by Richard Bruton TD—Minister for Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation
Why does a small country like Ireland have so many politicians? Even after current measures to cut the number of TDs are taken into account, Ireland will still have 218 national politicians. The average in countries with similar populations, like New Zealand, Denmark, Finland and Norway is around 160. Why? The answer is simple: none of these countries has a second chamber of parliament.
In October, you will be given an opportunity to have your say on whether Ireland needs two chambers of parliament when the Government holds a referendum to abolish the Seanad. According to the Houses of the Oireachtas, it costs about €20 million a year to run the Seanad. So abolishing it could save the State €100 million over the lifetime of one Dáil term. I think this money could be much better spent on public services like hospitals and schools. And at a time when all citizens are being asked to make sacrifices I think it s only right that politicians make sacrifices too.
It’s been agreed for years that the Seanad is completely dysfunctional. It is totally undemocratic; in fact just 1% of the population voted to elect the current Seanad, and just over 3% of the population are entitled to vote in Seanad elections in the first place. The Seanad electorate consists of graduates from Trinity College and the NUI, and existing politicians. Most of those who are successfully selected to sit in the Seanad are former politicians of one variety or another. And on top of this, the Taoiseach of the day can nominate 11 people of his own choosing to the Seanad, a move which usually guarantees a Government majority.
Ireland is the only small country in Europe to have a second chamber. All of the Scandinavian countries, which are considered to have some of the most accountable political systems in the world, have abolished their second chambers. And if a second house is essential to democracy, as some would maintain, why is is that so many new Eastern European states emerging from dictatorship decided that they do not need one?
So what role does the Seanad actually play in our parliamentary democracy? The last time the Seanad rejected a piece of legislation was 50 years ago. Most of the time, it just rubber stamps measures which have already passed through the Dáil. Defenders of the Seanad argue that is is a necessary part of the system of checks and balances within the Irish political system. But when in the last 75 years did the second house act as an effective block on any Government action? The answer is never.
I fundamentally believe that a reformed Dáil can and should perform all of the roles of the Seanad more effectively, saving tens of millions of euro in the process. In tandem with the referendum on the future of the Seanad, the Government is radically overhauling the committee system to make it more independent and to allow external experts to be put centre stage. Changes will be made to the way draft laws are considered to allow for closer scrutiny of key legislation.
We’ve already taken steps to increase female representation in the Dáil, cut the overall number of TDs, eliminate corporate donations and make lobbying more transparent. Other planned reforms will be published shortly.
I believe that the Seanad is a luxury the political system can no longer afford. And I believe a reformed Dáil can deliver accountable government at a reduced cost with fewer but more effective politicians, just like every other small country in Europe. If you agree then I urge you to vote Yes to abolish the Seanad.
Minister Bruton is Fine Gael’s Director of Elections for the Referendum to abolish the Seanad.