Thursday, 7 November 2019
Report of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group: Statements
I thank the Minister of State for his very candid views on this topic. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the report of the Seanad reform implementation group as I was a member of the group, which met between May and November of last year. When I looked at the filing cabinet this morning to refer to the documents and saw the number of lever arch folders we had amassed during that period, it just reminded me of the huge amount of documentation we pored over, examined and researched. All the members of the group took their work extremely seriously. The report was published on 19 December last year yet it has taken until now, nearly a year later, for this debate on the reforms proposed to take place. I wondered whether it would ever happen at all.
I pay tribute to Senator McDowell and all the officials for their work. It was highly unfortunate that one member, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, ended up on the committee. How a senior member of the Cabinet came to sit on this working committee I do not know, but his appearance for the vote for the chair was insightful in that it was about the only appearance he made over the course of seven months. The election was won by Senator McDowell. One can draw one's own conclusions from that. We never saw the Minister again.
One of the big driving forces for the group was to see the Seanad reform actually take place and to forge a link with the ordinary citizens of this country. Nobody doubts the huge amount of work and extremely important legislative scrutiny conducted by Senators but, equally, nobody can deny there is a huge personal disconnect between the public and the Upper House because of its very narrow electoral base. The Manning report, which was the base document for our group, and implementation of which is part of the Government's own programme, focused on the reforms necessary to the Seanad. As a party, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows, Fianna Fáil fully believes in reforming the Seanad and is committed to doing so. Indeed, it was one of the only parties at the time of the referendum to seek the reform of the Upper House when others advocated abolishing it. Their form of reform was the knife. Thankfully, the people, in their wisdom, did not listen to them, but it is important that the Government listens to the people now in order that we might see real change.
The implementation group agrees that 34 of the 60 seats from five vocational panels, as well as the institution of higher education seats, be directly elected by the people and that 15 seats be retained for an electoral college of Deputies, outgoing Senators and councillors. What a change this would be, particularly when one considers that, at present, 43 of the 60 Senators are elected from the votes of just 1,167 people, namely, our councillors, Members of the Dáil and outgoing Members of the Seanad. Like the Minister of State, I served as a councillor. I did so for 17 years. Councillors value their votes and choose good, decent men and women to represent us in the Upper House. However, I ask the House to imagine the engagement we could create with the people by moving the election of Senators from the hands of 1,167 people to the hands of the people of Ireland.
I listened carefully to what the Minister of State said. It is important to point out that the Seanad reform proposals do not seek to create a mini Dáil because we will still have the vocational panels. I was interested in the Minister of State's views on the vocational panels. They are highly important in this regard in not creating a mini Dáil because people would still have to qualify as candidates on these panels with the relevant expertise. This would produce a different kind of debate in the Upper House. We would have a very different scenario in terms of the people who would then present themselves for election and the scale of the electorate. The Minister of State touched on this. The scale of the battle to get elected might frighten some existing Senators and potential new Senators, but we debated this anticipated scale of the Seanad electorate at length at the committee, taking advice from people such as Dr. Maurice Manning and former Senator Joe O'Toole and experts such as Dr. Theresa Reidy. In the report, we made the following point: "It is anticipated that rather than there being a rush for inclusion in the Seanad electoral register, the growth of the Seanad electoral register will take place gradually over time and pro-active measures may need to be taken [...] to promote awareness and encourage registration." When we refer to the need to encourage registration, this does not strike me as involving a mad rush of people to get onto the electoral register. The report continues: "In addition, when registering to vote in future Dáil elections and local elections, voters may be asked if they wish to also register to vote in Seanad elections and if so, to merely indicate their preferred constituency."
I argued at the time for the Seanad election to take place on the same day as the Dáil election and that the panels of those running would be affixed to the wall as people came in such that they would be able to review it. I pressed this point. I know there were issues as to how the Constitution sets out the timeframe and so forth, but I thought it was worthy to boost participation in the Seanad election on the day. It is also noteworthy that for the 2016 general election there were 3.3 million registered voters yet only 2.1 million people opted to cast their votes.
At the time of the referendum on the eighth amendment of the Constitution, there were approximately 3.2 million registered voters but only 1.2 million people cast a ballot. In the presidential election last year, approximately 3.4 million people were registered but only 1.4 million people cast a vote, while some 2 million did not. As parliamentarians, we need to engage with the public in order to reverse this decline in voter participation which is mirrored in many democracies across the globe. Seanad reform, through expanding the franchise, would be one such move.
The report anticipates that the number of Irish residents who apply to be registered and vote in a Seanad general election would be far lower than the number of people who participate in Dáil elections.
The extension of the vote to Irish citizens abroad presents an opportunity for Ireland to enable its emigrants to maintain a meaningful link with their home country. The statistics presented by Dr. Theresa Reidy from UCC on this subject suggest it is not anticipated that there will be a mass influx of votes that could skew an election. It would be a steady base. We looked at various countries when we were examining this issue.
The Minister of State expressed fears and said he remained unconvinced that the number of potential voters in the North and abroad would not skew votes in the South. What international expertise and documents did he use to formulate that opinion? Over the course of the seven months, we examined numerous countries and looked at the trends over a series of elections and, if anything, there was a high engagement at the start and a tail-off after that. There is a body of work to help ensure interest is maintained when the franchise is extended abroad and to Northern Ireland.
Senator McDowell, in presenting his report last December, stated that the Bill should be introduced to Dáil Éireann rather than into the Seanad and that reform of the Seanad is not a matter best left to the initiative of the unreformed Seanad but is a matter on which the will of the people, as expressed through the Dáil, should be ascertained and implemented. I agree with that and ask the Minister of State to act swiftly on this. I look forward to continued debate on this matter.