Photo credit: Houses of the Oireachtas

The misleading Seanad voting stats

For a lay person, it can be hard to get a read on how hard, exactly, your politicians are working. Being an elected representative is an unusual job – there is absolutely zero penalty, for example, for simply not showing up at all. A politician could be elected, serve a full term, and never once set foot in Leinster House. This has happened, in fact: Sinn Fein once had a policy of abstentionism, which they retain in the UK House of Commons to this day.

It’s also one of the reasons the kerfuffle about Helen McEntee taking maternity leave was such a nonsense: There was no legal requirement for her to have a “right” to take time off, since in politics she can take as much time off as she needs, when she needs it. The whole point of that particular row was to give her political cover for being absent while she gave birth and got to know her two children. There was no legal mechanism enacted, either: The Taoiseach simply temporarily assigned her as Minister without Portfolio and handed her duties to Heather Humphries and Simon Harris, in turn.

But what about this?

If a Senator is missing 50% of the votes, you’d think, they must not be working hard, right?

Not necessarily.

The first thing to understand about both the Seanad and the Dáil is that an absolutely enormous number of votes are formalities: Things like agreeing to the order of business at the start of each week, or voting up or down amendments – of which there can be hundreds – to various pieces of legislation. In the Seanad, the Government has a large in-built majority courtesy of the Taoiseach having the right to appoint 12 of its members. This essentially means that “party line” votes are an absolute formality.

Look at the four Senators at the bottom of the class there: Regina Doherty, Pippa Hackett, Gerard Craughwell, and Ronán Mullen. Two of them are independent Senators, and two of them are the Government’s leaders in the Seanad. By contrast, the “hardest working” Senators are people like Robbie Gallagher, the Fianna Fáil Senator from Monaghan.

Yet, with all respect to Senator Gallagher (who, by the way, I know and like) his job is very different to Senator Doherty’s, or Senator Mullen’s: His job is essentially to be a backbench footsoldier for the Government, ensuring a majority on every vote. At the other end of the spectrum, people like Senator Mullen, or Michael McDowell (another low attender of votes) is much more legislative: To read and scrutinise Government legislation and find problems with it. Whether Mullen or McDowell vote on the order of business is entirely immaterial: It will pass whether they are there or not.

But what’s the real job of a Senator? If that job is to scrutinise legislation, then it should be fairly obvious that Senators like Craughwell, Sharon Keogan, McDowell, and Mullen have had vastly more impact this year and in previous years than Senator Gallagher has – just look at their impact on the Hate Speech Bill, for example.

The other thing that should be taken into account here is that the Seanad – like many other legislative chambers – conducts a lot of business by agreement. That is to say, there’s not necessarily a need for a vote if all 60 members agree that a debate will take place next Wednesday, instead of next Thursday. In parliamentary terms, votes are called “divisions” – and for good reason. They are only ever used if there is a need to divide the house. If it is united, then a vote is not even needed.

This is a common issue, faced by parliamentarians around the world. Followers of American politics, for example, will be aware of that common old attack like that “Senator X voted 90% of the Time with Joe Biden”, which is designed to imply that the politician in question is just a rubber stamp. But all it actually means is that they sided with their party on mainly procedural votes, like what time to have lunch. For example, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, using this same measurement, votes 60% of the time with Joe Biden.

That’s why things like vote attendance or voting record taken in the round shouldn’t be used as a judge of a Senator’s performance. Judge them on the impact they are having – not whether they were there for a vote on whether to hold a debate on Monday, or on Tuesday.

Share mdi-share-variant mdi-twitter mdi-facebook mdi-whatsapp mdi-telegram mdi-linkedin mdi-email mdi-printer mdi-chevron-left Prev Next mdi-chevron-right Related Comments Members can comment by siging in to their account. Non-members can register to comment for free here.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Do you agree with the Government's plan to reduce speed limits?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...