Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Seanad Reform

In the wake of the failure of the constitutional referendum to abolish the upper house, or Seanad, in Ireland, many people are clamouring for Seanad reform to make it “more democratic” and “less élitist” — in other words, they seem to want the Seanad elected by the exact same procedure that has given us an incompetent shower of party-political asshats in the Dáil for as long as anyone can remember.

What would be the point of two parallel houses directly elected by general franchise? We need only look to Washington to see how well that works. And what's wrong with élitism anyway? It's not like we need more publicans in Leinster House and fewer professors, nor does the Seanad have any real power to subvert the intentions of the democratically and directly elected Dáil in any case.

There's little disagreement that reform of both houses of the Oireachtas is highly desirable, so how about this...

The general idea here is that ministerial portfolios should be fixed prior to a general election, and three seanadóirí, suitably qualified in subject-matter related to that portfolio, would be directly elected by general franchise to a corresponding 3-member “bench”. This would mean that every minister would be “shadowed” by 3, at least somewhat knowledgeable, senators. Their job would be to directly scrutinise the his/her legislative and executive actions. Any scope or mechanism for the government to make the seanadóirí rubber-stamping cronies, or redefine their roles or the roles of ministers, is eliminated. This is the germ of an idea; we can argue the details, but what follows in an outline of how I think this could work.

First, the status quo in Ireland in relation to ministerial portfolios would be abolished with extreme prejudice. The brain-dead state of affairs where the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries today can be replaced with a Minister for Ice Cream tommorrow — is both staggeringly wasteful and subject to populism. I originally got my ham radio license in 1988 from the “Department of Tourism, Transport, and Communications”, I now get it from the “Department of Communications, Energy & Natural Resources”, with I don't know how many “different” bizarrely-named departments, redesigned logos and letterheads, and civil service reorganizations in between.

For my idea to work, we need some kind of consistent and static — or at least not easily changed — set of ministerial portfolios, fixing ministers' roles and corresponding government departments prior to a general election. I can think of no argument against this other than that it's different from the an existing “system” that has little or nothing to recommend it.

To support this up-front fixing of ministerio-departmental portfolios, amended constitutional provisions are required: either the portfolios must be explicitly enumerated, or any change must be encumbered by requiring a supermajority in both houses, or, even better, some combination. A workable solution might be to fix the size of the cabinet at 15, and stipulate that “there shall be ministries for finance, health, education, and basket-weaving, the names and areas of responsibility of the remaining 9 ministries to be decided by two-thirds majority of both Houses, no changes to take effect until after the following general election”. That immediately does away with the stupid and wasteful gerrymandering of portfolios every year or two.

Having decided the 13 portfolios before the election, the Seanad could be constituted, with its current 60 members, as follows:
  • 11 to be appointed by the Taoiseach, as is currently the case;
  • 10 to be elected by extending the university franchise to all university graduates, an increase of four; and
  • 39 to be elected by general franchise to 13 three-member “benches” (three seats is a bench, right?), each bench directly corresponding to a ministerial portfolio.
The following “qualification rule” shall apply:
  • Candidates for each bench must be formally qualified for that bench; and
  • No candidate shall be a current member of, funded by or on behalf of, nor run under the imprimatur or official endorsement of, any political party.
In addition, three “5 year rules” shall apply:
  • No person, having been a candidate in a non-Seanad political election in the preceding 5 years, may be a senator or a candidate for election or appointment to the Seanad — the “no has-beens” rule; and
  • No person, having been a senator in the last 5 years, may be a candidate in a non-Seanad political election — the “no wannabes” rule.
  • No person, having lost in a Seanad election, may be appointed to the Seanad by the Taoiseach for 5 years — the “no second bite at the cherry” rule.
Now, admittedly, the “formally qualified” rule is a bit tough to nail down — it's easy enough to expect candidates in the “Finance” bench to be accountants or economists, but it's harder to define for, say, “Education”; how would qualification for that be assessed? Is being a schoolteacher enough or would you have to have an Ed.D.? It's a problem, for sure, but not an insurmountable one.

Also, in this context, a “non-Seanad political election” means a general, local, or European election anywhere in Europe. Together, these two rules remove the “wannabes” — cronies appointed to raise their political profile in preparation for running in a general election for the Dáil — and “has-beens” — cronies who just lost their seat in the Dáil (or other political assembly). The extension to Europe as a whole prevents cross-border wannabes and has-beens from the UK Parliament or Northern Ireland Assembly. Although we lack the jurisdiction to prevent a former senator running for the Northern Ireland Assembly, we can disenfranchise and disbar him/her from ever voting or being a candidate in any future election in Ireland if he/she does, or subject him/her to fines or imprisonment.

How about that for accountability? Every minister has 3 senators on his/her ass, permanently. With no way to stack the deck with has-beens and wannabes, even with no increase in power, the new Seanad would raise the standard of political discourse, while being more democratic.

The chief objection I anticipate is that voting for 13 people is too complicated for the average dimwit or that counting the votes would be too time-consuming. Fine, then: let everyone vote for just one bench, or a few benches, of their choice. That way, everyone decides what's important to them, and few people are voting purely for the sake of it on benches they have no knowledge of or don't care about. This would be at least different from the party political voting pattern that characterizes Dáil elections. That doesn't seem like a bad thing to me at all, and having a different second house is the entire point of the bicameral system.

Footnote on the Irish Parliamentary System

In Ireland, the Oireachtas, consists of Uachtarán na hÉireann (President of Ireland), who is directly elected to this largely ceremonial and powerless position; the 60-seat Seanad (Senate), an indirectly elected “upper house” with no real power; and the 166-seat Dáil, (House of Representatives or National Assembly), which effectively holds all legislative and executive power. This power is wielded by a 15-member cabinet (comh-aireacht, a seldom-used word since it is almost never necessary to distinguish between the cabinet and the Government, or Rialtas), elected by the Dáil from amongst their membership, with a seldom-exercised constitutional provision to have up to two seanadóirí (senators).

Constitutionally and practically, the Seanad is almost entirely powerless, apart from a smattering of limited and never-used constitutional functions, such as the impeachment of a judge or the president. The Seanad can amend legislation, but the amendments are more like suggestions: they go back to the Dáil, and if the government of the day doesn't like the amendments, the bill can pass into law without Seanad support after 180 days or less, in the case of financial bills. At worst, the Seanad can delay non-financial legislation by about 9 months.

In practice, once a general election — in which members are elected to the Dáil by general franchise — is over, one of the two large parties (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil), in conjunction with one of the smaller parties or a group of independents, will have a majority in the Dáil, which will “elect” the leaders of those parties to the cabinet, which is the new government. The leader of the largest party will be the new Taoiseach (Prime Minister), the leader of the second largest party (of the coalition making up the cabinet, not the Dáil overall) will be the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), and the cabinet positions — Ministers for Finance, Health, etc. — will be assigned to senior figures in the governing parties according to their relative strengths and the importance of the position. It is usual for the largest party to keep the Ministry for Finance for one of their own, for example.

The Taoiseach, once elected, then appoints 11 people to the Seanad. The original idea was that these would be trusted advisers and experts, but, in practice, they have always been political cronies: has-beens, who just lost their seat in the Dáil, and wannabes, who are hoping for a seat in the Dáil in the future and have been appointed to the Seanad to raise their public profile in preparation for the next general election.

The remaining 49 seanadóirí (senators) consist of 6 elected by graduates of certain Irish universities, and 43 elected from 5 so-called “vocational panels”, which consist of union, local government, and other representatives.