Thursday, 7 November 2019
Report of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue and take part in contributions and statements on the report of the Seanad reform implementation group.
I do not think the Minister of State will disagree when I say that there have been far too many reports on Seanad reform, none of which has been implemented to any significant degree, if at all. We could all wallpaper our living rooms with the number of reports that have been done on Seanad reform. There has been a debate on Seanad reform in both Houses of the Oireachtas for every week that I have been on the planet which is a considerable amount of time. We have had any number of debates on Seanad reform in this House and the Seanad. There was a call for a debate on Seanad reform almost every week when I was a Senator and yet nothing was ever done.
It is interesting that this report comes from the Manning report in 2014. We have a history of doing reports, not agreeing with everything that is contained in them, and then setting up a working group to look at the report that was done. We then do not agree with the conclusions of the working group which was looking at a report with which we do not agree. We have not, for whatever reason, got to a point where we can implement reforms on which we agree but we do not have to agree on everything to initiate reform.
People want reform. I supported abolition of the Seanad at the time of the referendum, although not without giving the matter a great deal of thought. The only reason I supported abolition at the time was that the option of reform was not on the ballot paper. We were given a straight proposition to either support the Seanad as it was or support its abolition. However, much of the commentary around that referendum was about reform. Many people who were arguing that people should vote to retain the Seanad were arguing that we retain it, reform it, make it work, make it more democratic and inclusive, bring it closer to people and make it a second Chamber that would actually work for citizens.
The one thing that comes up in all of these debates on political reform, whether reform of the Dáil or Seanad, is that no one likes to give up power. This Government has been in power for the past four years and is still in power despite any amount of commentary around when an election might take place, mainly because the Government does not want to give up that power. It is the same with reform of the Dáil. The Executive does not want to cede power to the Dáil, the Dáil does not want to cede power to the Seanad and neither House of the Oireachtas or any Department wants to cede power to local government. We go around the houses and around in circles on reform of local government, the Dáil and the Seanad.
Behind all of those reports and despite differences that exist between different parties, reports and working groups, some basic things can and should be done. These require legislation. The Government has said in the past that the Opposition can bring forward legislation but it is, in the first instance, primarily the responsibility of the Government to do that. There has been controversy this week about how many Bills are stuck with money messages and opposed by the Government. The Government can deal with this by bringing forward legislation that deals with some of the areas on which there is consensus and agreement. That would be a starting point. The areas of difference can be addressed separately and I will get to that in a few moments.
The reforms Sinn Féin wants would require further constitutional change. I can understand the reluctance of the Government to go back to the people on Seanad reform because it got what the Taoiseach described at the time as a wallop on the issue. It is somewhat understandable that the Government does not want to go back to the people. Having said that, we argued at the time that it would have been better if the option of a reformed Seanad had been put to the people, rather than the straight proposition of abolition. We would be in a better position if that had been done. However, the decision by the people to reject the simple proposition of abolition is not an excuse for refusing to go back to the people. We could reasonably say that, having gone away and reflected on the referendum result, we acknowledge the will of the people to keep the Seanad and are now offering a reform proposition that goes beyond the scope of the Manning report and the working group, which precluded any findings that would encroach on constitutional reform. There needs to be constitutional reform if we want to do away with the elitist nature and some of the undemocratic elements of the Seanad.
Either deliberately or unintentionally, the Minister of State in the past expressed a view that Sinn Féin had dissented from the report. Sinn Féin put forward a supplementary opinion on the report to the effect that we wanted it to go further but it was not possible to do so under the terms of reference of the working group. We wanted to see constitutional reform, an issue I will address shortly, but, notwithstanding that, we are happy for many of the recommendations of the working group to be legislated for in order that there is at least some degree of reform. It would not be good for either House of the Oireachtas to go back to the people and for the term of both Houses to end without any reform, given that we had a referendum. It would not be good if we simply carried on regardless with the same arrangements and with no reform at all.
One of the constitutional changes we looked for was the abolition of the Taoiseach's nominees. I understand this provision is in place to ensure the Government of the day has a majority in the Seanad. In recent times, however, when the Government has not had a majority or has been close to not having one, the house of cards has not fallen down. We could easily do away with the Taoiseach's nominees.
Sinn Féin has also called for Seanad elections to be held on the same day as the general election so that candidates would have to choose which House they wanted to serve in.
If candidates have to choose what House they want to serve in, the Seanad will no longer be a House where aspiring politicians like me can spend a bit of time before getting elected to the Dáil. Equally, many people who fail to get elected to the Dáil end up going back to the Seanad. I say this not with a sense of irony, but in all sincerity as someone who used the Seanad as best I could before I found myself in this Chamber. It would be better if we were very clear on the respective roles of the two Houses of the Oireachtas. If the elections to both Houses took place at the same time, people could choose which House they want to serve in.
We want the requirement for postal votes to be abolished and provision to be made for equal gender representation. Seanad reform gives us a good opportunity to deal with gender representation in the Oireachtas. Nominating bodies, panels, list systems and other methods should be used to make provision for representation from traditionally marginalised groups in society. Having said that, we would be quite happy to see the recommendations made in the report we are discussing being implemented as soon as possible, even before Sinn Féin enters Government and initiates constitutional reform at some point in the future. I do not think we are going to get such reform from the Government party that got what it described as a "wallop" the last time it proposed reforms in this area.
I would like to ask a few simple questions. Will the Government initiate legislation on this issue? I am not sure how many months it has left in office. There has been a great deal of speculation about the date of the next general election. Regardless of when it takes place, does the Government intend to introduce legislation? Will returning Seanad election candidates go back to their respective constituencies without having achieved any reform? That would be a sad day for the reform of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
When we critique Government plans, budgets or policies, it is often suggested by the Taoiseach or one of his Ministers that we have no policies of our own, even though we have such a policy in almost every case. I do not know how many times we have heard this accusation being made in the Dáil Chamber, often unfairly and for political purposes. I suggest that the Government is guilty of having no policy in this instance. It is saying it does not agree with the recommendations in the report, but it has not brought forward its own vision of a reformed Seanad. The Government cannot, in all conscience, criticise the report and refuse to accept its findings while at the same time proposing to sit on its hands for another five or ten years, during which time more reports on Seanad reform will probably be produced and more implementation groups will probably be formed. It has no vision of its own. The Government should bring forward a vision. When we see what its vision is, we can decide whether to support it.