Unicameralism

Learned a new word today.  It looks like it has something to do with photography, but actually means the practise of being governed by just the one legislative chamber.

I had intended to kick off my new blog with a series of posts outlining my general outlook on the subject of government, but not surprisingly there’s actual stuff going on which I can’t ignore, and in many ways by discussing them I will probably give a sense of my overall outlook anyway.

First up we have a referendum here in Ireland this coming Friday.  If the vote is Yes, then there will no longer be a Seanad (Irish for Senate) after the next general election.

I have to say, the way this campaign is being presented to the people truly scares me.

Overall, I try to hold back when it comes to criticising this Fine Gael/Labour coalition.  There’s no need for me to, since everybody else does it anyway.  Because it represents the coming together of two parties from opposite ends of the so-called “spectrum”, the fact that they need to compromise in order to co-exist means that nobody is ever going to be totally happy with the stuff they come up with.  Austerity measures too tough means Labour have sold out.  Abortion legislation means Fine Gael have sold out. 

Despite the fact that most of the people making these claims are well educated grown-ups who know full well about the parties’ need to give and take on different issues, they still put it to the public in the darkest, most simplistic terms.

The same goes with this referendum.

The Seanad as it exists in Ireland today is beyond a joke.  There is no question something needs to be done.  Basically it’s a halfway house for politicians who lose their Dáil seats yet still want to keep up their continuous Oireachtas service and thus qualify for a nice fat pension.  Time after time I am amazed how everyone accepts it when a particular politician fails to get elected yet miraculously winds up in the Senate.  Mary O’Rourke and Ivana Bacik are just two examples of this from recent times.  I have nothing fundamentally against any of them, but it seems to make the most basic of common sense that if they lost an election then they shouldn’t receive payment for a representative position.

Having said that, I am totally in favour of having two legislative bodies.  “Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely” is an expression which rings true.  Leaving the responsibility of law-making to just the one chamber which is under Government control is a dangerous thing.  That doesn’t mean I have no trust in Government.  There needs to be one, and they have a serious job to do. 

But when they propose new legislation, if there is just the one chamber to examine and debate it, it could pass into law without proper scrutiny, and having it passed on to a Senate at least allows for this.

Does that mean this is what happens now?  Of course not.  As many as ELEVEN of the senators are appointed by the Taoiseach himself, and that’s more than enough to ensure that they are never going to even put an amber light up on his plans, let alone a red.

So if they’re so useless, why don’t we just get rid of them?  In this time of austerity, surely we’d save the exchequer a fortune?

I have another quote with the word “absolute”, and although it may carry less credibility given the source, I believe it works in this case.  In the third “prequel” of the Star Wars saga Revenge of the Sith, during the final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin/Darth Vader,  the latter says to his former master : “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”, to which Ewan McGregor replies : “Only the Sith deals in absolutes”.

In other words, when someone brings an argument to its furthest extremes, there must surely be something sinister at play.  Let’s have a look at how the government are putting forward this referendum.

“Abolish The Seanad” – “Fewer Politicians” – “Save The Country A Fortune”, all themes used to make it sound like a no-brainer.  Only that’s what it would be, but not in a good way.

Why oh why oh why are we presented with only two alternatives?  Abolish it altogether or continue as we are?  Apparently if a “No” vote is passed there are TDs like Shane Ross with legislation ready to put to the house that deals with reform, but we’re hearing feck all about it.  If there’s any decision that seems like a “no-brainer” to me, it would be that of reforming the system.

For example…one of the Government’s assertions is that abolition means we save money.  There are currently 166 TDs and 60 senators.  Instead of abolishing the Seanad altogether, why don’t we make that 166 figure represent the Dail PLUS the Seanad?  Maybe 140 TDs and 26 senators, one elected from each county?  That’s just a suggestion – there could be countless others.  But they are not being allowed into the debate.  Since it is a referendum, the only options we have are “Yes” and “No”.  And the media will be willing participants in this illusion…they love nothing more than two distinct sides to represent.

Abolishing the Senate would leave the next Government of this country in pretty much absolute power.  Sure, the “checking and balancing” will be done by committees, but these will either be made up of TDs (with a composition leaning towards the cabinet) or worse, unelected appointees.  So effectively the committee structure will become a less accountable reincarnation of the Senate.  No thank you.

We should be debating reform not abolition, and it’s not even up for debate.  In fact, nothing is, as the Taoiseach won’t debate.  And the scariest thing of all is that their “absolute” strategy seems to be working.  Paddy Power have a Yes vote as a virtual certainty at 1/4, and all with a turnout around the woeful 38% mark.

I see two frightening scenarios down the line after a Yes vote…one where this same Fine Gael/Labour government is retained at the next general election, and although they will probably find their majority slashed because of austerity and what-not, their effective power will remain the same as they can get “stuff” done more quickly.

Alternatively we have what I consider to be the real doomsday scenario whereby the Kenny/Gilmore gambit doesn’t pay off and Fianna Fáil find themselves in power once again, albeit with a splintered coalition of independents and yes, even Sinn Féin.  And I have a funny feeling that in this case, even though Micheál Martin is in the “No” camp in this referendum campaign, he wouldn’t exactly complain about being Taoiseach without a pesky Senate being a fly in his ointment.

We need to get our houses in order, and abolishing one will not do that.  I am ABSOLUTELY voting No. JLP

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