Abolition of the Seanad ignores Ireland’s need for democratic renewal…

Vincent Browne gets all academic today on the subject of the poor state of Irish democracy:

We now have a form of representative democracy whereby almost the sole independent function of our elected representatives is to choose a Taoiseach, after which the government formed by the Taoiseach is effectively immune from accountability during its period in office. A government that regards election promises as disposable at will. Is it tolerable that the people are denied, effectively, any means of changing that?

He’s mostly concerned about mumblings amongst the political elite about curtailing the Irish habit of referring to direct democracy for every treaty change regarding its membership of the EU..

But there’s been a much more interesting debate going on about the weakness in Ireland’s representative model, and the current government’s rather impetuous decision to abolish the Seanad.

Now, no one reckons the current model of the Seanad is fit for purpose. Not least those who want to retain it. It’s only house of the Oireachtas in which citizens overseas can vote. Though you can only do that if you are a graduate of TCD or the National University.

Thus a feverish campaign to save it, and a late coming onside of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. The debate has been all the better for the fact the Taoiseach’s referendum isn’t until the autumn.

So it is proving something of assay of the utter powerlessness of most chambers beyond those in the executive arm of government.

I want to come back this over the next few weeks, but I’ll start with Derek Mooney’s column in the Evening Herald last week, which shows what the country would be left with if Leinster House went Unicameral:

Over the past few weeks and months a number of Fine Gael TDs have been claiming that Ireland does not need a Seanad or second parliamentary chamber based on its size. They have been particularly eager to draw comparisons with a number of the Nordic countries, pointing out that they only have one Chamber and that their average number of national parliamentarians is 160.

The problem with this comparison, though, is that it just paints half the picture.

While countries like Norway, Finland and Denmark do not have an upper house of parliament, i.e. no Senate, they do have far more powerful, advanced and resourced systems of local government.

The statistics country by country are quite impressive:

Denmark has 98 local authorities and 2,500 local Councillors.
Finland has 304 local authorities and just under 10,000 local Councillors.
Norway has 423 local authorities and 12,000 local Councillors.
By contrast, after the changes introduced by this government:

Ireland will have 31 local authorities and 949 Councillors..

He goes on to quote from Niels Pultz, the Danish Ambassador to Ireland, who notes that in Denmark, local authorities have real power and serious money…

…issues of importance to the daily life of citizens are best taken care of at the local level. That goes for primary and secondary education, social services, health, child care, local roads, water and waste management.

While the parliament passes the laws in these areas it is the local authorities that have the responsibility to deliver. Therefore, the municipalities collect their own taxes in order to provide for these services. This takes place within an overall framework agreed between the national government and the federation of municipalities.

It is well known that taxes in Denmark are high – about 48pc of GDP. It is perhaps less well known that the municipalities take more than 50pc of that cake in order to be able to provide for their services!

In a #digitallunch session we had before Christmas Colin McGovern notes (starting here) just how bottom democratic power is in the Netherlands…

Direct democracy is the least effective tool any country (let’s call them neverendums) has in calling politicians to account. But it is often pushed as part of an anti politics agenda.

Cutting numbers is not a bad thing in itself, but when accountability and poor opposition is the prime weakness of the system, just loping off the upper is not in anyone’s interest.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty