Thursday, 7 November 2019
Report of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group: Statements
Jan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
We are having another debate on Seanad reform, but we want to see action rather than more debate. Like other speakers, I have participated in these debates before. I was a Member of the Seanad from 1993 to 1997 when Maurice Manning was the Leader of the House. His group produced a report. Subsequently, Senator McDowell's group produced a report. The Minister of State has said calmly today that he would like to hear our views. He should know my views and those of Deputies Cassells and Cullinane because we represent political parties that are represented in the Seanad. The views of the three parties were expressed during the debate in the Seanad. I am quite happy to debate the matter in the Dáil as well. I absolutely support the view that was espoused by Labour Party Senators in the Seanad and in a written report to the Manning group on 22 January 2015. Our position remains largely the same. I would like the Government to give a commitment during this debate that action will be taken.
I would like to mention some of the most important principles that apply to this issue. It seems from what we have heard from Deputies Cassells and Cullinane that there is a great deal of agreement among political parties on what should be done. We need to see action from the Government. I have some questions for the Minister of State. Will the Government make some decisions on the implementation of the Manning and McDowell reports? We argued in the Seanad that a timeframe for the implementation of these changes was needed. Such a timeframe is still needed. Does the Government intend to decide on a set of reforms that will be implemented in advance of the next Seanad election? Is it the Government's view that the general 130-page report which was submitted by Senator McDowell before Christmas is the basis for these changes? Does the Government accept the conclusion that the franchise for voting on the panels in Seanad elections should be opened to all Irish passport holders overseas, as well as people in Northern Ireland? We agree that this would be appropriate. When can we expect decisions to be made? Those are the major questions. There is general agreement on the open franchise issue. The Seanad has a role. Obviously, it has a constitutional role. We are in favour of changing the Constitution, but we want to see change implemented now. That is important.
The role of the Seanad is primarily to act as a check and balance on the Dáil. It also gives a platform for a variety of voices on a variety of issues. Its role is constitutionally different from that of the Dáil. We need to ensure it can perform its role effectively. The main issue about the extension of the franchise is that we have to operate within the Constitution as its stands. That is why we have five panels. The Labour Party group has suggested that the powers of nomination could be extended beyond the existing nominating bodies. This could be done without constitutional change. For example, we could provide for popular nomination by 500 people who are on the Seanad electoral register. That would be another option for nomination. That proposal is worth considering.
The most important proposal, apart from the universal franchise proposal, is one that has been espoused by the Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin speakers during this afternoon's debate. I refer to the proposal that the Seanad election take place on the same day as the Dáil election. Article 18.8 of the Constitution provides that "A general election for Seanad Éireann shall take place not later than ninety days after a dissolution of Dáil Éireann". Our party group has proposed that legislation be agreed to provide that a Seanad election by secret postal ballot would take place on the same day as the Dáil election. We suggest that such legislation would prohibit a candidate from running in both elections, thereby breaking the direct link between Dáil elections and Seanad elections. Even though many of us in this Chamber were in the Seanad first, or spent time in the Seanad after being in this Chamber first, most of us will agree that this is not a good way for the system to operate. We recommend that the Seanad election take place on the same day as the election for the Dáil. It would be constitutionally permissible. It would require some thought about how we define postal elections, but that can be done within the parameters of the Constitution. It would ensure the Seanad does not continue as a mini Dáil. It would break the direct link between Dáil and Seanad elections.
I have mentioned the main issues. I would like to comment on a couple of points that were made by the Minister of State. He referred to variations between the two reports, but I believe they are quite minor. It is now proposed that 34 of the 60 seats be directly elected by the five vocational panels, whereas the Manning report recommended that 36 seats be elected by those panels. Similarly, it is now proposed that 15 seats be elected from an electoral college of Deputies, outgoing Senators and elected county councillors, which is an increase of two on the number of seats that the Manning report recommended be filled in this way. I do not think there should be any delays on the basis of these minor variations between the two reports.
With regard to the university constituencies, the Labour Party would support the concept of a single six-seat constituency that would include all higher education institutions. It is well beyond time for such a change to be implemented. It is completely undemocratic that only certain universities have nominating rights in this regard. We are also making a suggestion to ensure certain people do not have an extra vote.
I or any other graduate of those universities can vote on the five vocational panels as well as the university panel. We are suggesting that persons entitled to vote on a university panel would have to choose between that panel and one of the other appropriate panels such that they would not have an extra vote. It is a minor point but it makes sense.
We also proposed a focus on a gender balance. There is already a mechanism for political parties to nominate candidates for election to the Dáil and it should be possible to design a system that would focus on gender balance in the Seanad.
My remarks very much reflect the comments of Labour Party Senators and our written proposals to the working group. My main message is for the Government, please, to get on with it and not have any more consultation or debate. There has been too much consultation on this issue. We need to see reform. To go into the next Seanad election without change would do no service to that House or politics in Ireland. I hope the Government will be able to act after this debate.