in government, Ireland

Too many bad decisions – why the Seanad matters

The Seanad debate trundles on with discussion of power grabs, costs, referendum powers and so on. What is getting lost is the issue we should all be obsessed with – the consistently bad quality of decisionmaking at the highest levels in Ireland -.

As a nation, we make too many bad decisions. Our political machinery makes these decisions apparently without being fully informed of the full range of options available, or indeed of the consequences of the options chosen. And sometimes we just seem to sleepwalk into these mistakes. The job of a well-formed Seanad should be to awaken us and our politicians from our stupor.

These decisions that we fluff are never simple. They deal with complex technical matters, in fields like engineering, project management, finance and economics. Let’s go through some examples.

– the way we overheated our economy into a massive, international scale crisis, in the years between 2004 and 2008. Brian Cowen’s government seemingly had no idea that the problems the economy faced could be so severe. Bertie Ahern in his interview in 2011 says that no one had foreseen the banking crisis, which is just untrue. What was true was that these national leaders weren’t exposed to any informed debate or opposition on these topics. A little bit of care would have allowed us to moderate the madness just a bit and would have allowed us to shelter regular mortgage holders from an economic disaster.

– the way we signed a blank cheque to deal with the massive crisis that arose. When it became clear that Ireland’s banks were going to run out of credit because of the state of their loan books, the government took a crazy option to deal with the issue. It decided to prop up the banking system, without even consulting with our partners in the euro. This was done in the middle of the night, after extensive lobbying by banks throughout the previous day. The minister of the day is said to have had a paucity of advice from his own officials and had to resort to driving around in the dead of night to get alternative views.

– on a smaller scale (but still pretty big), the purchase of a fundamentally flawed system for electronically collecting and counting votes. It seems like an old nightmare now, but our government, in a fit of madness, decided it would be a good idea to bring in a complicated and unknown technology to re-engineer our voting system. This was despite the fact that there was no fundamental problem whatsoever with our existing system. In the end, an expert commission had to make the decision to recommend scrapping the whole plan, after hundreds of millions of euros had been spent.

There are many more similar problems. Our failure to build an indigenous technology sector; the failure to develop any coherent public transport plan for Dublin; our problems with local government and local planning; the fiasco of the Dublin Incinerator which has cost tens of millions but has little by way of rationale; the waste in our health system, which costs more than any other in Europe, but delivers far less in terms of results; the failure to deliver high speed broadband outside our urban and suburban centres; and many more.

What all of these issues have in common is that they are complicated. They have little enough to do with ideology and party politics. They need consideration and debate. They need expertise and an openness to new ideas which may come from faraway shores. Breadth of thinking, not political thinking, is the key to making the right decision.

That is the gap that the Seanad should fill. It should be a sounding board, an opportunity to investigate things deeper. The purpose of a Seanad would never be to veto or impede the lower House. In this context, I should say that the claim of David Farrell that a more influential second house will create gridlock and logjams is not correct. The reality is that the Seanad cannot under our constitution delay any urgent and immediate legislative measure, and that is how it should be. Farrell’s mistake is to think that in order for the Senate to have influence, that it needs direct political power. That is just not true.

There are a number of peculiar issues about Irish democracy that make a Seanad a good idea, at least in the short- to medium-term. The biggest and most concrete of these is the lack of a strong system of local democracy. Local democracy is the norm in the unicameral systems that the proponents of abolition refer to. This is how ordinary people relate to the political system. In Ireland, the role of local government is mostly taken up by TDs, because the local council representatives just have too little power and influence. Whether this is good or bad is another matter, but it is our reality. The Seanad has the potential to be a counterweight, focused on national, rather than local issues. (Other problems of our system that lend themselves to a resolution through the Seanad are the representation of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland; and the representation of our emigrant community abroad)

I would hasten to say that the current Seanad system has failed us. It is no shining tower of rectitude. Where it has worked, it has been through bringing in outsiders who would normally not be in the political system, whether that is through the Taoiseach’s nomination or through the university panel. However the general run of the Seanad has not added much to the Irish Life, and the panel system of politicians voting other politicians into cushy jobs certainly needs to be abolished, and the sooner, the better.

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