21 March 2009

It happened on the Late Late Show

There occurred last night a most unusual and singular event; in these troubling economic times my pursuit of value for money has extended all the way through to my televisual habits, and after parting with 160 of my hard earned euros to purchase yet another year's television and radio license I felt compelled to try and get even a fraction of my money's worth through the viewing of either RTE One or Two. This was not as easy as you might suspect, for although The Very Understanding Girlfriend might watch the occasional episode of ER (pronounced, for the benefit of our American friends, like Winnie The Poo's donkey friend), this in and of itself is not enough to justify the full extent of the license fee given that a DVD box set of any given series costs less that €15 on Amazon. Thus it was with some surprise that I found myself tuning into Pat Kenny last night to try and watch a bit of his expose of the appendix-like organ of the Oireachtas that is the Seanad.

With a panel that consisted of Fianna Fáil’s Donie Cassidy, Labour's Alex White and Trinity Independent David Norris, and numerous senators in the audience (though none from Fine Gael, who pulled their participation in a spat with RTE), the heated conversation attempted to explain the function of the Seanad and examine the question of reform.

It was painful viewing indeed.

The Seanad exists as either a springboard for potential TDs, a retirement home for old TDs, or a safety net for TDs that lost their seat but hope to get it back in the next election. This was obvious from the make up of the panel, with Alex White (Labour's candidate for the late Tony Gregory's Dail seat) and the absent Fine Gael members (RTE's choice of Fidelma Healy-Eames, failed Dail candidate for Galway or party choice Paschal Donohoe, Dail candidate in the Dublin central byelection) and the audience contained many more Dail hopefuls, and at least one European Parliament hopeful, Green MEP candidate Deirdre de Burca. The Seanad is a little more than a tax-payer funded waiting room, holding politicians on their way to somewhere else, or for the more sports-minded amongst you, the Seanad is the substitute bench of the Oireachtas, a way of keeping party hopefuls warm until the day comes that they are called onto the field of dreams that is the Dail.

When challenged to justify the existence of the Seanad, none of the sitting senators could. They almost invariably, with the noticeable exception of Alex White, could only speak in terms of what they personally had done for their imaginary constituents, using the airtime as stump speech for any future election they might be standing in. There was no attempt at consensus on its collective value, only a justification of the presence of any given individual in it by that individual. It was a shameful display of 'me fein' politics at its worse, and was perhaps the single biggest display of the urgent need for reform since the debacle in December when the government parties lost a vote because their Senators couldn't be bothered to turn up and do the one thing they are actually paid to do.

The point was made that for a country with a population the size of Manchester we are vastly overrepresented in our parliament. The Oireachtas consists of 166 elected TDs representing a population of just over four million (4,239,848 in the 2006 census), which equates to 1 TD for every 25.5K citizens, and 60 Senators in the Seanad, eleven of whom are directly selected by the Taoiseach, 43 by panels supposedly representing different sectors of Irish industry, agriculture and commerce, but effectively allocated along party lines in proportion to the composition of the Dail, and six elected by the good and honest graduates of TCD and the NUI.

The UK in comparison has a population of around 60 million and 646 MPs, a ratio of 1 MP for every 91,000 citizens. The US has a population of around 300 million and 535 Congressmen (plus 5 non-voting delegates) and 100 senators, for a total ratio of 443,000 citizens per elected national representative. I've put together a table below with this and data from France and Germany:

A TD's salary starts at €95,363, with most averaging €122,000. An Irish Senator's basic salary starts at €70,134. The current base pay for a UK MP is £63,291, just over €67,500, or 70% of what an Irish TD gets. A US Senator or member of Congress gets paid $174,000, or around €128,000, which is on par with the average TD's salary, but each represents 17 times more constituents than their Irish counterpart.

The simple fact is that we are overrepresented in this country, and our representatives are overpaid for the work they are doing. Fine Gael have proposed reform in the Oireachtas, but do not go far enough. While the small ratio of citizens to TDs should create a more participatory democracy where representatives are more approachable and citizens feel closer to them, the dynastic nature of Irish politics means that many TDs invariable only represent the business interests of their own extended family and its supporters. The unelected nature of all but six members of the Seanad and the manner in which seats are distributed in proportion to the composition of parties in the Dail means that as an effective upper house of parliament the Seanad is moot, a talking shop that exists only to rubber stamp legislation with almost no actual power, albeit one that costs the taxpayer each year over €4 million in basic salaries alone.

While it could be argued that the composition of the Seanad is effectively a method of introducing Party-list proportional representation, akin to systems of France, Spain and other European countries, the fact that the majority of Senators are in reality not accountable to any constituency other than their party (despite protestations by individual Senators on last night's Late Late show to the contrary), means that it remains an unrepresentative quango of the highest order. Direct election by the citizenry is the only adequate form of reform for the Seanad save outright abolition.

While last night's embarrassing performance by the members of the Seanad may not have justified their own existence, it almost justified my license fee. That and "ER" and "Lost"* on Sundays.

* yes, I know "Lost" is on at the same time on Sky 1, but I don't think I can stand to see the sight of Iggy Pop's scrawny drug-addled and plasticated body pimping car insurance before and after each and every ad break. Even fast-forwarding through a recorded version makes me feel queasy.

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At 4:38 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

might give you an idea of where ireland stands with other 'corrupt' governments...


At 5:16 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

4th highest paid in the world, still a bit of room for improvement there. Even today's announce cut in junior ministers won't help Biffo get to number 1, that's going to take something a bit more imaginative.


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