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