Irish voters keep bicameralism

In a referendum, Irish voters have chosen to retain their second chamber, the Seanad. The vote was 51.7%-48.3%.

Some comments about this result have already appeared at the thread on “Shutdowns elsewhere?“. I agree with JD’s observation:

I don’t understand how an upper house which has no power at all over money bills, can delay other legislation for no more than nine months and whose membership includes almost 20% appointed by the prime minister, can be seen as a check on government power…

Readers interested in background (and, presumably in the days ahead, post-mortems and “where do we from from here?”) will want to check out The Irish Politics Forum.

31 thoughts on “Irish voters keep bicameralism

  1. The Senate (as it was then known) was originally created to offer an opportunity for over representation if the Unionist minority in the then Free State, which outside if a few scattered areas was spread too thinly to hope to secure significant Dáil representation.
    A hangover of this, the University senators, allowed a minimal liberal representation in the Oireachtas during more conservative eras. Governments have also used the nomination power to provide token but not insignificant opportunities for Irish people from outside the Republic to have a voice in the legslature.
    I’m not trying to say that the Seanad is a satisfactory institution-had I been in Ireland I would have been in two minds about the issue, but with all due respect to JD the significance of the Seanad goes a little deeper than simply saying “can’t vote down money bills, delete”


  2. I must confess that my knowledge of the Seanad’s operation and influence in practice is limited – I was merely pointing out its constitutional powers, with which I am much better acquainted.


  3. @JD, Constitutionally speaking your description wouldn’t be all that bad if it was applied to the British House of Lords, which can sometimes at least point out major flaws in the government if not hold it to account. The difference between the Irish and British houses is the political cajones enjoyed by its membership. Irish senators are dependent on political patronage, British peers aren’t once they have their seats.


  4. Alan @16 on the other thread: “There are no obvious subnational units that could be used for an equal representation upper house.”

    Well, I wouldn’t say “equal” but the four ancient kingdoms are near enough in population that you could allocate each between 5 and 10 seats to elect by STV at each election, for a total of two classes of around 30 Senators each.

    (Unfortunately about 90% of Ulster’s population lives outside the Republic, in Northern Ireland. While the Republic is, like Italy, fairly generous in representing its overseas diaspora, offering Senate representation to the North might be viewed in some quarters as a breach of the spirit of the Good Friday Accord, wherein the Republic promised to repeal those articles of its Constitution claiming sovereignty over the North. Having said that, allowing all Ulsterpersons to vote would certainly fix any perceived under-representation of Protestants in the Oireachtas… But if only those Ulster counties within the Republic are counted, they would be scraping to warrant even one seat out of 30.)

    One earlier reform proposal suggested that half the Senate be elected concurrently with the Dáil and the other half with local councils, both having 5-year terms. I don’t think, though, that 10-year terms would go well for an elective chamber. NSW changed from three classes of MLCs to two in 1991, shortly after the 1984 change from 3- to 4-year terms for the lower house briefly increased the upper house’s term from 9 years to 12. And France has reduced the Senate’s term from 9 years to 6 recently.

    A compromise might be, say, 8-year terms, with about 30 members retiring on 1 July every 4th year, and the actual poll being held:

    (a) if a Dáil election, presidential election, or local election day occurs between [say] 1 September of the preceding year and [say] 1 May in the changeover year – a “half-Seanad” election is held concurrently with that election (or with the first of them if two or more); or

    (b) if none of those elections occurs within that window of time – a separate “half-Seanad” poll is held on its own.


  5. Mark Roth: “Constitutionally speaking your description wouldn’t be all that bad if it was applied to the British House of Lords” I’m not sure what you mean…

    Either way, I think upper houses should have real powers, otherwise bicameralism becomes rather meaningless. Specifically, a suspensive veto like Ireland’s (and the House of Lords, and many other upper houses in Europe) are inadequate because it means the government can always get its way in the end, with the upper house providing no real checks and balances.


  6. Mark @5: Even worse, the existence of a pseudo-check gives spurious legitimacy to government proposals that were not scrutinised fully, or at all. (“This has passed BOTH Houses of Parliament! AND been signed into law by the Governor-General!”).

    It’s like pointing out that “The Supreme Court has upheld this as constitutional!” which means little if the Constitution does little to protect rights or other fundamental liberal democratic values, or if procedural hurdles (“you don’t have standing”, “you’re too early” in an Anglo-American legal system, “you’re too late” in a French-inspired one) mean the court can’t or won’t address the substantive merits of the issue.


  7. My proposal for a reformed Seanad:
    Composition (mainly based on the proposals of the most recent report):
    30 directly elected
    24 indirectly elected (as now, though perhaps with abolition of the panels)
    6 elected by graduates of all universities
    all of the above would be elected for a term of two parliaments, with half elected at each Dail election (15, 12 and 3).
    5 members appointed by the President (or perhaps still by the Taoiseach) with a specific requirement to represent N. Ireland or Irish diaspora, with 1-parliament term.

    money bills: as now
    other bills: in case of disagreement, conference committee, with ultimately a possibility of joint sitting under restrictive time conditions based on the current delay power provision.


  8. I never understood how non-federal countries legitimise “equal” representation of administrative units in their upper house.


    • Bicameralism is not strictly necessary for a federation.
      Instead you could give the less-populous member States greater weighting in a single chamber (like the Bundesrat, the European Parliament, or the US Electoral College)
      Or you could require a double majority of the votes, as many federal-level trade unions do in Australia: a majority of delegates voting and a certain number (not necessarily a majority) of State delegations.
      You could combine the latter with a quorum, eg
      “A motion/ Bill is passed if, and only if,
      (a) more delegates vote for it than against it; and
      (b) at least 40% of all delegates vote for it, and
      (c) at least 40% of the States vote for it.
      “A State is deemed to vote for a motion if, and only if, at least ten (or all, whichever is less) of the delegates from that State vote for it.”


      • “Bicameralism is not strictly necessary for a federation.”

        I agree. The definition I use does not require it; however, the only exceptions that I know of to the empirical relationship of all federal systems being bicameral are minor ones (Venezuela, only since the Chavista constitution) and Micronesia (emphasis on the “micro-“). Of course, many non-federal systems are bicameral, and a few federal systems have second chambers that are either weak or do not offer any significant over-representation to smaller federal units.


  9. @5 and @6, What I meant was that the description provided for Ireland’s Senate could apply to the House of Lords, but that the House of Lords seems, at least to me, willing to use its powers a bit more.

    I personally favor bicameralism as well, if one is going to have two houses they should be both equal or nearly equal say in legislation; though not so much on who gets to form the government.

    I also wonder at the logic that a reformed Senate, or any upper house, would need to provide equal representation to non-federal entities.


  10. New Zealand at one time had a Senate, and it was abolished. That was done by ordinary legislation. One wonders if that abolition had been put to a referendum, would it had passed?

    Now that the Irish voters have spoken, and they don’t want the Seanad to be abolish, then it they must want it to be reformed. How would it be reformed?

    One idea is that instead of making the Seanad completely elected, why not using sorition (randomly choosing citizens to serve as in Jury Duty) to choose members of the Seanad?


  11. Mark @9 what’s your take on giving the upper house (the house were the government isn’t formed) the power to block supply?


  12. @10, I believe that the government that abolished the Legislative Council won an election with that as part of their manifesto. While I doubt many New Zealanders specifically voted on abolition, I would not have been surprised if a referendum had carried. I am fairly confident in saying that neither an ordinary bill nor a referendum would pass today for reopening the upper house.

    @11, I am of two minds about that.

    Part of me feels that, in an ideal system, the upper house wouldn’t technically be a part of the parliament. Parliament would consist of a directly elected president and a directly elected, proportional house. The upper house would need to consent to an Act of Parliament for that Act to change the law of the land. The budget wouldn’t technically be a law and wouldn’t need consent–it would merely be paying for things already approved of in law.

    On the other hand, I can see good reason for a government to be blocked from implementing its program through the budget when it can’t get something done as ordinary law. Therefore, I see good reason to letting an upper house block supply and then, if supply cannot be agreed to in at last a provisional form, forcing an election. The problem is, of course, that an ideal system would grind to a halt when a minority decides to totally gum up the system.


  13. @12 It’s hard to find a Senate that as in the famous Swedish Lagom that maintains the right balance, different from the lower house, but not the same as the lower house.

    Australia seems to have found the right balance for it’s Senate.

    I think PR for the lower house, and a majoritarian system for the upper could work along with elections for both to be held at the same time, no staggered elections for the upper house. This is what is done in Poland.

    If there is staggered elections, it might be wise to have a Senate that is half elected but elections tied to the lower house, and the other half to be appointed by states if a federal state, but the whole Senate is apportion by population.

    Pertaining to Supply and Money bills, it may be better to have a joint sitting if such bills can’t pass the Senate after a minimum period of time. This is what done in India with the speaker of the house having the final word. It might be wise to make the President have discretion in this circumstance.

    One does not want every proposal to pass into law. That is why there are checks and balances, but sometimes one wonders if bad laws pass, and good ones are never get through because of all the barriers.

    Why not have a referendum and initiative process, it goes through the Senate, if the Senate does nothing, the bill does not go to a referendum, if the Senate likes the proposal, then it goes to a referendum unchanged, it can propose a counter initiative and that would be on the ballot instead of the initiative.


    • I have never been convinced by the argument (famously put by Abbe Sieyes) that a second elective chamber is “superfluous if it agrees, and undemocratic if it disagrees” with the elected Lower House.
      Those who make this argument often also point out “there is no single agreed ‘best’ electoral system.”
      And others (eg, famously Enoch Powell) say there is no justification for an Upper House in a unitary nation.
      Very well then: Have one chamber tell us who of the two largest parties a simple majority of voters, counted per capita, want to govern. (“Simple majority” = try to assemble an absolute majority if you can, but if none is agreed within a reasonable time, a simple plurality will do). And another chamber tells us which parties are the first preference of overwhelming majority of voters, for legislative review and revision. If the nation is a federation, the latter could be weighted to count the first preferences on a per-State basis as well as, or instead of, a per-capita basis
      Even if you use the same electoral system (eg, List-PR, STV, first-past-the-post) you can have a smaller district magnitude for the Lower House and a larger district magnitude for the Upper. Ireland, for example, could use three-seaters for the Dáil and nine-seaters for the Seanad.
      Also, there are degrees on a spectrum between supine ratification at one extreme and government-shutdown-level obstruction on the other. An Upper House can be given power to revise legislation, and incorporate concerns raised by minor parties, without the capacity to veto it indefinitely. The balance here can be affected by institutional features such as…
      (a) how long the Upper House can block legislative proposals from the Lower House (the answer in most democracies varying between “forever” for the American Senate and “six months” for its Irish counterpart
      (b) what percentage of the Upper House is needed to block the Lower, and what percentage of the lower house is sufficient to override the Upper (normally the answer is 50% in both cases, but one can experiment with supermajorities such as “60% of the US Senate” under the filibuster rule and “two-thirds of the Japanese House of Representatives”
      (c) whether the Lower House can override the upper simply by effluxion of time a.k.a “waiting out the clock,” or whether it may or must resort to some other device such as a referendum, a fresh general election, or a joint sitting, or some combination of these (as found in Ireland, India, Australia, etc).


  14. Constitution of India

    109 Special procedure in respect of Money Bills

    (1) A Money Bill shall not be introduced in the Council of States.

    (2) After a Money Bill has been passed by the House of the People it shall be transmitted to the Council of States for its recommendations and the Council of States shall within a period of fourteen days from the date of its receipt of the Bill return the Bill to the House of the People with its recommendations and the House of the People may thereupon either accept or reject all or any of the recommendations of the Council of States.

    (3) If the House of the People accepts any of the recommendations of the Council of States, the Money Bill shall be deemed to have been passed by both Houses with the amendments recommended by the Council of States and accepted by the House of the People.

    (4) If the House of the People does not accept any of the recommendations of the Council of States, the Money Bill shall be deemed to have been passed by both Houses in the form in which it was passed by the House of the People without any of the amendments recommended by the Council of States.

    (5) If a Money Bill passed by the House of the People and transmitted to the Council of States for its recommendations is not returned to the House of the People within the said period of fourteen days, it shall be deemed to have been passed by both Houses at the expiration of the said period in the form in which it was passed by the House of the People.


  15. I have not done a count but I would be astonished if the vast majority of parliamentary systems do not strictly limit the second chambers powers over money bills.

    There seems to be some theory of a golden age when the executive was uninvolved in the budget and the two houses of universally bicameral parliaments lived a Puff the Magic Dragon idyll of unrestricted fiscal freedom.

    Like most idylls, it never actually happened. The executive, in both its royal and ministerial phases, has always held close control over money bills in the UK parliament. Backbench members of the house of commons are essentially forbidden by standing order from moving amendments to money bills.

    I doubt there was ever a stage in the US when the president did not send a budget to congress for its consideration.

    If the upper house has power to delay or reject the budget or supply they have power to shut down the government.

    The issue is not to find a way back to Puff and his fiscal practices or how to process a money bill. The issue is whether a system that permits government shutdown can ever be good institutional design.


  16. @16, the U.S., as would most presidential systems, does not require that the executive and the lower house agree on much of anything. Also, in many ways the U.S. Senate functions like the lower houses in other nations: it has more powers than the other house, its members are more visible than the members of the other house, it is far more likely for a Senator to jump to the presidency than for a Congressman, etc. While a completely different monster entirely, the only vote that a Cabinet Secretary receives to take office is from the Senate.


  17. A more important distinction between the senate and the house in the US may be that the senatorial electoral districts, the states, do not advantage the Republicans or particular tendencies within the Republicans.

    The suicide caucus in the house represent districts that are markedly whiter and markedly more conservative than Republican districts in general or house districts in general. Even if the Republican party as a whole takes a hit to its electoral standings, the suicide caucus will very likely get an improvement in their individual standings within their own districts. You’d have to question if a PR house would behave in the same way.


  18. @10 and @12, the Queensland Legislative Council, was abolished by ordinary Act of Parliament in 1922 after the then Labor Government persuaded the Acting Governor (a Labor MLC, the Council’s presiding officer) to appoint a “suicide squad” of MLCs who promptly voted for their own chamber’s abolition.

    Not only was the abolition not approved by referendum, but a referendum on the topic five years earlier had seen 60% of the votes cast favour the continuation of the Council. Despite this, attempts to have the Monarch disallow the abolition Act were unsuccessful. The then Colonial Secretary, one Winston S Churchill, concluded that it was a local matter and there was no strong sentiment against the move in Queensland.

    A similar abolition attempt by the NSW Labor Government failed when its own suicide squad of MLCs went Bill Hayden on their nominators and decided that the institution they’d been appointed to wasn’t so bad after all.

    I am in two minds about the abolition of the Queensland Upper House (speaking as someone who once drafted a mode Bill to restore it… the federal Parliamentary Library requested a copy but I can’t find it online). A unicameral chamber elected from malapportioned and gerrymandered SMDs is clearly undesirable. (The Queensland Legislative Assembly electoral system is like one of those hotel showers that swings from scalding to freezing whenever you touch the tap… it seems to produce either wipe-out landslides or hung parliaments at nine out of ten elections).

    On the other hand, having a chamber of unelected life members (with no maximum cap on numbers) doesn’t seem a terribly effective check and/or balance. NSW changed to indirect election (15 of 60 MLCs chosen every third year, using STV-PR, by all 90+ MLAs and the 45 non-retiring MLCs) in the 1930s and direct election in 1978. At the federal level, all referenda that are publicly perceived (accurately or not) as diminishing the powers of the Senate have been rejected by a majority of voters, or at least by a majority of States.


  19. @19, As a Queenslander-by-marriage, I’ve drawn much the same conclusions about Queensland politics. How did you propose organizing a restored LC?


  20. As a recovering Queenslander, I would use something quite close to a reformed version of the electoral zones used for the old gerrymander.

    Queensland has a much smaller population than New South wales, but the distances are vast and the distribution of that population is much more complex.

    The assembly districts would be ordered in terms of population destiny and distance from Brisbane. The list would then be divided into quarters. That would give 4 regions that I would make multimember districts returning say 9 MLCs at each general election. At least one of the regions would be discontinuous and look a lot like the old Provincial Cities Zone, but those cities do have fairly heavy community of interest and MLCs.

    It would be tempting to have a fifth zone made up of indigenous seats on the Maori seats model. Historically the indigenous communities of Queensland (Aboriginal, Torres Strait islander and Kanak) have been drastically under-represented.

    That would give a fairly small legislative council that would actually represent the famous natural regions that always seem to crop up in upper house discussions. Remote communities would be slightly over-represenetd because the assembly districts are drawn that way.

    I would give it no powers over supply or the budget. Like the legislative council in New South Wales, the way to resolve deadlocked bills would be a referendum.


  21. @20, 30 or more members in two classes, roughly half every 3 years. (Legislation could increase or reduce the number by maximum 1 seat per election – eg, 15, 16, 17, 16).

    STV with optional preferences (entrenched provision that ordinary legislation could not require more preferences for a valid vote than there are seats to be filled – learned from the NSW lesson, dangers of entrenching “Only 15 or more preferences required for 21 seats”, which sounds generous but then blocks Parliament from allowing valid ticket-votes that number groups with fewer than 15 candidates in total).

    Regions allowed by legislation, as long as each has an odd number of seats not less than five. (I wrote this for the PRSA Qld branch – our source informed us that the Nationals liked the idea of a restored Upper House and could live with PR but were adamantly opposed to statewide at large).

    Similar powers to the NSW Legislative Council.

    MSS, if I email you a PDF of the Draft Model Bill could you post it here on F&V?


  22. Tom @23: elections every 1y6m? That seems like an awful lot. I think short-term thinking would increase even more than the case it right now, with 3-year terms which are internationally on the short side already. and if the reason behind this is that you want midterm elections, surely there’s other ways of doing that?

    Otherwise, please explain…


  23. And as a correction to my original comment, it seems the Irish Seanad can actually delay bills for no more than three months. Fianna Fail, the only party proposing a stronger upper house, proposes increasing this to 6 months. I think anything less than making this silly suspensive veto into a real one with serious a deadlock-breaking mechanism will leave it severely toothless.


    • I agree completely. At risk of sounding excessively parochial i think the powers of the NSW Legislative Council are about right. Specifically, the council cannot reject an appropriation bill. It can reject any other bill but the assembly always has the option of putting a deadlocked bill to referendum.


  24. No, 15 of 30 every 3 years for a 6-year term.
    Our committee decided on the main features (I was delegated the detailed drafting) in the mid-1990s, about a decade before Victoria reformed its Council to introduce PR and replace 8 years/ 2 classes with 4 years/ 1 single class.


  25. Sounds fantastic. It fits exactly with my ‘New Westminster system’ or what might be called ‘the Australian model’.


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