Ireland just doesn’t need two chambers

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Minister Varadkar explains why the Seanad should be abolished in this short video.

And this article by Minister Varadkar was published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday 22nd September 2013.

Fine Gael campaigned in the last election on the basis of a Five Point Plan which was put before the people. This plan set out to restore the public finances without increasing income taxes; using the National Pension Reserve Fund and money from the sale of State assets to build infrastructure and create jobs (NewERA); making the first steps towards universal health care (FairCare); creating a modern and less costly public sector; and reforming our political system (New Politics).

When the people elected a Fine Gael-Labour coalition Government, our two parties drafted a Programme for Government which was drawn on the Five Point Plan, along with Labour’s own manifesto. Both sides had to make some compromises.

Progress in some areas has been slower than we had hoped or expected. But by and large we are honouring the promise of the Five Point Plan. The Troika agreement has been renegotiated and in the next few months, the Troika should be gone altogether. The Haddington Road Agreement has replaced the Croke Park Agreement. The budget deficit is narrowing without having to resort to higher income tax. As we envisaged, the new stimulus plan is being funded by the Pension Fund and the sale of State assets, and more people now have medical cards than ever before.

However, much of the public interest at the last election was focused on the New Politics element. A great deal has already been implemented, but even though it hasn’t got due recognition, we have achieved a considerable amount.

To name a few of these achievements: the cost of politics has been reduced considerably by cutting the pay of politicians. Enda Kenny now earns half of what Bertie Ahern did.

Parliamentary allowances for politicians have been cut and expenses are now vouched. We got rid of State cars for all but four Cabinet members. There are fewer ministers, fewer Oireachtas committees, and soon there will be fewer TDs. We have considerably reduced use of the government jet. Gender quotas for political candidates are on the way.

What is effectively a ban on corporate donations is now in place. Legislation is in train to register and regulate lobbying, protect whistle-blowers and restore key elements of the Freedom of Information Act – an Act which was filleted by Fianna Fáil.

Dozens of quangos have been merged or abolished. Appointments to State boards are advertised and new Chairpersons are now vetted by an Oireachtas Committee before their appointment by government. A Constitutional Convention has been established to review the 1937 Constitution and many of its recommendations will be put to referendum next year.

The Dáil is now a much better legislative chamber, infused with many new, talented TDs. It sits for more days and for longer hours, and dedicated time is set aside for Private Members’ Bills. Many Bills are now being dealt with by committees at an early stage – known as the ‘Heads of Bill’ stage – so that Oireachtas members, experts and interest groups can give their views before the Bill has even been drafted. Ministers must be present for topical issue debates and backbench TDs are now much more active at question time, a slot which used to be the preserve of party spokespersons.

Local Government is also being transformed. The town councils will go next year and other local authorities will be merged. There will be many fewer councillors but they will have more power, gaining new functions when it comes to enterprise, rural transport and ports, for example.

Crucially, local councils can now raise more of their own resources through the Local Property Tax. Rather than seeking grants from central government, they will be able to decide how much money they want to raise and how they will spend it. This will come as a major culture shock to many councillors but I believe that most, especially the new generation, will embrace it. A plebiscite will also be held next year when voters in Dublin will decide if they want a directly elected Mayor for Dublin.

The next big step in the New Politics programme is the abolition of the Seanad. This was in our manifesto and we promised to do it. Sometimes, in politics, you cannot keep your promises. Facts change or circumstances change or you cannot get agreement from your coalition partners. But this is a promise we can keep and we mean to.

Abolishing the Seanad would reduce the number of national politicians by 30%. It would bring us into line with countries like Norway, Finland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Israel, Hungary, Portugal and New Zealand, which all manage well with one chamber. A small, modern democracy like Ireland does not need two chambers in its parliament.

Some people argue that we should have a reformed Seanad, but that will never happen in a meaningful way. Over 30 years ago a referendum was passed to reform the entitlement to vote for the university seats, but it was never implemented.

Since then there have been 15 reports on reforming the Seanad. None has been implemented. Meaningful reform will not happen for a very simple reason – there is no consensus in favour of the new model for the Seanad.

Some want direct elections. Others do not, pointing out that an elected Seanad would replicate the Dáil and end up in conflict with it, causing legislative gridlock as often happens in the US, Japan and Italy. Some want a Seanad that is a sort of citizens’ assembly, with quotas for all sorts of groups and sub-groups, where the quota would be more important than the talents, experience and abilities of individual candidates.

Others want a 1930s style corporatist Seanad made up of representatives from industry, trades union, NGOs and professions – as originally envisioned by De Valera – or an elitist Seanad, made of up of the great and good but unelectable.

Still more propose the ‘buffet option’, with an electoral process that involves a bit of everything on offer. Those who call for reform should be challenged to explain how their model would improve our democracy and to demonstrate that they have sufficient public support for it to get it through the necessary referendum.

The Government’s view is simple: we do not need a Seanad at all. We do not need more politicians. We do need a reformed Dáil and we are committed to building upon the changes already introduced by strengthening Oireachtas committees, giving TDs a stronger role in the legislative process and making the Government much more accountable. The Government is supposed to be accountable to the Dáil. Too often, it dominates the Dáil and that needs to change.

The Seanad referendum will not be easily won. This Government has already lost one referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries. We can take nothing for granted. Our opponents will try to make it about the Government, or will make all sorts of promises about a reformed Seanad that they cannot honour.

Our message must be simple: we are a small country. We need fewer politicians and a political system that costs us less. We need a reformed Dáil and greater local government.

However, a defeat in the Seanad referendum would halt the momentum of political reform. Some Oireachtas members would take the view that little or no credit has been received for reforms introduced to date, so why bother with any more? I do not agree with that viewpoint, but it could arise.

A strong YES vote in favour of abolition will demonstrate that the people are behind New Politics and want us to press on. It will spur the Government to continue with these Dáil reforms, to embrace more of the Constitutional Convention’s recommendations and empower local government even more.