Thursday, 20 June 2013
An Bille um an Dara Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Deireadh a Chur le Seanad Éireann) 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) - Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
Atógadh an díospóireacht ar leasú a 1: Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:To delete all words after "that" and substitute "Dáil Éireann declines to give the Bill a second reading on the basis that it seeks to abolish Seanad Éireann without affording the opportunity to reform Seanad Éireann as set out in the Seanad (No. 2) Bill 2013".(Deputy Shane Ross)
Those who are in favour of retaining the Seanad would have to agree that the present Seanad is quite simply not up to the job of acting as the Upper House. I have never been a Member of the Seanad but I believe it is out of date in terms of how it does its legislative business.
As well as that, the electoral system that elects its Members is highly undemocratic and elitist. It has been used as a preparation ground for aspiring political party candidates as well as a retirement ground for those who have served their parties, and as compensation for those party members who have lost their Dáil seats. That is not a positive sign that the present Seanad is working as it should. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the Seanad, as it currently functions, needs to be changed.
All of that said, it must be acknowledged that there are Senators who have made excellent contributions and have done great work. Public figures who have made significant contributions to politics in Ireland began their political careers in the Seanad. I am thinking, particularly, of the current President, Uachtarán Michael D. Higgins, former President Mary Robinson and former Taoiseach, the late Dr. Garret FitzGerald. Irish society would have been a much poorer place without their contribution and owes much to them and to the Seanad for that.
It is important to point out that the decision regarding the abolition of the Seanad will be a decision for the people, not the Members of the Oireachtas or the Government. If the people decide that they want to retain it, as I do, it is their right to make that decision.
If the people make the decision to retain the Seanad, the Government must respect the decision and develop alternative proposals to deal with it. If the referendum fails, I feel strongly that it should not be seen as the people wanting nothing to be done about the Seanad, and there is much unhappiness about the way it functions. There is also much concern among the public about how this House functions and we as legislators, as well as the Government, must bear that in mind and respond in a serious, meaningful and constructive fashion.
The proposal to abolish the Seanad comes in conjunction with changes to local government in order to give councils more autonomy. It is also fair to say that a unicameral system, where a country has one house instead of two in parliament, is common in countries of a similar size to Ireland. Legislators and the general public must ask themselves if the State genuinely needs Seanad Éireann and if there is an overwhelming argument that requires the second House to oversee the work done in the Dáil. The consequences of the referendum vote must be considered fully by the people.
Whatever views people have of the Seanad or whatever views they may form during the referendum campaign, they should study the option before them very carefully, as this vote is about amending our Constitution. As with all referenda, the ability to make such a change should never be taken lightly.
I am in favour of saving the Seanad and I will outline my reasons. The previous Deputy spoke of our current President, Michael D. Higgins, and one can also consider a former president and member of my party, Mary Robinson, and the contribution they have made to society. One wonders if they could have had a platform on which to launch a political career of such importance to our country without a Seanad. We also know a former Taoiseach from Fine Gael, Garrett FitzGerald, a good man for the people of Ireland, also started his career in the Seanad. A certain calibre of people have come through the Seanad and they have gone on to make a significant political contribution not just in this House but also to the presidency and within political parties in instances where they have not become Deputies.
There is as much enlightenment within the Upper House as there is in the Lower House, and we should not underestimate what will happen. The appetite of the Irish public is not to keep on politicians who are costing the Exchequer significant amounts, and the lowest common denominator is often where we head to in politics and media coverage. There is a need for enormous reform in how we conduct business in this House and in our relationship with the media. We must also consider how people are provided with access to informed debate through media rather than headline arguments. There is a level of cynicism directed at politics and the media which serves neither side well.
Modern politics is far from where it was at the foundation of the State and we can agree that the complexity can only be met by expertise, specialty and dedication. The Taoiseach has spoken about a four-day sitting week for the Dáil and although I agree with many of his points, a four-day sitting every week will not keep us in touch with the people or the reality on the ground and it will not make this place more productive. For example, when we are working during the course of the day on committees or elsewhere, if somebody decides there is to be a vote, we must all rise, with a disruption of business for half an hour. With 166 Deputies disrupted for half an hour, the immediate loss is approximately 83 man hours. No business, commercial entity or State organisation would put up with such a lack of productivity, and the simple solution is to group votes at the end of the week.
There is also a need to consider best practice elsewhere, and we can consider Scandinavia as an example, where I was privileged to have studied for a year. We can also consider the Germanic model of having two weeks on and two weeks off, where a politician reads documents and has access to committees and departments for research purposes. There is also the possibility of speaking to interest groups before bringing forward proposals.
We all like the idea of being significant and relevant in Irish society but the idea that the Dáil is far more significant in how the Executive runs than the Seanad is something I do not believe in as a first-time Deputy. My Labour Party colleague in Kerry provides a service to people, and people need and welcome this. The idea of doing away with a second Chamber that examines the Dáil indicates we have a monopoly on wisdom within this Chamber. There are some fine people in the Upper Chamber we would like to see having a larger role in society.
We have spoken about empowering committees but the most important factor for all committees is how much access they have to finance. We should have a better budgetary system than the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputies Noonan and Howlin, coming here and producing a document that we either favour or do not favour on the basis of our political party membership. Nevertheless, I have the utmost respect for those men. There is an appetite in the people for us to say we are not in favour of such a process, and the electorate are educated and informed. They find it a little crazy that we rubber-stamp a budget like that, and they would like to be far more informed about what is going on. That is a bigger issue.
The role of the Executive can be examined on many fronts and when a Minister has complete power, there must be a detailed examination of what that entails. Far too often a Minister's weekly schedule involves a scissors and cheque book while travelling the length and breadth of the country, covering as many as 2,000 miles per week. That is not just this or the last Government, and it is supposedly what Ministers are meant to do. I would be delighted as a member of the Executive if that was the case because it would not leave time for consideration of a portfolio.
We should consider single seat constituencies. If we want policy-based politics, we should examine how to prioritise ideology rather than personalities. Many of us in the Chamber have been told that we come from political dynasties, or as I say myself, a genetic disposition towards politics-----
I am in favour of much more reform and the Constitutional Convention should have a role to play in how we look at the Seanad and this House. During Leaders' Questions it was mentioned that there are fine people in this House and 90% of Members have the common interest of the people of Ireland at heart. They would like to see this place work more effectively. At the last election there was the largest turnaround of Deputies, with 76 new Deputies introduced, and I have yet to hear any of them state that this place works according to how they want it to. Many of us did not study politics and do not know the solution but one should not throw out what we have if there is no solution in place. If we examine the matter and take it seriously, we should be able to formulate a solution.
The Seanad has a role to play overall but how we elect people to the Seanad must be changed. I was in the envious position of having three votes for the Seanad election due to having qualifications from colleges-----
Not quite. Such a process is completely unfair and democracy must be brought into it. There may be a need for a list system involving people such as experts in the legal or medical systems, and they may need to be aligned to political parties or groups being put forward for the betterment of the country.
I look forward to this debate but I will not be knocking on doors and asking people to get rid of the Seanad. I will be informing people that the system we have is not working and should be reconsidered and reformed. We will have done a good deed for the people if we reform the Dáil and Seanad while considering bringing more powers to the committees.
I thank Deputy Spring for kindly sharing his time. He spoke earlier about family connections with this House and I remind him that it was 70 years ago this week when his grandfather was first elected to this House.
I congratulate Deputy Spring and his family on that anniversary. Like many of the speakers in this debate, I have had the opportunity to serve in the Seanad. I spent three and a half years there before entering this House in 2011. Therefore, I have a knowledge and understanding of the role the Seanad plays in our political system. I have also had the opportunity as a Member of listening to and learning from some of the greatest parliamentarians of our time. I have seen the Seanad operate on good days but I have also seen it operate on bad days. I was present for the debates on NAMA, civil partnership and the bank guarantee when voices from around the House raised issues that had not been considered in this House. Senators put down amendments to Bills that had not been suggested by this House to help to improve legislation. However, I have also been there on occasions which were not so positive. I recall farcical situations when business was stopped to facilitate games of golf. I listened to debates around claims for expenses by Members which were suspect, to say the least. I have seen the Seanad vote to change legislation, only to see the Government of the day vote again to overturn the first vote. During my time in the Seanad I saw the Government of the day and the Seanad of the day, by their actions, make the case for abolition.
In the context of this debate, one must ask if there is sufficient good being done in the Seanad to justify its continued existence. I have no doubt that there are individuals of worth there. I also have no doubt that the current crop of Senators are decent, well-meaning national servants. The views explored and exposed by many of the Senators have not been shared and explored elsewhere. However, the institution in which the Senators serve is rotten and in my view, rotten beyond reform. There have been ten or 12 different proposals for reform of the Seanad since 1937 but none of them has come to fruition. There has been much talk, for instance, of extending the franchise to all university graduates. That is fine if one is a graduate but it is still elitist vis-à-vismy friends, family and neighbours who never had the opportunity to go to college in the first place. There has also been much talk about extending the role of the Seanad, giving it more oversight on European issues and so forth but we have committees to do things like that. Certainly, we should increase the power of committees where necessary and increase their ability to hold the Executive to account. However, we do not need to reform the Seanad to do that. People have spoken about how the Seanad holds the Government to account but that is being done elsewhere too. It is being done in the broadcast, print and social media. Indeed, Twitter in many ways is the Seanad of the people of today. The simple fact is that the Seanad simply replicates what is going on elsewhere and what is being done well elsewhere. It has become little more than an expensive crèche for aspiring TDs and a nursing home for elder states-people. We need to do what other small, mature democracies have done, namely, shut it down and move on.
I wish to share time with Deputy Seamus Healy. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of the Seanad) Bill 2013. I strongly oppose the abolition of the Seanad. In this debate, I would like to bring the fight to the abolitionists and challenge them in their efforts to damage the democratic process in this country. I support the argument that we need change, reform and a more inclusive Seanad, with a better democratic mandate. However, to the abolitionists I say, "You are wrong". They are wrong in their assessment and wrong in wanting to end the second Chamber of the Oireachtas. We on the reformist side want a new Seanad. I propose to outline today my proposals for reform of both the Dáil and Seanad.
In the last general election my political manifesto contained a section dealing with reform of the Seanad and the Dáil and I was elected on that platform. An integral part of my manifesto was not to abolish the Seanad and I said that to the electorate when I went knocking on doors in Dublin Bay North. My manifesto proposed that we create a real democracy with accountability at every level. We do need to cut the fat. We need to transform the Seanad, a point I fully accept. We need to transform it into a genuine forum for civic society. We need to introduce more vouched expenses for all politicians. We need to be seen to make the Parliament work and to stop the use of the guillotine to pass laws that have not been scrutinised adequately.
We must give Oireachtas committees the power to examine proposals for spending before it happens and to hold real inquiries with the power to compel witnesses and discover documents. We must also make senior public servants responsible for their decisions and actions. When I was a principal of a disadvantaged school, I was answerable to the Department for every single cent I spent, as well as being answerable to a board of management. There is no reason why senior civil servants cannot take the hit and get on with it. We must bring real transparency to the funding of political parties and make them publish annual accounts. Some of this process of reform has started but we have a long way to go.
We must register and control lobbyists, protect whistleblowers and make all appointments to State or public bodies and the Judiciary open to public competition and Dáil scrutiny. We need to ban any individual from being a director of more than three companies or public bodies. We also need to conduct an urgent review of company law to ensure that white-collar criminals are brought to justice. We need to restore the right to know through the Freedom of Information Act. These are just some reform proposals that I am putting forward today. I put it to the abolitionists that these are serious reforms. There is no limit to what can be achieved by a community or a society working together. In this context, I mean the citizens of this State, the Dáil and the Seanad all working together.
The Seanad Bill 2013, published a number of weeks ago by Senator Feargal Quinn and introduced in the Dáil by Deputy Shane Ross, contains some excellent proposals for reform. The Bill outlines how the Constitution provides that the Oireachtas shall be the national parliament and shall consist of the President and two houses; the house of representatives, to be called Dáil Éireann and a Senate, to be called Seanad Éireann. The Seanad's role under the Constitution includes "important safeguards for the citizens and the State and important checks and balances in relation to the performances of the Executive, legislative and judicial powers of Government in the State and in relation to the European Union". That is very important in a country that is under the supervision of the troika. It is also very important in the context of the amount of legislation emanating from the EU.
The sensible Bill, namely the Seanad Bill 2013, opens up the Seanad to a wider electorate, including every person who is eligible to vote in any other parliamentary election in the State, as well as to Irish people abroad, eligible persons in Northern Ireland and graduates of other universities. These are three sensible proposals. I would love to see the Irish abroad being involved in the political process and having a House to represent them. I would also love to see people from the Six Counties, who often feel excluded from the rest of this island, being represented in the Seanad. There is a mindset in this Dáil that believes that Ireland stops at Dundalk and I want to challenge that mindset. Senator Quinn's Bill proposes that people from the North be given an opportunity to have their voices heard. The Taoiseach spoke about the peace process yesterday, which we must embed. Everybody has a role to play in the peace process and people in the North should be given a voice in our Seanad - a reformed Seanad.
The good Bill, as I call it, is the Seanad Bill while the Government's Bill is the bad bill. The good Bill also provides for a more open and inclusive Seanad whose elected membership will have an equal number of males and females. This deals with the equality issue. Many people jump up and down, shouting about the lack of women in politics but this legislation proposes to address this. It puts equality on the table and puts it up to the Government. I challenge the abolitionists on this. The reformists are bringing forward realistic proposals to reform this country. The Seanad Bill also provides that the process of nominating persons to be candidates for the Seanad be opened up to allow candidates to be nominated by popular support, which amounts to a citizens' Senate. I would love to see that happening.
The Seanad Bill also confers a range of additional powers on the Seanad in areas such as the scrutiny of legislation, the examination of public appointments as well as the holding of inquiries. The legislation contains sensible proposals put forward by those on the reformist side. It represents a challenge to the abolitionists. We will continue to challenge the abolitionists in the Dáil, in the media and in our constituencies. We are putting forward proposals for real reform here. Every single new Deputy in this House was elected on the promise of change and reform. Now is our chance and our opportunity because democracy is under threat from the abolitionists.
It is very important that we state this. Many people are anti-politics and not only Ireland has a crisis. Other countries also have a disconnect and a lack of trust between the political system and the people. Consider the turnout in by-elections and general elections. In parts of my constituency more than one third of people regularly do not vote. These are often the people who need a voice in Dáil Éireann. They also need a voice in a reformed Seanad.
The year 2012 was characterised by the sovereign debt crisis and weak political leadership throughout the political world. This is what people stated throughout the European Union and the United States. Popular confidence in political institutions has declined throughout Europe. If we do not protect and defend them, other more extreme elements will move into this space. This is why we should never take democracy for granted. We should consider the countries in which it has collapsed and what happened in the 1930s and 1940s. We cannot allow democracy to come under threat.
It does my head in when people jump up and down about the cost of the Seanad. A Fine Gael Senator told me it works out at €3 per year per taxpayer to keep the Seanad open. What is wrong with this? It is the cost of half a bottle of beer or half a pint of Guinness. Let us not jump up and down about costs. Democracy does cost money but we must defend it. It is important that this is stated during the debate. Countries in Latin America have had horrific examples of a negative impact on democracy. Flawed democracies are dangerous for all countries and not just themselves. When one has a flawed democracy one is under pressure. We need a second chamber to do radical things, examine legislation and come up with new ideas and have fresh thinking.
According to The Economist, in some countries policy is no longer set by national legislatures and elected politicians but is effectively set by official creditors such as the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF, and the severity of austerity has tended to weaken social cohesion and diminish further trust in political institutions. I urge all Deputies to stand up and fight for democracy and join us, the reformers, and take on the abolitionists. I urge all Deputies to reject the Bill and support a new reformed, inclusive and democratic Seanad.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. Historically the socialist movement has favoured a unicameral, or single-chamber, legislature based on universal adult suffrage. It has opposed second chambers based on restricted franchise or hereditary privilege, as is the case with the British House of Lords. This position is based on the principle of an equal say in government for all, irrespective of wealth or social status, and that legislators should be democratically accountable to all. I agree with this position. Today these principles are being circumvented by other means, including the funding of political parties by very wealthy interests, the control of information and the media by very wealthy interests and the evasion of real accountability by politicians.
The problem with the Bill is that it is largely a political stunt. There is no commitment from the Government to real Oireachtas reform, particularly real Dáil reform. I am sure the Government will point to some changes that have been made since it came to power, including Friday sittings and the Topical Issue debate. The Friday sittings are a complete sham, with no Leaders' Questions, no Order of Business and no votes. It is simply an expensive sham. It is difficult to get a Topical Issue accepted for debate and if it is accepted the question or issue will almost certainly be answered by a Minister of State, almost always not from the Department relevant to the question, reading from a prepared script and answering questions from another prepared script. This is not, in my view, Dáil reform.
The main duty of Deputies and Senators is to legislate, but there is no requirement to attend Leinster House to draw one's salary. Even when a Deputy is present in Leinster House there is no requirement to vote for or against legislation or proposals or to register a formal abstention. There would be an absolute outcry if an employee in wider society was not required to turn up for work in order to be paid. Some politicians have attempted to confuse this issue with the assertion they are present in the building but not in the Dáil Chamber, but this is completely beside the point. A constituent is entitled to know the attitude of his or her Deputy on every Bill. Under current arrangements in the House a Deputy can evade such scrutiny. This requires the most urgent reform.
In modern times Deputies, and particularly Ministers, who act in the interests of the wealthy need have no personal fear of defeat in the next election. They will be looked after by wealthy interests with directorships and post-retirement employment. With Dáil terms set at five years it is possible for parties and individuals to promise the earth at election time and, having been elected, proceed with exactly the opposite policies for the full term. This is a huge difficulty and brings the Chamber, the Oireachtas, politics generally and politicians into disrepute. We have a perfect example of this with the two parties in government, who gave various commitments, but the minute they were elected they came in here and effectively took the clothes off Fianna Fáil and the Green Party and are now comfortably implementing their failed policies, which are the direct opposite of the policies they stood for during the course of the last election campaign.
Other jurisdictions have counterweights to this situation. The title Teachta Dála means politicians are in this House to vote in place of their constituents. If they fail to do so there should be a facility to have them recalled. A facility must and should be put in place whereby a Deputy can be recalled by constituents following the presentation of a registered and scrutinised petition for a by-election. This is the nub of the question of accountability in the House and the Oireachtas generally, and such a system should be brought into being.
The guillotining of debates in the House is now commonplace. A commitment was made by both Government parties that business here would be done in a transparent manner and guillotines would not be used, as they had been used too frequently and regularly by the previous Government, but this Government would not do so. As we all know, we have guillotine after guillotine.
There may be emergencies in which guillotines are necessary. In such situations, there should be a requirement that at least two thirds of Deputies must vote for the guillotine. This would ensure the guillotine's use in emergency situations only.
The Standing Orders of the Dáil are stacked against small party Deputies and Independents. For example, no Independent or Deputy from a small party can address the Chamber on the Order of Business. This unsustainable and undemocratic situation should be addressed immediately to ensure that their voices are heard.
The Government's energy, particularly that of the Labour Party, should be used to introduce the kinds of reform to which I referred. This would be in the best interests of the country's labour and socialist traditions. Such reforms should take precedence over the Seanad issue. Instead, the Bill to abolish the Seanad represents a hypocritical, populist stunt.
Deputy Healy referred to what he believed were the Government's broken commitments. That is ironic, given that the legislation before the House was a commitment by the Taoiseach in his capacity as leader of Fine Gael before the last general election and by him, the Tánaiste and the Fine Gael and Labour parties in the programme for Government. The commitment was to hold a referendum.
In an energised contribution, Deputy Finian McGrath mentioned abolitionists versus reformists. It is important to point out that the only people who have the opportunity to abolish the Seanad are the Irish people. I thank the Government for its early establishment of a referendum commission and the appointment of a judge to chair it. From past referendum campaigns, we know how essential it is that people be provided with all of the information and facts in an impartial fashion so they can make an educated and informed decision when voting.
The decision to put to the people a referendum on abolishing the Seanad shows guts. It would be easier for a political leader, including the Taoiseach, to keep trucking along without changing systems. It would be easier for a Fine Gael leader with Fine Gael Senators not to propose that people currently employed in this building should lose their jobs if the Irish people abolish the Seanad. It would have been much easier for the Government not to abolish town councils or not to reduce the number of councillors. Through this referendum Bill, however, the Government is telling the Irish people that, since their private and public sector workplaces have been asked to change practices and, to use that famous phrase, do more with less, including fewer colleagues, so must the Oireachtas change. While the entire world changes around us, we cannot stay in a Leinster House bubble operating a system that we inherited from the British establishment when it ran this country. That history is the reason for our bicameral system and for us being so out of step with other countries of a similar size in the EU. It does not have to do with a lofty, grand constitutional ideal. Like many aspects of this country, we inherited it from the British. As a modern republic that is recreating its economy and society and stabilising our country, it is time that we investigate whether our structures are fit for purpose.
The Fine Gael Party, our leader and the Government have been consistent on this matter. The only party in the last general election to campaign for a reformed Seanad rather than an abolished one was the Green Party, which won no seats in this House. The manifesto of every other political party at least referred to considering the abolition of the Seanad.
Many ideas have been suggested as to how to reform a second House. When I vote on the referendum in the autumn, I will ask whether we need a second House. In the opinion of the Government, myself and many others, we do not. Many countries operate quite well with one house of parliament. I respect many of those who argue to reform and retain the Seanad but some of their arguments are somewhat insulting, elitist and condescending, for example, the idea that the Irish people cannot be trusted to elect their leaders and that, since the people elected to the Dáil are not up to the job, we need experts, specialists, elites and people with the God given right to sit and judge our laws. I trust my electorate and the Irish electorate. If they do not believe that I am up to the job, they can sack me. Why do we need to second guess the electorate? That is not a democratic or republican value.
We have also heard arguments about the need for expert advice. While I agree, I would argue that we were provided with a range of expert advice at the hearings on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. Not one of those people who provided advice was a Member of the Oireachtas. Regardless of their viewpoints, they gave compelling arguments and presented their evidence. I would argue that many of the experts who appeared before the Oireachtas hearings impacted on the formation of legislation more than any Member did. We have seen a format whereby experts can be engaged.
I have heard a great deal about the Seanad amending legislation. The overwhelming majority of the accepted amendments were tabled by the Government. They were often technical in nature and could have been tabled by a Minister at a strengthened Committee Stage.
Many people hold the sincere opinion that elections of the Seanad should be opened up to everyone but this would just create another Dáil. We do not need a second Dáil that would mirror existing structures.
The last argument, which is compelling when first heard, is that there are some very good Senators who would never get elected to the Dáil because they are not involved in the parish pump politics that we too often see. This is not true. Deputy Ross was, as the longest serving Senator, the father of the Seanad. I congratulate him on making the decision to seek election to this House. He was elected with a huge vote. I see no evidence to suggest that the many fine Senators who want to continue making a contribution cannot put their names before the people like every Deputy has done.
It has been mentioned that we are not reforming the Dáil. Deputies and people in the media have mocked Friday sittings. Perhaps many mock them because they have not been present. Those who have been present know that our first job as legislators is to legislate. Before there were Friday sittings, I would have had zero opportunity to table legislation as a Government backbencher. My electorate can now ask whether I took the opportunity of the first Friday of every month to table a Bill on a local or national issue. The efforts of Deputies Healy and Finian McGrath can be measured in this regard. How many Private Members' Bills have they produced? Instead of waffling, moaning or acting as talking heads on media programmes, Friday sittings give every Deputy rather than just Government members the chance to roll up our sleeves and table legislation. I am involved in a cross-party group on mental health that has devised a Private Members' Bill. We would not have had an opportunity to table it without Friday sittings.
I welcome the referendum. There has been a great deal of discussion on reforming the Seanad, but we do not need a second House. This House can do the job. Committees need to be further empowered. Like Deputy Ross, those who are making valuable contributions in the Seanad can put their names forward to contest the next general election for Dáil Éireann.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this debate. It is important that people acknowledge that we are undergoing significant reforms.
If the people vote to abolish the Seanad, Ireland will move to the position adopted by the great majority of countries, particularly small countries. Only one country in the OECD has a bicameral or double-chamber system. Deputy McGrath mentioned the cost of the Seanad. I am not one to argue that the strongest argument for abolition is cost but, for every one of the young people in the Visitors' Gallery, as for every one of us in the State, the Seanad costs €400. That is not a significant amount of money but it is €400 for an institution for which, unless one is an elected person or, in very narrow circumstances, if one is a graduate, one has no vote. We need to have a local authority to which people can vote to elect councillors - not town or county councillors as they are now, but politicians who will work for them at a local level through their local authorities. People need to be able to vote for an elected government and have the opportunity, at subsequent general elections, to recall that government. What has been missed somewhat is that since the 1970s we have had a third layer of elections, for the European Parliament, and we have seen a significant increase in the power and role of that Parliament.
There has been discussion about the role of the Seanad in oversight and about what Senators missed and did not miss. In reality, Senators have no power of veto. Even if, on the night of the bank guarantee, they had questioned the decisions made, they had no power to stop anything that was happening, whether they determined it to be right or wrong. It is curious to hear what some of the Independent Deputies, in particular, have to say. We have a good sense of why Fianna Fáil is supporting the retention of the Seanad. In effect, de Valera established it to be a powerless institution that would allow a significant political input into party membership, and traditionally it has indeed benefited Fianna Fáil in the main, as well as Fine Gael. The Taoiseach broke that mould after the last general election by appointing Independent Senators. If the Seanad remains, there is nothing to stop any subsequent Taoiseach from reverting to the bad old way of appointing whomsoever they like to that House. The reality is that the Seanad does not have any power. The reformists, particularly the Independents, by supporting the Seanad, appear to give no regard to the fact that apart from on the university panels, Independent Members have never been elected to that House. It is this House that sees Independent Members have a voice through our single universal suffrage system. It is surprising, therefore, to see the Independents going down that road.
Today one of the Independent Deputies had a list in his reform package which, on my count, is the sixth separate list of reform proposals I have heard, and I am certain there will be more. The truth is that we must reform the Dáil and the local authorities and must continue to get more from the European Parliament. Having a fourth layer in the Seanad serves absolutely no purpose. Some Senators do very good work and I hope many of them will run for the Dáil. I have no doubt many will be elected to this House, as has been the case before now.
I would like to see further development of local government reform. We should have directly elected mayors, who would replace county managers. The mergers of councils in Waterford and Limerick is welcome and I believe the same should be extended to Cork.
I speak as a former Member of Seanad Éireann and am privileged to have served there. I recognise the importance of the House and of a second chamber. It is important that we look at the whole issue of bicameral chambers within a parliament and recognise that, whether we like it or not, the system we have, in respect of elections to the Seanad and how it operates, is broken. Ultimately, the people will decide on this. In reforming our political structures the Government recognised that our political class had lost its way prior to the last election. The Bill before us is an example of a commitment by the Government to follow through on a promise made by several political parties whose members are now jumping through hoops to reclaim different positions on the political spectrum.
Deputy Harris made an interesting point about Friday sittings, with which I agree. If one looks at how this House debates certain issues on a Friday, it happens away from the glare of political heat that is present on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in particular. I refer to the example of last Friday's Bill about access to the countryside, on which there was a measured debate between those in favour of the proposition, such as Deputy Dowds, and those against, such as Deputy Ó Cuív on the opposite side and Deputies Lawlor and Kyne on our side of the House. It was a very good debate.
I attended the Constitutional Convention in Malahide during its last two sessions, which dealt with electoral reform. I made the point on local radio and at the convention that electoral reform is one thing, but we ourselves must look to how we can reform this House in particular, and how we do our business. We are the shop window of politics to the wider society. What happens within the Houses of the Oireachtas, particularly in the Dáil and in the committee system, is the view people get of how the political process and the system work. Very often that view is tainted by media coverage but also by the way in which we present our cases and our ideology.
The world has changed enormously. I echo the point made by Deputy Dara Murphy. I very much welcome the reform of local government and hope that in time, whoever is the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government - one hopes it is the present Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan - will allow in the city and county of Cork a joined-up super-local-authority with a directly elected mayor to serve the best needs of the capital of and gateway to the south. Cork is recognised in the national spatial strategy as the gateway city and hub for the development of the south. We need to look at local government to see how it can serve the people. I was privileged to serve on Cork City Council. We need to give a meaningful role to local authority members rather than taking away their role and duties. In some local authorities there is now no accountability or responsibility and, as I am sure Deputy Barry Cowen will agree, one cannot even get answers to questions at times. That needs to stop. All of us, whatever level of the political ladder we are on, are there to represent the citizen and make the case and advocate for the community in which we live and, at a national level, enact policies that have the betterment of the people at their core.
The Bill we are discussing will ultimately go to the people. That is correct, and I am happy to support its passage through the House to the people. They will make the decision but they will not be listening to any argument put forward by celebrity commentators, politicians or former politicians. They will decide on the benefits and merits of a bicameral system, which is as it should be.
In this debate Opposition Members have accused the Government of populism and of making a power grab.
Sinn Féin's manifesto called for the abolition of the Seanad in its current form. Fianna Fáil stated in its manifesto that second chambers are not an essential part of parliamentary democracy and "it must be stressed that during the last decade the Seanad did not play a substantive role in challenging unsustainable policies." The parties opposite are now challenging themselves to find the next cause to join. When I heard Deputy Martin speak about wind farms yesterday, I wondered if he was the same man who championed different policies during the 14 years he was in Government.
The new practice introduced by this Government of bringing the heads of Bills before committees for discussion has had very positive outcomes. I do not say this solely because I am Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children but the committee system had a light shone on it over six days this year. To be fair to Deputies Kelleher, Ó Caoláin and Healy and Senator van Turnhout, as well as Government members of the committee, nobody pursued party politics or adverserial engagement. Generally in committees, we do not play politics. The six days of hearings in January and May on the A, B and C v.Ireland case and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 shows that we can act in a positive and constructive manner, with assistance from Oireachtas officials who demonstrated the brilliance and prowess of our public service. Our politicians were able to show what is good about politics.
We need to give teeth to our committee system. All of us remember the cost and length of the various tribunals and we saw what happened with Ken Starr in America. If reformed, our committee system can play a pivotal role in the transformation of Parliament and how it is viewed. It will ultimately become more valued by the population at large. This Government is bringing change and reform. It may be slow and incremental but it is happening. People's cynicism about the Seanad is partly because of the number of reports on reform that are gathering dust. As a political class we must see how we can reconnect with the public. When the report of the Constitutional Convention comes before the House, I ask Members to read it and heed the views of the citizens. I support this Bill and look forward to a referendum campaign which will bring value and positivity to our electoral system.
This Bill emanates from a publicity stunt by the Taoiseach in October 2009. There was no consultation process or internal discussion within his party. He was courting publicity in an effort to attract the attention that the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, was receiving at the time and he needed a big fish to catch if he was to restore his fortunes. A policy announcement of this nature is normally the outcome of a process conducted within a party or organisation but the Taoiseach did not bother with that. He now feels compelled to honour his solo run by attempting to score a point. In light of the contributions by many speakers from his own party, he is clearly still on a solo run. I refer to Deputies Charles Flanagan and Olivia Mitchell from Fine Gael, as well as Deputies Tuffy and Spring from the Labour Party. I suggest that the contributions from these Deputies reflect the opinion of the majority of Members from their respective parties. They spoke of reform and acknowledged that the public wants a more modern and relevant Seanad.
A cursory glance at the Taoiseach's reform agenda as set out in manifestos and speeches during the course of the last Dáil and the election campaign shows that it is high on rhetoric and spin but poor on delivery. Prior to the election, he promised a new form of politics and a five point plan. He was not going to pay another red cent to the banks or touch child benefit. He was going to abolish upward only rent reviews. Roscommon Hospital accident and emergency department, Garda stations and Army barracks were to be kept open. With NewEra, he promised 100,000 jobs. Some people thought it was only the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, who thought this is what one does at elections.
Despite the failure to live up to any of these promises, the Taoiseach is adamant that he will honour the one promise he made on his own by giving the people an opportunity to abolish the Seanad. He might refer to the many reports on Seanad reform that he and his party colleagues supported at various times over the course of his political career instead of deciding on a whim to pursue this course. The content of the referendum has also been decided on a whim. Despite his misgivings about its current structure, which are evidently shared by many speakers in this debate, he is giving the people a simple choice between abolishing the Seanad or living with it. His attitude is that if the voters do not agree with abolishing the Seanad, they can live with it as it is.
This attitude has crept in to many aspects of his leadership in recent months. His means of dealing with dissenting voices is, "do as I say, not as I do" Government Deputies recently got the privilege to say what they wanted on this Bill but they still must vote as directed. Debate and formulation of policy is normally reserved as a democratic function of parliamentary organisations, whether Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or the Labour Party, but that does not appear to apply in respect of the dominant party in Government. In such a context, how can we expect real reform or action that back up the Taoiseach's rhetoric?
Actions to back up the rhetoric are as far away today as consultation was when the Taoiseach embarked on this solo run.
The democratic revolution, which was the utterance of many members of Government and the Taoiseach, excited people and Members. In a similar manner to the pathetic attempts of the Tánaiste earlier today to defend the indefensible in regard to a 25% cut in special need assistants' hours, the Taoiseach and his trusty Government Whip, Deputy Paul Kehoe, say there has been huge reform. They will say the Dáil is sitting longer, a half day once a month to be exact. That, unfortunately, is a pathetic excuse for reform. On that half day once a month, no questions are asked of the Government and no votes are called. It simply seeks to pander to reform.
Members, in particular those in Government parties, should ask themselves whether they believe the mantra from Government that there has been a democratic revolution and that the Dáil been reformed and is more modern and relevant. I am afraid that is not the case. Until mid-March this year, 57% of Bills passed by the Dáil were guillotined on the instructions of the Government. Some 40% of Topical Issues in the House were dealt with by Ministers of State who were not even from the Department to which the Topical Issue was addressed. That is far from the promise made on how Topical Issues would be addressed. Friday sittings are nothing more than a farce. There are fewer committees and reduced membership of those which remain. There has been no movement on the promise to increase time allocated for oral questions. The Government promised, whether one agrees with it, to reduce the number of Deputies by 20 but instead reduced the number by eight. There has been no progress on the promise to relax rules on Cabinet confidentiality. A Minister went on another solo run when appearing on "The Late Late Show" in regard to ministerial report cards which were another whim, not that we ever expected them to be adhered to. Like everything else promised in the context of reform, it has not been adhered to. We were promised a constitutional day within 12 months, but of course that did not happen. The Constitutional Convention was to be set up and report to the House within 12 months, but of course that did not happen. I could go on about other detailed promises related to appointments to State boards, constituency staff and doing away with the constituency work of the Taoiseach and his Ministers. There were promises to tackle cronyism, or the Government's interpretation of it over 14 years. It was promised that the Taoiseach's Department would be halved in size. That is the constitutional reform and revolution which has taken place and something to stand over. All those promises have gone in the wind, but the one which remains is that made on a whim which sought to court publicity and favour and was the big fish caught to address the Taoiseach's popularity and standing but not that of his party.
I and my party believe that the Seanad as constituted by the people and drafted by the de Valera Government had potential, was well-meaning and had a significant role. I accept over time it has been hijacked by all political parties bar none. It is outdated in terms of its configuration and election and selection processes. The electorate is of the same opinion. I and my party believe the electorate deserves the option of a reformed Seanad and Oireachtas, and should be offered the opportunity to vote on such an option rather than on the contents of a whim, namely, whether to abolish the Seanad or live with it.
A fundamental overhaul of our political system is needed to tackle the big problems in politics. It requires a lot more than political and publicity stunts. The short-sighted solo run by the Taoiseach reminds me of the failings of his County Mayo as a footballing entity over recent years. They had a lot of possession and solo runs but were not good at putting the ball over the bar and winning all-Irelands. I saw them last year and this year and they seem to have corrected a lot of their failings. They have the potential to win an all-Ireland and might just do so. They were each man enough to stand up and address their failings.
None was expected. The Taoiseach continues his solo run. He might not get this shot over the bar when he decides to take it. He will have no one to blame but himself because it will not be the fault of the Ministers, Deputies Shatter, Reilly or Hogan, rather it will be the Taoiseach's fault. He is on his own on this issue, make no mistake about it. The only way in which he might survive in his mind and that of his Government is by putting before the people a proposal to abolish or live with the Seanad.
He and the Government do not have the guts to put a proper referendum before the people asking them whether they want to use or lose the Seanad, which would put reform at the heart of this and the other House and would have the actions to back up the rhetoric which was flowing profusely from the Taoiseach and his colleagues during the previous general election campaign. It would be an injustice to the people to allow the referendum in its current form to go before them.
It is a waste of time, effort and money to ask people to abolish or live with the Seanad as it is currently formed. What sense or reason is in that proposal? As I said, we were well able to support many recommendations on reform as instigated by many of the Taoiseach's colleagues over the past 30 years.
The Government, however, has not referred to any of the alternative proposals or made any attempt to put a meaningful referendum before the people.
During Leaders' Questions this morning we had to listen to the Tánaiste churn out every statistic and figure relating to the provision of supports for special education needs. What he failed to mention, however, is the impact of the latest proposal on the children throughout the country who are in need of such assistance. We acknowledge that money has been ring-fenced for this purpose and that a cap, which has been retained by this Administration, was initially put in place by the previous Government. It is safe to safe to say, however, that my party would take cognisance of the increase in the number of children requiring the service and would move heaven and earth to facilitate them. The Tánaiste essentially went on a ramble this morning in his effort to defend the indefensible. To be fair to the Minister for Education and Skills, he has admitted the numerous mistakes he made since coming to office. I have no doubt that he will acknowledge that the latest proposal is also a mistake and that it will, in due course, be rescinded.
The Taoiseach fixed on his proposal to abolish the Seanad on a whim. This publicity stunt and power grab will come back to haunt him by virtue of what is happening parallel to this debate. For all his talk of efforts to repair the economy in the context of G8 summits, EU summits and so on, the reality is that our society is not making much progress.
In attempting to get my thoughts together on this subject prior to the debate, I discovered several contradictions in my position. One of the reasons I was motivated to contribute today was in order to increase my participation. I suspect that if a survey were conducted among Members, the results would indicate an inverse relationship between length of time spent in the Dáil and participation in debates, unless one is a Minister or party leader. Whether it is a cynicism or weariness which takes hold after a certain period of time in this House, it is difficult not to conclude that although one can make the finest speeches in the land and produce the most wonderful proposals, unless one is a member of Government one will have very little influence or impact.
I recall Vincent Browne doing a survey of Dáil contributions on his radio show prior to the 2002 election. Every night he would proclaim his shock and surprise at the quality of speeches made in the House. The reality, however, is that many excellent proposals and suggestions have been made in this Chamber only to fall on deaf ears for a myriad reasons. During the Celtic tiger years, for example, there were many calls for a halt to spending in the area of housing and elsewhere. Some of these contributions were reported and others were not. There certainly was no continuum of reportage which would have allowed such proposals to resonate with people. The public has a short memory, particularly during difficult economic times when social issues and matters such as political reform are unlikely to engage it at a meaningful level.
In considering the question of Oireachtas reform, I am reminded of an observation by Boris Pasternak, the Russian writer, who observed that Adam might have turned to Eve as they were leaving the Garden of Eden and observed that they were merely going through a period of transition. In our discussion of political reform it is important to remember that we do not necessarily have a monopoly of wisdom, notwithstanding our insistence that mistakes made in the past must never recur. In preparing for this discussion I came across a relevant extract from a debate which took place in this House some 20 years ago, which I will outline in due course, time permitting. It is illuminating because it highlights the point I am making here. The week before last I visited Normandy where the message that kept coming up at the various visitor attractions was that what happened in the First World War should never again be permitted. Yet here we are, almost 100 years later, hearing about atrocities taking place in Syria, in central Africa and elsewhere. It seems the more we talk about change the less actual change is achieved.
I support any legislation which allows the people to have their say. It is important to bear in mind Article 27 of the Constitution, which permits the calling of a referendum on a particular issue where one third of Members of the Dáil together with a majority of Members of the Seanad request it. If the Seanad is abolished, that constitutional provision will have to be replaced by a similar mechanism in a situation where the Dáil is the single House of Parliament. Notwithstanding my enthusiasm for allowing the people their say, I am also very wary of referenda because it is so difficult to get one's message across. The referendum commission is obliged to be perfectly balanced in its provision of information to the public even where a proposal enjoys unanimous political support. A classic example of the difficulties that can arise in this regard was last year's referendum on children's rights. An opinion poll three weeks before that vote showed only 4% of respondents intending to vote "No" whereas the actual "No" vote was some 48%. Incidentally, 91% of poll respondents indicated an intention to vote, but only 33% of the electorate turned out 21 days later. Opinion polling in the context of referenda on social areas reflects the fluidity of public opinion over the course of a campaign.
I support this legislation. Until quite recently I was indifferent to the prospect of the abolition of the Upper House and, like others, weary of the talk of Seanad reform. I could make a great case for the abolition of the Upper House or for its retention. Likewise, there is a case to be made for either the abolition or retention of the Dáil. Certainly, if a proposal to abolish this House were put to the people I would be nervous about the outcome. While the Seanad receives nothing like the attention given to the Dáil, I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of Mr. Jimmy Walsh of The Irish Times over many years. He always managed to identify the pertinent contributions for inclusion in his report on Seanad proceedings. We in politics are inclined to criticise the media. We are lambasted when the Chamber is empty, but I cannot help but notice that the Press Gallery is not very busy today. Perhaps the members of the press are, like many Deputies, working in their offices. As a result of the failure to report Oireachtas proceedings in a comprehensive way, very important debates are not made known to the public. I am the first to admit that a great deal of waffle is spoken in this House, but many useful contributions are simply not reported.
One of my concerns regarding the potential abolition of the Seanad relates to the power of the Executive. My Private Members' Bill, the Good Samaritan Bill 2005, involved no cost for the Exchequer, was demonstrably in the common interest and was, everybody agreed, a worthwhile proposal. It was rejected by the then Government, however, on the basis that similar proposals were under consideration by the Law Reform Commission. When I subsequently brought forward a second Bill which reflected the recommendations made by the commission, it was again rejected. Finally, the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Dermot Ahern, included the same provisions in one of his own Bills. This type of refusal to take on board the contribution of ordinary Members of the House is a shortcoming of our parliamentary system. Instead of abolishing the Seanad, we should perhaps focus on decommissioning that mindset. We are all aware of the wonderful achievement that was the decommissioning of weapons in the North, but there will never really be peace and harmony in that jurisdiction until we also decommission mindsets, which can only be done through amalgamated schooling and so on. A similar decommissioning of mindsets here in the Oireachtas is vital if we are to have effective reform.
Although a member of one of the parties of Government, I am not a member of the Executive.
I am not holding my breath. However, it may be the case that I would not behave any differently in office from other members of the Government. I say this with all due respect to the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, who is one of the more enlightened members of Government and who is unfairly apportioned blame on many occasions for unpopular decisions. I see the Minister smiling; he is engaged in a labour of love. However, it seems generally to be the case that when people cross that tunnel, irrespective of who they are, a certain mindset descends and a sprinkle of dust falls over their grey matter. I observe them from my office every day, which is conveniently located for that purpose. People seem to go into lock-down mode. I concede, however, that there might not be a better system than the one we have.
Maybe we are reinventing the wheel. We could spend a generation here doing things but end up where we are.
To return to the issue of the control of the Executive, Deputy Buttimer spoke earlier about the Oireachtas hearings on the termination of life Bill, about how experts were able to make their contribution, how great it was to hear them and about how there was no need for a second Chamber. I attended those hearings and I must admit I received some good information. However, it seems that was the only purpose the hearings served, because none of the information was acted on. If it was, the legislation would differ greatly from that we have currently. That particular issue is a very emotive and serious issue of concern for me. Since the hearings, I have sought to find out certain information regarding the establishment of the expert group, but I have not been able to find that information, either through tabling parliamentary questions or the use of other avenues. This is totally unacceptable. When a Member of the Oireachtas cannot find out how an expert group on a certain subject was established, there is a shortcoming in the system.
In recent days we have heard much about the freedom of Members to vote "No". Strangely enough, I am a strong advocate of the Whip system and I believe we must have a Whip system in place to ensure coherence and to enable the implementation of certain policies. That said, anybody who needs to hide behind a Whip system should not be in politics. If people cannot face pressure from a pressure group or stand up to those groups, they should not be in politics. They should not need the protection of the Whip system. The Whip system should not exist to protect somebody, but to facilitate cohesion, because otherwise it might be very difficult to implement a policy.
This issue has brought forward the concept of a free vote. My colleague, the Minister of State Deputy Brian Hayes, floated the idea a number of months ago, but it seems to have been shot down fairly rapidly. In this regard, a debate held on 30 June 1993 has come to my attention and is of interest. I do not know whether the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, was in the Dáil at the time, but perhaps he was. It is ironic that I will be quoting my good colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, on this. He has a very enlightened approach to many issues and while I disagree with him on some, I must acknowledge that with regard to others he is doing significant work.
The debate in question was on the hare coursing Bill and took place 20 years ago next week. I will not go through all the matters mentioned by Deputy Shatter, but he mentioned Woodstock, the generation of the booming sixties then entering Irish politics and Stephen Spielberg's "Jurassic Park". I do not remember those things, but I will cite what he had to say on the hare coursing Bill. He asked:
Why should grown men and women be forced to behave in such an undignified and demeaning way? Why should they be forced on an issue such as this to let people down and add to the public cynicism of politicians and the workings of this House?I admit I am being selective in what I am quoting. He went on to say:
There are other issues to which the tyranny of the Whip or indeed the protection of the Whip should not apply. Most people outside this House cannot understand Deputies who say one thing and vote for the opposite. We have heard much about muzzling dogs during this debate. It is time for us to remove the self-imposed political muzzles. It is time for us to allow Deputies of all parties to behave and act on occasion like legislators and not just as lobby fodder. The new Ireland is the politics of free choice and personal responsibility.This was 20 years ago. Strangely, in the same debate, Deputy Shatter referred to the 1983 protection of life amendment and myself and Monica Barnes voting against it.
In a nutshell, Deputy Shatter finished up by saying: "Put simply, it is about keeping faith with people with whom I have been in contact over the years and it is about fulfilling a promise." On that occasion, Deputy Shatter, now a Minister, and two other Deputies at the time, Deputy McGahon and Deputy Flaherty, voted against the Fine Gael Party position. There was not a free vote on the issue. Strangely enough, although they voted against the party system, they did not lose the Whip. While Deputy Shatter points out at the time that we were unenlightened, it looks like we have become more unenlightened as time has passed. I do not know when the rules changed, but now in our party if one votes against party policy, one immediately loses the Whip. I am an advocate of the Whip system in general, but I think that after the next few weeks, on social and certain other issues and on Private Members' time, we should have a free vote system, where people can come and live and die by their vote, rather than hide behind the Whip system.
The Dáil could be made more meaningful. I acknowledge the job done by the Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Seán Barrett. However, the Ceann Comhairle should be elected by Members of the Dáil. The position should not be the preserve of the Government or the Opposition. Equally, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle should be elected by the Dáil. That position should not be the preserve of the Leader of the Opposition or main party, the Taoiseach or anybody else. This is where we need to start reform.
With regard to committees, I brought forward a document on the reform of committees which got me into some difficulty in my party, but I will not go into that. I am not the best contributor in the world to committees, but they have not changed much over the years. We go down and sit in the committee room for an hour or two and get the opportunity to contribute one line or so. This system does not work, but I do not have a solution to the problem. I cannot stand here and say I have the solution to improving the system. What we need to change is our mindset. I agree we must be disciplined and must vote here for things we might prefer not to vote for. However, there should be areas where we have freedom of choice and the right to choose. We also need to look at the issue of Private Members time and Bills.
Reference was made to Friday sittings. I have a very poor record for attending on Fridays. Deputy Buttimer said the Friday debates were wonderful and that wonderful contributions are made, but I wonder what concrete proposals arise from them or whether anything is implemented following them. I suggest there is very little result from them. I do not support Friday sittings. If we sat and used the time we have here on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays adequately, that would be fine, because we must also get out among the public. Ministers have a role to play around the country and it is important they do not end up sitting in their offices all the time. On one hand we are accused of not enacting sufficient legislation, and on the other we are accused of staying in our ivory towers. Three days in the House is ample if the time is used properly.
I welcome the fact this issue is being put before the public and hope it leads to a coherent, non-confrontational debate. I hope it awakens all of us to the fact that it is not the institutions that need to be abolished, but the mindset that has accumulated here after decades of government run in the same manner. How we can enlighten people and improve this mindset is easier said than done. It is easy to identify problems, but it is a little more difficult to come up with solutions.
I thank Deputy Timmins for sharing time. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. We are advocating the abolition of the Seanad on three bases - cost, ineffectiveness since the 1930s and the lack of a real role or necessity for it. Notwithstanding the fact this House has considerably curtailed its costs, it is a more expensive House to operate per Member, its effectiveness as a mechanism of holding the Government to account is questionable, as long as it has existed, and on that basis we could equally question the necessity for it. However, the Dáil is a tool of our democracy.
To be honest, I will shed no tears and I hold no brief for the defence of the Seanad. I lost my seat in 2002 and did not contest the Seanad elections then. In that sense, I can speak with an uncompromised view on the matter. However, in the context of this legislation, which I support, I would prefer the Government to rearrange its deckchairs in a slightly different form. It is not too late to do this. What I mean by this is that we need to prove as a legislative Chamber that we are committed to a more effective system of holding the Executive to account, rather than simply passing legislation here, at the stroke of a pen or the press of a button, to abolish our Upper House, without proving that we are enabled to step into the breach and hold the Government to account more effectively. In a sense, we have put the cart before the horse, which is unfortunate.
More often than not in my time in this House I have sat on the Opposition side.
Sitting on the Opposition benches, I frequently agreed with the contributions made by Members on the Government side but could not speak my mind because of the Whip system. On rare occasions, I have also disagreed with the approach taken by this Government but had to go along with it. Our democracy is immature. As Deputy Timmins noted, the issue is one of mindset. On the first sitting after every election, Deputies divide along party lines to elect the Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle. We assume our respective sides have a monopoly on wisdom and the crowd opposite does not have any good ideas. This diminishes the standing of the House and the electors who send us here to perform a specific role. If we could find a way to harness effectively the collective energies and opinions of all Members in the national interest, we would do a better job without compromising our political or party identities.
Reform is necessary. Friday sittings and other recent measures are mere window dressing, which barely scratch the service in terms of achieving what is needed to hold the Executive to account. By its own admission, the Government's reform programme is appallingly weak. Members of the public may well vote in favour of abolition of the Seanad. Members are taking a leap into the unknown, however, because we are proposing to remove a Chamber of the Oireachtas and a level of accountability before putting our own house in order, as it were, to ensure we can more effectively perform our role. Every Executive would behave in a similar manner because all governments want unfettered and untrammelled powers and do not want to be tripped up by pesky back bench or Opposition Deputies. Friday sittings keep the drones busy while the Government gets on with its business. This type of attitude sets in after a time in all Governments.
Occasional reform is not sufficient. We should embrace continual reform to make the Houses of the Oireachtas more effective in serving the citizens who elect us.
Is trua go bhfuilimid ag caint ar an mBille seo mar níl an díospóireacht atá tar éis a bheith ann i gceart roimh an Bille seo a bheith curtha le chéile. Táimid ag déileáil le Bille inniu chun reifreann a chur faoi sheol chun fáil réidh leis an Seanad. Cibé taobh den argóint ar a bhfuil duine, ar an taobh fáil réidh leis nó é a choimead, ba chóir go mbeadh an díospóireacht sin tógtha as na Tithe seo agus tógtha chuig an phobal i gcoitinne. Shíl mise agus a lán daoine eile, nuair a bunaíodh an Coinbhinsiún ar an mBunreacht, go mbeadh muid ag déileáil leis na ceisteanna mór bunreachtúla istigh san coinbhinsiún sin. Ní sheasann an Seanad leis féin. Toisc sin, pé athrú a thagann, agus sa chás seo, is athrú suntasach atá i gceist, ag fáil réidh leis an Seanad go huile agus go hiomlán, tá impleachtaí ag an athrú ar gach uile chuid eile den saol pholaitiúil ina lán bhealaí.
Nílim anseo chun a rá go mba chóir go gcoimeadtaí an Seanad mar atá sé. Shíl mise i gcónaí go raibh an toghchán don Seanad agus an modh a roghnaíodh na hiarrthóirí agus na Seanadóirí i ndiaidh an toghchán sin go huile agus go hiomlán mí-daonlathach agus gur chóir i gcónaí ó thús go mbeadh athrú córas toghchánaíochta ann. Shíl mise i gcónaí go mba chóir go mbeadh an toghchán don Seanad ar an lá ceannan céanna agus an toghchán don Dáil. Dá réir, bheitheá ag déanamh an cinneadh, dá mbeitheá mar iarrthóir don Seanad, gur seo an rogha Teach an Oireachtais a bhfuiltear sásta obair ann. Déanfadh sin deighilt idir an dá Teach i mbealach an-shoiléir don phobal. Tá moltaí den sórt sin curtha chun cinn, ní hamháin ag mo pháirtí ach ag a lán daoine eile thar na blianta. Ba chóir go mbeadh an Seanad difriúil. Ní chóir go mbeadh sé mar macasamhail den Teach seo, ach níos lú.
Is trua nach raibh an díospóireacht sin i measc an phobal, mar an rud atá i gceist ag an bpobal faoi láthair ná fáil réidh le polaitíocht ina iomlán. Dá gcuirfeá foclaíocht difriúil ós comhair an phobail chun fáil réidh le Dáil Éireann, bheadh siad sásta go maith fáil réidh leis mar shíleann siad, má chreidtear na gnáth meáin, nó the popular press, gur caitheamh amú airgid go mbeadh daonlathas againn agus gur caitheamh amú airgid Tithe an Oireachtais ina n-iomlán. Caithfimid bheith an-chúramach nach bhfuilimid ag léim le cheol atá á sheinnt ag daoine gur cuma leo an daonlathas agus an deis atá ann chun Rialtas a choiméad ar an port ceart. Tá an dainséar sin ann agus le tamall le blianta, go háirithe le deich nó 15 bliain anuas, tá sé amuigh ansin gur caitheamh amú airgid í an pholaitíocht nó nach bhfuil aon fiúntas le polaiteóirí i gcoitinne. Caithfimid déanamh cinnte de nach bhfuilimid ag léim isteach sa phort sin.
Nuair atá an Rialtas seo críochnaithe leis an Seanad, cén sórt casadh a dhéanfaidh sé ansin? Ní hamháin an Seanad atá i gceist ó thaobh daonlathas de. Cheana féin tá an Rialtas ag fáil réidh leis na comhairlí baile. Tá athruithe suntasach déanta ar Údarás na Gaeltachta. Ní thoghfar é a thuilleadh. Toghfar níos lú Teachtaí Dála amach anseo. Arís is arís eile, tá laghdú á chur ar an líon ionadaithe a bheidh ar fáil don phobal. Is a mhalairt de threo go mba chóir dúinn dul. Ba chóir go mbeadh níos mó ionadaithe ionas go mbeadh ní hamháin an rialtas áitiúil ach an rialtas lárnach chomh maith gafa leis an bpobal ó bhun go barr.
Measaim go bhfuil sin caillte sa díospóireacht seo toisc nach raibh sé lasmuigh de na Tithe seo. Bhí an deis ag an Rialtas agus d'ardaigh mé agus daoine eile na ceiste seo ag an Coinbhinsiún ar an mBunreacht. D'ardaigh mo pháirtí na ceiste nuair a roghnaíodh na hábhair a bheadh curtha os comhair an choinbhinsiúin. D'impíomar ar an Rialtas gan ligean don choinbhinsiún críochnú agus gan an cheist seo a bheith déileáilte le. Bhí a threo roghnaihe ag an Rialtas cheana féin, áfach, go mbeadh an cheist faoin Seanad curtha os comhair an phobail, ní i dtéarmaí ceart ach i dtéarmaí an bhfuiltear sásta fáil réidh leis nó é a choimeád.
Tá rogha eile go mba chóir go mbeadh curtha os comhair an phobail, sé sin an chóir go mbeadh athruite agus leasú déanta ar an Seanad. Tá tuairimí ag a lán den phobal agus fiú a lán de na daoine sa Teach seo conas is féidir an Seanad a leasú ionas go mbeadh ról, seasamh agus toghchán ceart aige agus go mbeadh sé in ann fás amach anseo ionas nach an Teach seo amháin a bheadh ag déanamh fiosrú, ag coimeád súil ar an Rialtas agus ag déileáil le polasaithe ach go mbeadh an Seanad in ann é sin a dhéanamh chomh maith, agus i slí i bhfad níos mó.
Sa tír seo anois, seachas an coinbhinsiún atá ann ar feadh tamall beag, níl aon fóram ceart do saoránaigh ann. Dá mbeitheá ag aistriú nó ag athrú an Seanad, d'fhéadfadh go mbeadh sé sin mar an ról lárnach a bheadh aige, tuairimí an phobail i gcoitinne nó fiú na grúpaí sin a phlé agus déileáil leo i gceart. An dainséar atá ann anois, ní hamháin toisc go bhfuil an Rialtas ag iarraidh fáil réidh leis an Seanad, ná go bhfuil níos lú coistí, mar shampla, sa Teach seo, agus beidh níos lú amach anseo toisc go mbeidh níos lú Baill againn chun déileáil leis an reachtaíocht agus gach rud eile.
Ní bheidh coistí na Dála amach anseo in ann déileáil leis an méid sin iarratas ón phobal éisteacht a thabhairt dá gcásanna, mar cheana féin tá na coistí i gcruachás. Níl go leor ama nó spáis ann chun na coistí atá againn fé láthair a reachtáil chomh héifeachtach agus chomh maith agus is cóir. Chomh maith le sin, níl fiú na hacmhainní cuí tugtha do na coistí mar a thugtar do choistí i parlaimintí eile. I slí amháin, tá sé ró-dheireannach impí ar an Rialtas déileáil le na ceisteanna seo, mar tá sé tar éis an seasamh a ghlacadh an Bille seo a fhoilsiú cé, mar a dúirt mé, nár tharla an díospóireacht lasmuigh de na Tithe seo fós. Dá mba rud é go raibh an díospóireacht sin lasmuigh de na Tithe againn - b'fhéidir go dtarlóidh sé thar an chéad cúpla mí eile agus b'fhéidir go dtiocfaidh an pobal ar ais chuig an Rialtas ag rá nach bhfuil siad sásta fáil réidh leis an Seanad - bheadh sin spéisiúil.
Cad a tharlóidh má dhiúltaíonn an pobal fáil réidh leis an Seanad? Go bhfios domsa, níl éinne ag iarraidh go bhfanfaidh an Seanad mar atá sé ná níl éinne ag iarraidh go bhfanfaidh an Dáil mar atá sé, ach níl aon leasú ar an chlár oibre faoi láthair i gceachtar Teach. Tá an scéal níos measa fós, mar tá an Rialtas ag iarraidh fáil réidh leis an Seanad, ach níltear ag rá cad a tharlóidh ina dhiaidh sin má tharlaíonn sin. Níor leag an Rialtas amach conas mar a rithfear an Teach seo tar éis an reifrinn. Cad iad na hathruithe móra a dhéanfaidh an Rialtas ansin? An mbeidh gá le reifreann eile chun leasuithe a dhéanamh don Dáil. Tá a lán ceisteanna nár freagraíodh fós ar an ábhar seo, ní amháin ag an Aire seo ach ag an Taoiseach. Is trua sin. Ar a laghad, dá mbeadh freagra againn ar na ceisteanna sin, bheadh a fhios ag an pobal cad go díreach ar a bhfuil siad ag vótáil. Ní hé go bhfuil siad ag vótáil ar fáil reidh leis an Seanad amháin, ta impleachtaí le sin.
Mar shampla, dúirt mé cheana go raibh impleachtaí ann do na coistí. Táim mar ball den Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service, Oversight and Petitions, ach is iad na Seanadóirí is mó atá gafa atá gafa le obair an choiste sin. Tarlaíonn sin mar go bhfuil muidne sa Teach seo gafa le obair reachtaíochta, mar tá níos mó reachtaíochta ag teacht tríd an Teach seo ná mar a bhí riamh. Tá an Teach ag suí níos minicí, tá níos mó dualgas orainn, ach amach anseo beidh níos lú dínn ann. Ansin, tá sé ar intinn ag an Rialtas breis oibre a thabhairt dúinn, gan tuilleadh ama a bheith againn, mar níl ach méid áirithe uair a chloig sa lá. Tá dáinséar ann go mbeifear de shíor ag creimeadh ar am Teachtaí Dála agus amach anseo nach mbeidh daoine sásta seasamh i toghchán, ní toisc an tuarastal ach mar nach bhfuil aon bhuíochas ag dul d'ionadaí ar aon chaoi. Feiceann muid go léir é sin, ní amháin ionadaithe ar thaobh an Rialtais ach ionadaithe ar an dtaobh seo den Teach chomh maith.
Bíonn daoine ag caitheamh anuas orainn de shíor. Daoine aineolacha iad don chuid is mó. Déanann siad ionsaithe ar Theachtaí Dála de bharr nach bhfuil siad ag suí i dTeach na dTeachtaí an t-am ar fad, mar feiceann siad ar an teilifís nach bhfuil ach duine nó beirt sa Teach. Tarlaíonn ionsaithe mar seo i gcónaí. Deireann daoine nach bhfeiceann siad muid ag freastal ar na coistí agus mar sin nach bhfuil muid ag déanamh na hoibre. Deireann siad nár chuala siad muid ag labhairt ar seo nó siúd. Ar a lán bealaí, ní thuigeann an pobal cad a tharlaíonn anseo. Fiú, roinnt dóibh siúd a thuigeann cad a tharlaíonn agus conas mar a dheineann Teachta Dála ó aon taobh den Teach a chuid ama a roinnt - na meáin ach go háirithe - cé go dtuigeann siad conas a oibríonn muid, uaireanta toisc go bhfuiltear ag iarraidh gnaoi an phobail a bheith orthu,déanann siad ionsaithe orainn chomh maith.
Caithfimid a bheith cúramach nach bhfuil muid ag creimeadh de shíor ar an daonlathas agus ar na hionadaithe atá tofa ag an bpobal amach anseo. Mar a deirtear i mBéarla, "Be careful what you wish for." Má tharlaíonn an rud atá á lorg ag roinnt de na commentators nó na meáin amach anseo, ní bheidh aon ionadaithe tofa sa tír seo. In ionad sin, beidh deachtóireacht nó a leithéid againn. B'fhéidir go mbeidh grúpa nó cabal beag i mbun na tíre a bheidh smacht aige ar ghach uile rud. B'fhéidir go ndéarfaidh daoine áirithe gur sin atá againn cheana féin leis na hAirí Rialtais, ach nílimse ag rá sin in aon chor. B'ait dom agus mé ag ullmhú don díospóireacht seo cé chomh lú glaoch nó ríomhphost a fuair mé ón bpobal i gcoitinne. Measaim nach dtuigeann siad go díreach na himpleachtaí a bhaineann le seo. Fuair mé ríomhphost ó duine i gContae Corcaigh agus bhí tuairimí spéisiúla aige maidir le leasuithe don Dáil agus conas ar cóir na leasuithe sin a chur i bhfeidhm. Sin an sórt ruda a bhí ag teastáil uainn roimh teacht chuig an Chéim seo. Is trua nár tugadh an deis don duine seo nó do daoine eile a dtuairimí a nochtadh go poiblí.
Tá a fhios agam gur chuir an Seanad fo-choistí ar bun thar na blianta le déileáil le leasuithe a dhéanamh ar an Seanad, mar atá againn sa Dáil. Tá mise ar choiste leasú Dála ó toghadh mé ar dtús i 2002. Chuir mé doiciméad le chéile thar ceann mo pháirtí, mar a dhein gach uile páirtí eile sa Dáil deireannach agus sa Dáil roimhe sin, faoi chonas is féidir linn uaireanta na Dála a leasú agus conas is féidir obair an Tí a dhéanamh níos éifeachtaí agus mar sin de. Tugadh roinnt de na leasuithe sin chun cinn. Bhain leasú amháin a mhol mé leis an obair a dhéanann muid ar an Mháirt. Seachas an maidin sin a fhágáil saor, mhol mé go mbeadh seans againn déileáil le reachtaíocht ar an mhaidin sin, nó ar a laghad go bhféadfadh muid déileáil le tuairiscí ó choistí.
Tá sin chun teacht i gcrích don chéad uair riamh an Mháirt seo chugainn. Ní hé go raibh mé ag lorg go mbeadh ar Aire a bheith sa Teach, mar an fhadhb a bhí ann i gcónaí ná go mbíonn cruinniú na nAirí ar siúl an mhaidin sin agus nach féidir leis an Dáil suí ag an am sin. An argóint a bhí agamsa ná seachas gach duine a tharraingt isteach sa Teach ar feadh leath lae ar an Aoine, go raibh tromlach na ndaoine anseo cheana féin ar maidin ar an Mháirt. Nílim ag rá nach cóir go mbeadh muid inár suí ar an Aoine, ach má tá muid ag suí ar an Aoine, gur cóir go mbeadh a fhios againn i bhfad roimh ré. Ba chóir go mbeadh sin ar an sceideal nó an féilire parlaiminte agus ba chóir go mbeadh reachtaíocht cheart ar siúl agus go leanfadh sé ar aghaidh an lá ar fad. Ba chóir sin a dhéanamh seachas daoine a choimeád óna ndáilcheantair ar feadh an lae agus seachas Teachtaí ón tuath a choimeád i mBaile Átha Cliath oíche breise.
Tá cuid de na hathruithe a mholadh tar éis tarlú. Mar sin, sa deireadh thiar tá daoine ag éisteacht. Is iad leasuithe mar seo a bhféadfaí a dhéanamh, ní amháin sa Teach seo ach sa Seanad chomh maith. Is féidir leasuithe beaga a dhéanamh ar dtús báire, ach b'fhéidir go bhféadfaí leasuithe níos mó a dhéanamh ansin le déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil an Seanad níos éifeachtaí, go bhfuil ról ceart aige agus go bhfuil muid ag éisteacht leis an bpobal i gcoitinne.
An cheist is mó a bhí ann i gcónaí nuair a bhí mise óg ná conas a thoghann muid daoine don Seanad. Sin an scannal is mó, nár athraíodh an bealach a roghnaítear baill an tSeanaid ó bunaíodh é. Maidir leis na Seanadóirí ollscoile, ní raibh ach dhá ollscoil, Trinity College agus An Ollscoil Náisiúnta in ann na Seanadóirí sin a roghnú. Bhí sin elitist amach is amach. Bhí ar duine a bheith ina chéimí ó cheann de na hollscoileanna sin le vóta a bheith aige nó aici. Seachas sin, bhí ar duine a bheith ina chomhairleoir contae nó Teachta Dála. I roinnt cásanna, bhí dhá vóta ag duine. Tá sin go huile agus go hiomlán neamhdhaonlathach.
Ní raibh iarracht riamh chun é sin a athrú. B'fhéidir, leis an athrú sin, go mbeadh an ról aithrithe. Ní raibh iarracht riamh ról a thabhairt do saoránaigh an oileán seo san Seanad. Is cuimhin liom, sna 1970í agus san 1980í, daoine ag caint faoi ról sa Seanad a thabhairt dóibh siúd a bhí ar imirce, ach níor thárla sé sin. Is é sin an fhadhb. Ní tharlóidh sé anois. Beidh sé spéisiúil féachaint céin chaoi ina dhéanfaidh an Rialtas déileáil leis na haithrithe móra is gá chun obair na Dála a leasú chun vótaí a thabhairt do gach saoránach ar an oileán. Conas is féidir leis an Dáil déileáil le vóta a thabhairt dóibh siúd atá ar imirce agus saoránaigh atá thar lear? An bhfuil an Rialtas chun Dáilcheantar domhanda a bhunú? Níl na rudaí sin os ár gcomhar. Beidh "preferendum" seachas referendum i bhfad níos fearr don phobal agus bheadh an díospóireacht i bhfad níos spéisiúla. Sa chás sin, bheadh daoine ag chaitheamh vóta le eolas faoi chonas mar a oibríonn an Dáil agus an Seanad, agus chonas mar a oibríonn an tarna teach i dtíortha eile.
B'fhiú dúinn, fiú ag an am seo, aire a thabhairt ar na díospóireachtaí a bhí ag an Coinbhinsiún ar an mBunreacht. Ar feadh cúpla deireadh seachtaine, d'fhreastal mé ar agus bhí sé an spéisiúil an slí a dhein an ghnáth phobal - seachas na polaiteoirí, a dhein go maith freisin - déileáil le ceisteanna móra casta cosúil le vótáil don Dáil. Ní chóir go mbeadh eagla orainn riamh ceisteanna a chur roimh an phobal cosúil leis an cheist conas is féidir an Seanad a fheabhsú seachas fáil réidh leis. Bheadh sé an deacair an Seanad a chur ar siúl arís leis an ról gur cheart a bheith aige tar éis deireadh a chur leis san reifreann seo. Impím ar an Rialtas gan dul níos faide le seo go dtí go n-éistíonn siad leis an bpobal.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013. I welcome the fact that the Referendum Commission was put in place at the earliest possible point to ensure that the information is given to the public to consider as quickly as possible.
I have read the legislation. One item struck me and it relates to the Presidential Commission. Article 14 of the Constitution deals solely with the role of the Presidential Commission and its composition where the President is not in a position to act. Currently, the Presidential Commission is made up of three members: the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, three independent officers whom a general election does not affect. Under the Bill it is proposed to amend Article 14.2.1°, Article 14.2.3° and Article 14.2.4° of the Constitution. These amendments would alter the members of the Presidential Commission. In particular, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be interested to note, it is proposed that the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad would be replaced by the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, but a general election affects the Office of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle may be pleased to hear what I am going to suggest.
The issue with this legislation is that if the referendum results in the abolition of the Seanad and if a future Leas-Cheann Comhairle were to retire or not be re-elected, then his or her post would fall. Such a situation could potentially arise following a general election. This would mean there would be only two remaining members of the Presidential Commission and that could cause a deadlock if they disagreed in a situation where they were asked to act. Up to now, the three independent officeholders have not been affected by a general election because at such times the Chief Justice remains in situ, the Ceann Comhairle is automatically returned to the Dáil and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is in situ because the Seanad does not dissolve until 90 days after the dissolution of the Dáil.
As a result of this current structure, the Presidential Commission continues to have full membership even between election periods of both Houses. The Bill appears to bring about a potential lapse in the membership of the commission during the period of the dissolution of an outgoing Dáil and before the reconvening of the next one. Based on the proposed amendment to the Constitution before us, if the Leas-Cheann Comhairle or third member of the Presidential Commission either retired or failed to retain his seat, who would act in his or her place as the third person on the commission? I have some suggestions about how to avoid such a scenario. The first is to make the Leas-Cheann Comhairle an automatically re-elected position for the next Dáil to ensure constant and consistent full membership of the Presidential Commission in a situation where the President is unable to act.
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle may wish to call a vote on it now. That scenario would maintain the commission intact and the position would not be affected.
There is a second option. Instead of allowing the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to become a member of the commission as provided for under the Bill, we could allow another independent constitutional officeholder to be the third member of the commission. This could be the Attorney General, perhaps, although that post is held by a political appointee, the Comptroller and Auditor General or the President of the High Court. Each of these positions are unaffected by a general election and would allow consistent and full membership of the commission.
No doubt this matter will be trawled over by legal experts. It was brought to my attention by someone and when I read the details I decided it was something that should be considered at this stage. It is an unlikely occurrence and it is rare when the Presidential Commission is called to act, but it is not unforeseeable that it could come to pass. I believe now is the time to deal with it before the Bill goes through all Stages. I understand the legislation is due to conclude this evening and therefore perhaps it is as well to consider it now.
I am on record as stating that I am in favour of reforming the Upper House and my position has not changed. I am also on record as stating that the Seanad in its current form should not be retained and my position has not changed. I am, therefore, in favour of reform and not abolition of the Seanad. If the Seanad cannot be adequately reformed then it ought to be abolished but I believe it can be so reformed.
Unfortunately, reform has never been attempted. I recognise my party's views are mixed on this matter. A cursory look at public statements from Labour Party representatives during the past month will show the divergence of views. I respect and welcome that divergence. It represents a divergence of opinion among the public and this is why I would prefer a real discussion on reform before any question is put to the people on Seanad abolition.
The Constitutional Convention would have been the perfect forum for that discussion. This was my party's position and policy before the last general election. Unfortunately, our position did not make it to the programme for Government. I am not one of my party's representatives at the Constitutional Convention but I know from the reports of my colleagues that the convention is a dynamic forum for debate, discussion and ideas. I believe we need stronger Houses of the Oireachtas to hold Government to account. That requires major reform, especially of the Seanad, but also for the operation of the Dáil.
There is an appetite in the country to punish politics and politicians after the abject failure of the State by the previous Government. The Seanad is an easy target for that punishment but this is not simply a numbers game. I have heard the arguments about the number of politicians we need to best represent our citizens. No argument holds a candle to that made by my colleague, Deputy Joanna Tuffy, in the House yesterday who argued strongly against its abolition.
I agree with my colleague Deputy Tuffy that the proposed cut in the number of Deputies, councillors and Senators will move us in the wrong direction and only lead to a further centralisation of power in the Executive and in unelected advisers. I equally respect the strongly held views of other party colleagues, such as Deputy Eamonn Maloney and others, including the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, who hold different and strongly argued views on abolition.
Less representation does not equal better representation and it is the latter for which we should strive. We must build a strong Oireachtas to propose, scrutinise and deliver legislation which will improve the lives of all in this country. A reformed Seanad, reflective of what the public demands, has the capacity to improve the body politic in Ireland. We need more scrutiny of legislation, particularly emergency financial legislation. Proposals to do that by way of additional committee scrutiny do not convince me, as that would not be a constitutional requirement and could be diluted or removed by way of Government decision.
Other Members of the House criticised the inaction of the Seanad for failing to delay emergency financial legislation in 2008. However, I believe that is an argument for reform rather than abolition. The mistakes of 2008 were made in this House, predominantly by the Fianna Fáil Party. The mistakes were not made in the Seanad. The composition of the Seanad, including the Taoiseach's nominees, meant it was impossible to delay legislation such as the bank bailout Bill in 2008.
Over the years there have been reports calling for reform. That the reports were not acted upon was due to Government inertia rather than anything that went on in the Seanad. An example of that was the failure to implement the seventh amendment of the Constitution from 1979, which would broaden the franchise of the university panel of the Seanad to include all third level institutions. That would have been simple to implement but there was no appetite and no action by successive Governments. However, we are beyond tinkering with the elitism of the university panels, or the exclusive and indirect franchise for the vocational panels. The Seanad requires major reform and reconstitution and that should be done through discussion with the Irish people and should not just be abolished.
The choice presented to the people should be by way of preferendum, rather than a simple referendum. The people of Ireland should have a choice on whether a reformed Upper House is preferable to the current House or no House. The simplicity of choice in this Bill will ensure the debate surrounding the Seanad referendum will be about everything but the Seanad. It will be a Punch and Judy debate, as referendum campaigns always seem to be. That has already started in the discussion of the Bill which is disheartening. We should not abolish one of the Houses of the Oireachtas lightly. Many of my constituents take a different view and cannot wait for an opportunity to vote to abolish the Seanad. We must present the people with an opportunity to make a decision on the Seanad, as per the programme for Government commitments. It is now up to the people to decide. That is the beauty of our constitutional democracy. Go raibh maith agat.
I will diverge from my colleague’s view on the debate. I have no problem with the abolition of the Seanad, as such, because it is elitist and does not live up to the corporate ideals that inspired de Valera’s reconstruction of the Seanad in the 1930s.
That said, I recognise that many Senators made valuable contributions to political life in this country. It would be unfair not to acknowledge that. I refer, for example, to contraception, which was first discussed many decades ago in that arena led by Mary Robinson. I acknowledge the good work that has been done by the Seanad.
My next point will not be popular with the public. If we abolish the Seanad it is important that we look after Deputies who lose their Dáil seats because we must not allow a situation to develop whereby people of small means cannot get involved in politics. It is important that this Chamber would be as representative of the general public as possible. As part of that we must ensure that it is not an insurmountable risk for one to seek election. We must examine the situation carefully if the Seanad is abolished.
There is no Government incentive currently to encourage Deputies to try to get the referendum across the line. The Cabinet’s ideal is that we would all be good boys and girls and come in and press the right buttons at the right time, but we must do more than that. The Cabinet accepts that backbench Deputies must be more than that but if Ministers are being honest with themselves, that would be the ideal; it would be less hassle and they could get on with life more easily. Politics is not about an easy life, however, so we must avoid that situation.
There is a need to present a strong package of parliamentary reform as part of the debate. We may well find that, unless such reform is put in train, the people decide to retain the Seanad. Regardless of whether the Seanad is to be abolished, reform is necessary. I refer to reform at two different levels. First, at local level it is important that we build on the reform we started in terms of giving local authorities more control over their financial resources. The property tax, unpopular and all as it is, is a start in that direction. It is important that the authority of councils is held by those who are elected and that staff such as county managers serve the people rather than the other way around where so much power is the hands of the unelected.
At Dáil level there is a pressing need to improve the situation. First, we must work to ensure greater powers for committees. There was an attempt to progress the situation in the inquiries referendum last year but we must try to get to a situation where we have compellability of witnesses so as to bring about a better reformed society. We require direct input from Deputies from all sides of the House, if possible, at heads of Bill level, and an ability to influence the Cabinet at that stage. We also need a satisfactory way to deal with Private Members’ Bills. I had the honour of bringing a Bill before the House on Friday last. It is not easy to progress a Bill, either mine or any other and we must work out how to do that. I do not see why there cannot be a free vote on Bills that have no negative financial impact on the Government. I accept that if a proposed Bill were to lead to expenditure of €500 million the Government would have to apologise and say it did not have the money but we must get away from the mindset that there can never be a free vote.
I accept this is not perhaps the best time to raise the issue. I appreciate that the Whip system protects some Deputies in the current debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. We must grasp the issue and deal with it. Other parliaments have a much easier approach. In our case it is probably due to the fact that most Governments, with the exception of this one, have slim majorities and therefore a Whip system is important to get legislation passed. Deputies must have more influence in terms of pre-budget submissions.
More extensive oral questioning of Ministers is also required, as is the need for Ministers to respond in person to Topical Issue debates, because far too often the Minister who is responsible for a matter does not answer the Member raising the issue. Another possibility is to allow a certain number, perhaps 40%, of backbenchers to institute parliamentary inquiries. As Ireland is part of the European Union, a much better method of interaction between our national Parliament and the European Union institutions must be worked out because the decisions made there have such an influence on us. An effective conduit is required to bring our views to those institutions and to get a chance on a regular basis to interact with senior people at EU level.
If the situation is not handled properly the people might well decide to retain the Seanad. We must grasp the opportunity to use this occasion to introduce substantial and real parliamentary reform in a way that has often been discussed but rarely instituted. I have to hand a document produced by one of my colleagues, now a Minister, on new and better government, which goes through a list of important areas of parliamentary reform. One could do well to go through it and consider a great many of the suggestions it contains.
As far as I am concerned, the Seanad must be abolished. There is no justification for the current set-up, which is elitist, is not representative of the majority of people and has not had any serious political function on behalf of the citizens. Consequently, it must go. Most Members, in one way or other, have accepted this in the course of the debate. While there is a question before Members as to whether it should simply be abolished and left at that or whether there should be some other tier of democracy or other new democratic institutions to replace it, there can be no doubt but that the existing set-up must go.
However, before one addresses that question, one must ask the reason Members today are discussing the abolition of the Seanad in the first place. The reason they are doing so is that politics as a whole, not just the Seanad, has been thoroughly discredited. People are deeply alienated from politics and are extremely angry at politicians right across the political spectrum. To be honest, there are times when, were people given the opportunity, they would not simply abolish the Seanad but would abolish the Dáil as well and probably the local councils. That is where we are, and that is the level of anger and alienation that exists with regard to the political system. I must state that were Members being honest, they would admit that this anger is justified. As to the reason that anger exists, it is because the current political system brought us to this unprecedented economic crisis. At best, it did little to prevent it from occurring and at worst, most people would state that the political set-up in this country facilitated it. They would refer to the culture of cronyism, personal ambition and following one's own personal interests ahead of the interests of society as a whole, which was present among developers, bankers and certain corporate interests, and would state that this culture crossed over into and was facilitated by the political establishment and the political structures in the State. This is what most people think, and they have a point.
People also would state, as a common observation on politics, that no matter whom one elects one always gets the same government, and nothing ever changes. Politicians make and then break promises and people have no way to make them accountable for that. One of the most powerful sentiments that is driving rage against the political system at present is the belief that politicians and the political system operate in such a way that they can play fast and loose with the trust of the people in order to get themselves into position but can then protect themselves from any degree of accountability. The belief is that politicians, who have regularly done this to people, cannot be recalled or held responsible for so doing. In addition, since at least the time of the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, and the beef scandals, there has been an entire litany - a relentless line - of scandals involving graft, corruption, cronyism and so on. People would say that at best the political system has failed to prevent this, and at worst it has been responsible for it. It has facilitated all of that and has engendered a political culture and a political class that is rank and rotten and has little to do with representing the needs, wishes and aspirations of ordinary people.
Consequently, this debate should be about how to achieve a real democracy that functions and in which politicians are accountable. It should be about how to achieve a democracy that eliminates the potential for corruption or cute-hoor politics and in which politicians can be held accountable for the promises they made when going before the people. It should be about how to achieve a democracy that will ensure we are not plunged into the sort of economic crisis this State is in at present. It is important to point out that these are old problems. In the context of the Private Members' debate earlier this week on the 1913 Lock-out, I read through some articles written by James Connolly at the turn of the century. While he was apparently writing about a different constitution and a different political set-up at that time - namely, British rule - if one reads the article one sees resonances that are simply astonishing. Allow me to read out a few brief passages. Connolly talks about the power of the Cabinet and states:
The cabinet formed out of the members of the party strongest numerically constitutes the government of the country and as such has full control of our destinies during its term of office. But the Cabinet is not elected by Parliament, voted for by the people nor chosen by its own party. The Cabinet is chosen by the gentleman chosen ... as the leader of the strongest party. The gentleman so chosen ... selects certain of his own followers and invests them with certain positions, and salaries and so forms the Cabinet.While Connolly rightly rails against this, 100 years on nothing has changed. Moreover, he was talking about a colonial parliament imposed on this country.
The problem of immense amounts of power concentrated in a Cabinet that does not even have constitutional status and that essentially can impose its will by fiat on the Parliament and on the population in general persists 100 years on, even after we got so-called independence. Connolly further states:
The powers of Parliament are...arbitrary and ill-defined.It is archaic language but the Minister gets the point. Nothing has changed from what Connolly described. That is what people feel.
If Parliament, elected to carry out the wishes of the electors on one question, chooses to act in a manner contrary to the wishes of the electors in a dozen other questions, the electors have no redress except to wait for another general election to give them the opportunity to return other gentlemen under similar conditions and with similar opportunities of evil-doing.
He goes on to state:
Parliamentary Democracy gives [people] the right to a voice in the selection of [their] rulers but insists that [they] shall bend as a subject to be ruled.In arguing for the alternative he states:
[We need a democracy that] will change the choice of rulers which we have to-day into the choice of administrators of laws voted upon directly by the people; and...substitute for the choice of masters...the appointment of reliable public servants under direct public control. That will [be] true democracy.That is actually what people want. The language is a bit archaic but they want direct control. They want a direct say in the laws. They do not want to see people get elected on the basis of certain promises and then implement other policies and laws which people did not vote for and in which they have no say. They want to have a say in the issues that directly affect them. Connolly was so right, and that challenge remains. If we do not meet that challenge by giving people the real democracy and accountability they want and of which they can have real ownership, we face a dangerous situation. One only has to look at the growth of the far right in Europe to see the chilling reminders of what happened in the 1930s, when faith in the democratic system broke down completely. The greatest horrors in human history were unleashed on our society across Europe and the world. It is frightening to see the rise of Golden Dawn and other neo-facist organisations across Europe. As Yeats put it at the turn of the century:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;He was describing the situation in the 1916 to 1919 period including the First World War, the economic collapse, the crisis and the political polarisation that took place. It happened again in the 1930s and in the face of anther economic crisis, we are seeing the worrying signs of that developing again.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Where does that assessment of the crisis of democracy that I believe exists, and I think most people believe exists, lead us in terms of trying to deal not just with the issue of the Seanad but the way we could have democratic institutions that command respect, where there is a vibrant democracy that functions as opposed to the dysfunctional one we have now? We first have to have a democracy in which there is recallability and accountability for decisions made. People are screaming for that. In the Meath by-election the group that shocked and surprised many people in the vote it got was Direct Democracy. It was precisely on the basis of arguing for that kind of direct participatory democracy that it surprised everybody and got a huge vote. We must have a democracy which has that level of accountability rather than simply electing people for five years during which time they can do whatever they want.
We also have to have a democracy that is genuinely representative of all sectors of society. There have been ups and downs in regard to that but in general terms there is a decline in the numbers voting in elections compared to a few decades ago. Generally speaking there is a decline in the western world in the number of people voting, and that decline tends to be concentrated among young people, the less well off and the disadvantaged sectors of society but there is a definite decline in enthusiasm for, involvement in and engagement with democracy. That tells us that we must have a democracy that is genuinely representative of all sectors of society.
We have to have a democracy that is not just a political democracy but one in which people have real control over the economic forces that govern and dictate their lives. There is a fundamental deficit in democracy if a small minority of people have control of the vast majority of wealth and resources in a society because they can use that wealth and resources to undermine democracy. That is where corruption has come from; it is not something that is unique to Ireland. We have had corruption scandals where big money has bought off, corrupted and corroded the democratic system in almost every major western country, not to mind the global south. It is always the same pattern. People with a great deal of money use that money, power and influence to corrode, undermine and corrupt the democratic system.
It follows logically from that that if we have a more democratic system and a more democratic society, the more equally we distribute the wealth and the control of the resources in society. If wealth and resources are privately owned, regardless of the democratic structures we have, the people who control that wealth and resources use them de facto to control what goes on in society. The heavy concentration of control of the media in this country by two of the wealthiest individuals in the country is symptomatic of that fact. That is just one example. We have to address that inequality.
It is obvious that the privatisation of State assets and natural resources, which are key to the functioning of our society, is also antithetical to democracy because if we hand over those resources, assets and infrastructure, which are vital to the functioning of society, and remove them from any kind of democratic control or accountability, it hollows out democracy itself. It makes democracy a meaningless side show to the day to day reality where those who control those resources, assets and infrastructures decide who does or does not access them. We are seeing that is the case even in areas like health and roads. One has to pay to travel on roads now. One has to pay to access decent health services. One can get a higher class of education if one can pay extra for it. These things are corrosive and they undermine democracy. Those are the issues we have to address and if we do not address them, we will be in trouble.
I want to speak about protest in this regard. Some people, particularly professional politicians, are contemptuous of popular campaigns of protest. They like to present them as mindless activities that people engage in, that people like serial protesting, and that there is no reason for it.
This was evident yesterday when I said the decision on the selling off of Coillte was a victory for people power and there were hoots of derision from Government and some Opposition TDs. They were laughing at and deriding the idea that ordinary citizens might have had an influence on the Government decision on the sale of the harvesting rights of Coillte when they should celebrate the fact the public engaged so much with that issue. They should celebrate the fact that such a wide and diverse coalition of our society engaged with an issue that was critical to our society and if that meant they changed the Government's mind on something, that is good. It is an indication of democracy working at some level and the Government and our political system should not be afraid of that or seek to insulate itself from it but should seek to embrace it and learn from it how to develop a thriving, dynamic, functioning democracy.
Where does that leave us in terms of the Seanad? Abolish it, but the Dáil is dysfunctional as well. We must establish new institutions, starting at local level, that are genuine popular assemblies that represent all sectors of society, ensuring worker representation, small business representation-----
If that is the manner in which the Minister treats the debate, we are going nowhere. The Minister does not understand how angry people are. The principle on which the Seanad was set up was on the basis of different sectors, but the problem was that the sectors were representative of elites.
They should be representative of all sectors of society and if they were elected at local level from among the disabled, young people, student groups and so on, they would be accountable to those groups at local level. They could then select people to go forward to a national assembly that would be accountable to assemblies at local level. People could have a real say in the laws that are made by putting forward proposals for legislation and influencing the decisions the Government makes on a day-to-day basis. That is the sort of democracy we need. It is obvious from the Minister's demeanour that he has nothing but contempt for the anger and disillusionment out there. If the Minister thinks it is just coming from me, he is sadly deluded. He will learn.
I am happy to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill, which will allow for a referendum offering people the opportunity to have their say on the future of the Seanad.
In the run-up to the last general election, Fine Gael had a much-heralded five-point plan, one of the key components of which was new politics and political reform. Even though we have not reached the halfway point of the Government yet, this has been the most reforming Government in the history of the State. We have cut politicians' pay and expenses, we have increased Dáil sitting days by 30% and we have established the Constitutional Convention, which has given citizens a direct voice. We have addressed the gender imbalance in Parliament with the introduction of quotas and next year the abolition of town councils will see a reduction of more than 600 councillors. At the next European elections we will have one MEP less and after the next general election the Dáil will be reduced to 158 seats from 166.
This Bill is about the next part of that process, giving the people a choice on the future of the Seanad and whether it is to be retained or abolished. Whether we agree or disagree with the changes that have been implemented, from gender quotas to the abolition of town councils, a huge amount of work has been done in a short period. The town councils gave rise to a huge amount of duplication, particularly at administrative level, where town councils existed for historic reasons. Athy, with a population of 10,000 people, had a rate-collecting urban district council, while the town of Newbridge, with a population of 25,000, had a town commission with little or no power and very little funding. In north Kildare, Leixlip had a full town council while Celbridge, a town of equal size, had no representation at all at town council level. The town councils have a huge tradition, which I respect, and that is why there has been a lot of upset about their abolition, but tradition and history are not reasons to retain them.
We must now embark on a debate on the future of the Seanad. Some will say that its role, like that of town councils, is more suited to history than to the present day and that it is no longer fit for purpose. Others will point to the important role of oversight they believe the Seanad might provide, but what oversight does it provide now? All contributors to the debate I have heard have admitted that the Seanad, at the very least, needs to be reformed. I have not heard anyone make the argument that the Seanad must kept as it is at present, which points to a flawed establishment.
Financial savings are a consideration. The Government has had to trim down the spending of Departments, so when we get out of this recession we will have a leaner, more efficient economy that is cheaper to run. We have seen reductions in spending in all Departments and reductions in Civil Service numbers through the moratorium on recruitment. Politics cannot be immune from that, and €20 million per year, or €100 million over a five-year term, is not insignificant. That is an important point, because if there was full agreement that the Seanad is a vital part of our democracy, the financial argument would not be a reason for its abolition.
If the Seanad is abolished, it will change how the Dáil operates. At present we have a Cabinet that is particularly strong compared to other countries, but the Seanad in its present form does not have much influence on that power. We must move towards a debate on the role of TDs in tandem with this. If the Seanad is abolished, there will be more sitting days and more Stages for legislation going through this House, with more power devolved to the committees and a greater role for TDs in the scrutiny of legislation. At present a TD's role is divided between local constituency work and the work of a legislator. While I take my role as a legislator extremely seriously and scrutinise all Bills laid before me very seriously, come the next general election, the people of Kildare South will judge me more on what I have done in the constituency than on any contributions I have made in this House. That might not be right, but it is the reality. If we are considering changing the role of TDs with the abolition of the Seanad, people must change their expectations of the role of TDs. I look forward to the debate on the referendum and the campaign ahead of us.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this very important and historic topic. We need a reasoned debate on the issue. There are many diverse opinions on the Upper House of Oireachtas Éireann and the question is whether we should abolish the Seanad or reform it. The Labour Party has taken a long, hard look at the Seanad and in our view, the case for its retention has been lost. It is not possible to identify any body or section of society, such as university graduates or county councillors, that should be singled out as constituting a special or separate electorate whose members who should be entitled to vote in their own special House of the Oireachtas.
In a small country such as Ireland, there is no need for a second House and that has been shown throughout as best practice.
Many hold the view that it is simply a nursing home for politicians who have served in the Dáil and at the same time a nursery for those seeking higher office later in life, a view which is perhaps unjustifiable in some cases. The Seanad has a very restricted constituency in that it is made up of persons elected by county councillors, graduates of some universities only, and another 11 persons nominated by the Taoiseach. Wherever people stand on this issue, one point is clear. The Seanad cannot remain on in its current form. It must be either reformed or removed.
Historically, two-tier parliaments like our own were set up so that the upper house could hold the lower house to some kind of accountability. It usually did so by delaying legislation where it was felt that the lower chamber was trying to rush through some law, or it did so by delaying the passing of a budget. However, most upper houses, including our own, have been somewhat weakened over the years and now do not exercise any real power. As a consequence, they are seen by the public as redundant to the needs of the parliament, but this is a view with which I do not always agree and I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the hard work done by my Labour colleagues in the Seanad.
The Seanad is seen as undemocratic and, in reality, since its inception, its role has been limited. It is a historical institution borrowed from the British Administration of the past. Many hold this view, even cross-party. Many who have gone before us in this House have outlined their dissatisfaction with the Seanad and have clearly articulated that it has fulfilled no real part in national affairs, despite being a costly burden on the taxpayer. "One vote, one voice" has always been the primary principle in a democratic system. This principle rings hollow in the Seanad, where many can be nominated at the discretion of the Taoiseach. The ordinary man or woman has had no hand, act or part in this selection. Real or perceived, the public view is that the Seanad is an elitist, aloof institution and it has stayed too long to be of any use to anybody. However, practitioners here in the Oireachtas do not always see this to be the case.
If we were to reform the Seanad, we would have to change the way in which it is elected. As it stands, it is an affront to democracy. We would have to make it stronger and give it more power and more of a say in the legislation of the country. Is this possible or even practical? We have a legislative assembly already, that is, the Dáil.
Like some of my Labour Party colleagues, especially Deputy McNamara, I am concerned at the proposal included to delete Article 27 of the Constitution, entitled "Reference of Bills to the People". Article 27 gives power to the Oireachtas to seek the views of the people on legislation which contains "a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained". There were many occasions in the past where this should have been used. For example, the bank guarantee was an issue of national importance and where the will of the people could have been sought. This is an invaluable tool of democracy and one not to be dismissed lightly. I hope the Minister will take this on board. Real power should lie with the people and not only must they be able to have their say but also they must feel they are being listened to.
In the past we have looked at countries such as Sweden to examine best practice in child care and care for the elderly. They may also have a lesson for us in this issue. The Swedish system of government is based on subsidiarity, which is one of the main themes in decentralisation where a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralised authority capable of addressing that matter effectively. To that end, the Swedish system is made up of three branches - national, regional and local. The national level is self-evident. The regional level is divided into 20 different counties. Each of the county councils is responsible for overseeing most of the tasks of which we are aware. I note that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, is making certain changes in the local government system. Some of my colleagues, as town councillors, are not happy about that, but so be it. The Minister is making some good changes. If the people vote to abolish the Seanad, it gives us great scope to strengthen the local authorities even further.
I rise to speak on this issue of the abolition of the Seanad. As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be aware, I have fond memories of five years spent in the Seanad, from 2002 to 2007, and I shared that space with him. We were fortunate to have such great speakers there, such as former Senator Joe O'Toole, Senators Feargal Quinn and David Norris, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, Deputy Ross and, indeed, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, who was measured at all times, which I appreciated.
The Order of Business in the Seanad was much more flexible than the Order of Business in the Dáil where one could raise any issue of the day and one had a platform. I have fond memories of the Seanad because it certainly gave me the platform on which I could raise issues and articulate views from my county and my constituency, and national ones as well.
I remember spending at least two months on the Seanad campaign in 2002. One would drive 10,000 or 12,000 miles and meet every county councillor, from one's own party, Independents and, perhaps, Labour.
As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will recall, one knew that one might not get a big vote from the Opposition and vice versa. It was a joy to behold when one sat in councillors' kitchens and really got to understand how one's own party operated. The one benefit is it gives one an education and information, which is the stock-in-trade of where one's party is going at the time.
It was the one time I realised, sitting in the kitchens, that there was a strong republican element within Fine Gael. I sat in kitchens having tea with councillors with a strong republican background. It was something on which we, in Fine Gael, have always been very open. In my opinion, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was the forerunner to the Good Friday Agreement. In every party there are different strands of opinion, but it was one time when I found that the councillors had a very republican mind and background and were prepared to work within the Fine Gael Party to articulate it in a much more cohesive and embracing manner. That is merely one of my observations.
However, we must look at what has happened in the Seanad. When I went in there in 2002, the first issue was reform. On every radio programme, television station and newspaper, we heard the reform would definitely happen. It was one of ten issues for reform. I remember asking a certain gentleman who was involved in the Seanad what this reform would do and he checked it out and came back to me to say that the reform was going nowhere. In effect, over the years there was this kind of nonsense of putting considerable time and expense into producing papers on reform. We knew they were never going anywhere because those who were going to reform themselves had neither the capability nor the will to do so. Where reform has been ignored since the foundation of the Seanad, it has come to its abolition and that is going before the people.
I remember an interesting debate on the dual mandate. We were very much against it. Many councillors were against the fact that if they left the council, they could not be a member of a VEC and various boards. To me, it was the right legislation. It was madness to think anyone could have been a Deputy or Senator here in Dublin trying to run the affairs of the country and of their constituency and at the same time sit on the board of the Western Regional Authority, a VEC, a council and various boards.
The policy that was introduced was opposed by many Senators but it was effectively the correct course of action. Today, this Government is leading by example. What other government would do it?
We are reducing the number of seats in the Dáil and I will lose 40% of the vote in my constituency by going from south Leitrim to east Galway. Every time my team of Galway is playing Kilkenny, I am very enthusiastic in supporting my newly adopted county in hurling.
I am glad the Deputy helped me out. We have not been the greatest advocates of openness and transparency. The Seanad sittings have been planned in a way to facilitate golf buddies or members attending an Ard-Fheis, and that does not send out the right signal. People are tired of that kind of belittling of a Chamber of the Parliament. I take my politics seriously and as Government Deputies and Senators, we must lead by example. This issue will go to the people, who will make their decision. If they decide to abolish the Seanad, we must acknowledge that, but if they want to retain the Seanad we must have absolute reform and none of the nonsense of more reports coming out that will never be acted upon.
Reform has been ignored in the past but I thank the Minister for the work he has done. Sometimes I may not feel like thanking him, as my local authority will be reduced to 18 seats: although this is democracy, it is affecting many councillors. The only town council in my constituency is in Boyle and it is being abolished. Once again, as politicians and a Government, we are leading by example and although I do not like doing certain unpalatable things, we must be united in showing that we are capable of change, which can be exacted in a fair manner. It is up to the people in the coming months to decide what will happen to the Seanad and I wish them well in that regard.
I admit that this is one of the most important debates we will have as the issue affects how we do politics at a national level. I am also conscious that for a brief period between 2000 and 2002, I was a member of the Upper House. I was elected in the company of Mr. Jim Glennon after a by-election and at the behest of my party. It was made very clear to both of us that we were being elected to the Upper House to ensure we would go forward and try to get elected to Dáil Éireann. I am glad the Minister is here because he knows about this better than anybody in Fine Gael, as he was charged through his party in ensuring the Upper House was used in just that way by Fine Gael over the years. It was utilised as a launching pad for potential candidates who would be elected to the Dáil, and to a certain extent it was a relaunching pad for those who had been in the Dáil, lost their seats but wanted to return at some stage.
In that we must all put up our hands and admit that the system was effectively abused by political parties, although the aspirations and sentiments that surround the Seanad and are expressed in the Constitution are none the weaker by virtue of the fact that political parties sought to use and abuse the systems. Considering the Seanad over the years, we find there was much talk about reform and many reports were published but the reason reform was never implemented was because the Governments of the day never followed through in the way the Taoiseach - rightly or wrongly - has done with a particular set of proposals. I believe he is wrong on this occasion.
The contention is that the Seanad has not done what it was supposed to but that is incorrect. I look back at my brief period there with great respect and admiration for people like Maurice Manning, Joe O'Toole and the late Tom Fitzgerald, who through the Seanad availed of the opportunity to serve this Legislature and, through it, the public. There is an issue with the role of the Seanad, and those who favour reform - as I do - are trying to formulate areas of potential additional involvement. However, the primary responsibility of the Seanad in the Constitution is to examine legislation, which it has done. Deputies Tuffy and Ó Cuív, in the course of very thoughtful presentations in the last day or so, have set out just why that happened and how effective the Seanad was in the role.
The Taoiseach went to Glenties in 2009 and spoke at length while advocating the reform and retention of the Seanad. He was enthusiastic about the process in that respect. One wonders what would have happened if events were different in 2002, when the Taoiseach was in some difficulty in his own constituency and only managed to scrape home in that election, which was a bad result for Fine Gael. Would the Taoiseach have been very happy to find a roost for himself in Seanad Éireann had he failed to be elected to the Dáil?
What makes us all very uncomfortable is that there is no enthusiasm for this particular set of changes among Government parties. This has been clearly evident in the Labour Party and it has also been clear in many members of the Fine Gael Party. There is a recognition that this is something of a solo run by the Taoiseach. In a position where Fine Gael may have needed a boost in the polls in the run-up to the last election, the Taoiseach thrusted around to try to find something that would endear him to a very cynical electorate and the abolition of the Seanad was the issue he selected. It was bad judgment at the time and he is following through on it now because he argues it is a promise in the programme for Government. However, there are many other promises in the programme for Government which the Taoiseach has already admitted he will not be able to progress.
What we are expected to believe is that we will get rid of the Seanad - which most of us see as being a very important part of the democratic political process - and it will be replaced with a reformed Dáil. Reform has been very slow to come and reform of the Seanad has not happened because the Governments of the day have not followed through. The reform promised in the course of this Dáil session has not happened at anything close to the extent suggested. We are halfway through the term and the Government Chief Whip has declared that the level of co-operation with the reform process by Ministers is deplorable.
I attend the Whips' meeting on a weekly basis and we are party to the process of Dáil reform. I know the Whips from the various political parties could sit around the table and formulate a set of proposals to reform the Dáil.
At the end of the day, however, those proposals have to go back to Government, be accepted and implemented. At present there are two areas of worthwhile reform, namely, the Topical Issues Debate and the Friday sittings. These are worthwhile, good initiatives. However, during Topical Issues, we are seeing that Ministers are not coming into the House to address the issues that arise. Senior Ministers have failed to appear in the Dáil three times out of four, on average, to respond to the topical issues that are raised each day, with 40% of issues being dealt with by a Minister of State from a non-relevant Department reading from a script. This very good idea, which emanated from Government and was supported by all the political parties, is not working because Government Ministers are not co-operating with it.
The other issue is that of sitting days. I acknowledge that the number of sitting days has increased. Indeed, sitting days increased under the last Government and the current Government has continued to work to significantly increase the number of sitting days. However, I made a point during Leader's Questions earlier in the week that merits repeating. My point relates to the number of sittings that we have and the times to which those sittings extend. We meet at 10 a.m. or 10.30 a.m. and continue, increasingly, until 10 p.m. or midnight. That is creating a situation where this Dáil is not an attractive place to be for someone who, for example, is interested in rearing a family, whether male or female. How on earth could one suggest that the sort of hours that are kept here are anything approaching family friendly hours?
How does one reconcile the type of reform we talk about with the work of the convention on the Constitution, for example? We know, as others have said, that the convention was not allowed to look at the question of Seanad abolition. Obviously, the Government did not trust the convention to come up with the right set of answers on that question. How do we hope to attract young people into this profession, which the convention has indicated is desirable and which we, as practising politicians, know to be so? How do we get the huge number of additional women that we need to be involved in politics if we are going to pursue the sort of approaches we are currently pursuing in terms of Dáil reform? I put it to the House that one would want to be slightly mad to become involved in a system where the working hours are so far removed from any concept of what is family friendly.
The Friday sittings, which are part of the reform, are designated for consideration of Private Member's Bills. Again, this is a very good idea on the face of it. We have probably seen the production of more Private Member's Bills in the course of this Dáil than ever before. That is a very positive development and I salute the Government and the Chief Whip for bringing forward that proposal. However, after two and a half years, not one of the Bills that have been identified at a Friday sitting, even from among those that have ultimately got Government support, has been actually written into law. The question arises as to whether there is any intention on the part of the Government at any stage to write any of these Private Member's Bills into law.
We have seen more use of the guillotine in the course of this Dáil, despite the assurances we were given. In June 2011, the Chief Whip, Deputy Paul Kehoe, said the following:
The extensive over-use of the guillotine to ram through non-emergency legislation, as in the last Dáil, will be cut back so legislation can be debated in full. The over-use of the guillotine in the last Dáil was one of the great frustrations for Deputies of all parties because they were denied the opportunity to have their voices heard on vital issues passing through this House.However, despite this promise on the use of guillotines, 52 out of 90 Bills were guillotined. That represents 57% of all Bills passed. What we are seeing here is the ramming through of legislation. If we get rid of the Seanad, it will give this Government another opportunity to make use of its massive majority and its grip on power to push forward its own agenda, without scrutiny or questioning. That is the real difficulty here. Add to this the loss of representation at local level and it represents a direct assault on how we govern ourselves. It represents a concentration of power in the hands of even fewer people. Is this the type of democracy we want?
The Seanad is at the heart of our Constitution and the proposed 23rd amendment will require 75 direct deletions from the document that is the basis of our democracy. This is by far the most radical amendment in our country's history and has come about without any advance consultation. Abolition will close down debate and therefore reject legitimate challenge. It effectively stops an important aspect in our parliamentary system of checks and balances. When we look at what has happened in this country in recent years, we see that regulators and others charged with the task of checking and balancing did not do their job. It seems to me to be particularly appalling that at a time when checks and balances are more important than ever before, we are moving now to take out of the legislative process one of the most important checks and balances that exists. We are told that reform of the Dáil will compensate for that but the reform we have seen to date has been minimal in the extreme. We are told that one of the alternatives that we might have is an expert committee, to be appointed by the Taoiseach, to help him and help the Government to peruse legislation. I doubt that the general public will have great confidence in that particular approach.
The mere existence of a second House allows for voices that would not normally be heard or listened to. It prevents our elected politicians from fast-tracking inadequate legislation that is sometimes not fit for purpose or, indeed, desirable. The point I am making is best summed up by a direct quote from Philip Pettit, professor of politics at Princeton University, who is Irish by background and training. He wrote recently in The Irish Times as follows:
Closing down an important base for dissident voices, in particular voices that are not bound to party platforms, is a recipe for frustration and alienation among those out of the mainstream. And it promises to homogenise public debate, shutting down sources of diversity that can enliven exchange and give a voice to alternative, often liberating, perspectives.Furthermore, the Constitutional Convention, set up by the Government to examine, in detail, how we govern ourselves will not, as I said earlier, discuss the Seanad at all, which is a laughable situation.
The discussion here today should centre, instead, on the reform of the Seanad. The 1922 Free State Constitution established a more powerful Upper House than we currently have. Its composition was designed to ensure representation for the Unionist minority in the South. The Taoiseach of the day, Mr. Eamon de Valera, frustrated by the Seanad's efforts to block the repeal of the oath of allegiance and other aspects of the Treaty, abolished it in 1936. However, a reformed Seanad, with less power, was included in the 1937 Constitution, with its composition based on the idea of corporatism, whereby separate sections of society would be represented in it. This led to the establishment of five panels - agriculture, labour, industry and commerce, national language and culture, and public administration - to reflect differing sectors of Irish life. The remaining seats, including Taoiseach's nominees, reflected Government control and additionally, the tradition of university representation.
As Members have said, since 1922, over a dozen separate reports have been commissioned on the reform of the Seanad. However, its composition and role has remained fundamentally unchanged by successive Governments since 1937, including many led by my own party.
We need to address the two main issues found in Mary O'Rourke's report, namely, that the Seanad has no distinct role in the Irish political system and that its arcane and outdated system of nomination and election diminishes Senators' public legitimacy. With these issues properly addressed it should be possible to showcase a new improved Seanad which is reflective of Irish life as we know it. Some of the changes advocated by Fianna Fáil involve legislation, such as that a formal system of public consultation should be put in place in the Seanad to allow for consultation with interested groups and individuals early in the legislative process. The Seanad should be given a new role in EU affairs. It should assume the role of principal policy reviewer in the Houses of the Oireachtas. It should be assigned responsibility for the scrutiny of senior public appointments. The question of the Leader of the Seanad attending at Cabinet and given a role of Minister or Minister of State should be investigated.
It is important to stress the work done by groups such as Democracy Matters and documents such as Open It, Don't Close It. The work done by Senators Zappone and Quinn constitutes the best proposal for reform in the confines of the Constitution and should not be readily dismissed by the Government or anyone else.
It is clear there is an important place for the Seanad in Irish political and public life. We should not rush this decision or discussion or hastily arrive at the point the Government proposes. Now is the time for real political leadership and not political point scoring. Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned we are at a point in our history when the public has never been more cynical about politics and politicians. It is my contention the type of adversarial politics we have practised in this country through the generations has been extremely bad for politics, politicians and the public. Rather than abolishing the Seanad in what is simply a grab for additional power by the Government and the Taoiseach acting on a whim which occurred to him in 2010, we should be more pragmatic and carry out actual reform of the Seanad and, in tandem, have meaningful reform of the Dáil so through Seanad and Dáil reform we can give the people the type of representation they richly deserve.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this issue in respect of which my views are fairly well known. I have long since expressed my opposition to the concept of the abolition of any element of our democratic structures, the Seanad being one. That said, I have no difficulty in having a referendum where the people are called upon to make a decision as to what lies in the future. It is appropriate. I would like to see a number of options placed before the people in the referendum on whether the Seanad should be abolished or reformed. In such circumstances the people would go for reform.
I wish to particularly address some of the issues raised by my colleague with regard to cynicism. Cynicism is very dangerous and should never be allowed overtake or overcome a democracy. Any time in history cynicism overtook democracy there were appalling consequences. I listened with interest to Deputy Boyd Barrett, who seemed to think there was appalling anger out there which manifested itself in his admission to the House, because we presume this is the basis on which people come to the House. He also quoted Lenin at some length and went on to discuss a new form of democracy which would be a people's assembly. Parliament is a people's assembly whereby the people take the responsibility of electing people to Parliament. In return, the parliamentarians do their best to do the job they are given to do, whatever the circumstances may be. Sometimes it is done well and sometimes it is not, but the power to remove them is always in the hands of the people, and this should be at intervals.
When I was a child a fairly large European country used to have a new government every six weeks. This was the case in more than one European country. The reason was the economic difficulties in the aftermath of the war. At times of economic difficulty we should be very careful not to interfere with democracy because this is the time when the most serious damage is likely to be done.
Of course one can harness cynicism. What is the real problem which made the people so cynical? The people felt there was no change and Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to this. Why was there no change? I spoke about this in the House at least 20 years ago after an election when there had been no change even though the outgoing Government was defeated. The reason it happened, not only in this country but in other European countries also, is because the outgoing main party selected one group from the Opposition and continued in government regardless of losing its mandate in the election. This is what has undermined democracy in many European countries and is what has annoyed the people. It is one of the major causes of the paralysis which has developed over the past ten or 15 years throughout Europe.
The proposals suggested to remedy the deficiencies in our democratic system are already in place in other European countries. These include list systems and unicameral parliaments. They did not stop the play from going wrong or the economy from falling into jeopardy. They did not stop anything. This is not what the issue is. The issue is something totally different, but unfortunately it is at times of economic distress that people look around for a suitable whipping boy and identify democracy as part of the problem.
I totally dismiss the argument we cannot afford a second House. It is unbelievable this has been suggested. If we cannot afford a second House we cannot afford democracy. If we cannot afford democracy we have a serious problem. This is the way it has always been. We must always remember democracy costs something. It cannot be dismissed or toned down. We should be very careful not to curtail democracy because every time we do so we increase bureaucracy and the power of the unelected appointees and those who could never get elected and I hope never will get elected. We get into a situation whereby we, as Members of Parliament, become dependent on the activities of people who were never elected.
I remember once having an argument with colleagues from the Netherlands and Italy only to discover halfway through the conversation that neither of the two had ever been elected anywhere. I found myself at a complete disadvantage. Here I was in my own humble way trying to represent the views of the people who elected me, from the Parliament which delegated particular responsibilities to me, to find my colleagues on the opposite side had never been elected anywhere by anybody but were lucky enough to be on somebody's list at somebody else's cost to get into their position.
This means more power to the Executive, which is a dangerous thing, and I have heard criticism from both sides of the House in this regard. I notice the Opposition has harped on quite a bit about the extensive arrogance of the Government, the lack of democracy and the use of the guillotine. If they had been on that side of the House for the past 14 years they would have known all about it. On many mornings I stood up on that side of the House after 25 parliamentary questions I had tabled had been rejected by the Ceann Comhairle as not relevant because the Minister had no responsibility to the House, even though all the services about which I was inquiring were funded by the State. I was told again and again the Minister had no responsibility to the House to such an extent I began to inquire whether the Minister had any responsibility to anybody. This was another part of the failing which led to the people becoming cynical about politics.
The most important issue about cynicism in politics is that the power is in the hands of the people. What has happened in this country over the years is that the public has been encouraged to disassociate the consequences of its activity in the ballot box with what happens afterwards, and this is sad. My colleague, Deputy Ó Fearghaíl, spoke at some length about promises being kept.
Had the Fianna Fáil Government that was elected that year with a large majority not kept its lavish promises, the fiscal independence of the State would not have been undermined and the country would have been far better off. These are not my words, but the admission by a former Minister. It was the saddest time ever. Do Members remember what happened? Two and a half years after the 1977 general election, the Taoiseach of the day had to resign because the country was in hock up to its ears thanks to the lavish promises made.
The members of the public must recognise their power and responsibility. We must explain it to them regularly. In the 2007 general election, everyone in the House knew that the country was broke, but the voting public did not believe it. This was the case to such an extent that Opposition parties needed to make promises that they knew were unsustainable. The public voted to retain what they had. This is the public's weakness. We must explain to them in greater detail that proceeding in a particular direction can be to the detriment of democracy.
The suspicion of the democratic process is not new in Europe. I was amazed by the extent to which Deputy Boyd Barrett skirted around this fact when he quoted Lenin. He could have quoted a number of people who became prominent in Europe in the 1930s when the direction the system was taking was easily recognisable. Democracy was suspended in many European countries.
Regarding the question on the need for a bicameral system, it has been stated that we should compare Ireland with eastern European countries. I disagree, as democracy has different meanings for different people. In some European countries, it is a relatively new development. They went from feudalism to war and from oppression to democracy. We should not need to compare ourselves with anyone to determine whether democracy is failing. We should set the highest standards for ourselves and be unapologetic. To the cynical public, we must explain that it can change the democratic process at every election.
I wish to address the necessity of a second House. In any democratic system, it is a good idea to have a second House with a different perspective of legislation. Our Bills go through ten Stages instead of the five Stages that would apply in a unicameral Parliament. As proof, Ministers have accepted countless amendments in the Seanad.
To those who claim there is no longer democracy in the Dáil, I remember when, upon tabling more than 100 amendments to a Bill while sitting on the other side of the House before the last general election, I was told by a committee Chairman that the Bill would be dealt with in two or three hours regardless of whether I liked it. The guillotine was alive and well, nor did we need to wait until 14 July to see it.
There is a strong case for improving the Seanad and for relying on a vocational body with a different perspective. The original intention behind the Seanad was to give a different electorate - an electoral college - an overview. To those who assert that it is undemocratic, what is undemocratic about it? There are electoral colleges across Europe and the US. Many countries elect their presidents and politicians through electoral colleges. There is nothing wrong with it as long as the system is not entirely based on electoral colleges. In Ireland, there are direct elections to the Dáil and, as a balancing influence, an electoral college of councillors and vocational groups for the Seanad.
Disparaging remarks have been made about the quality of the Seanad. A number of distinguished people who contributed significantly to public life started or spent some of their time in the Seanad, including the Minister sitting before me, the former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, the late Brian Lenihan, former Minister Pat Cooney, Maurice Manning, the Ministers for Education and Skills and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputies Quinn and Howlin, respectively, John Robb, Seamus Mallon and a host of others. This fact should not be overlooked. The Seanad was good enough in those times, some of which were not great, and the people I have mentioned were intelligent, capable of discerning between the frivolous and the necessary and took their decisions seriously. We should revert to that situation.
By all means, let us reform and make the Seanad effective, but let us not have a place that we despise or for which we have contempt. Those who were elected to the Seanad have given a good account of themselves. I do not doubt that others would be well able to do so again in the future.
Much of what is wrong with the Dáil and the Seanad has to do with the fact that there is too much talk and not enough action. Prior to 2011, the current Taoiseach gave a commitment to the effect that, if elected, we would put the question of the Seanad's continuation to a decision of the people by way of a referendum.
Through the years, many interesting and valuable people have been appointed and elected to the Seanad and have given much to public life. However, there is too much rhetoric and not enough decisions. The Seanad was needed to check and balance the Dáil. Unfortunately, it did not do so. Dramatic reform of the Dáil's guillotine and Whip systems are necessary. Such changes would make a profound difference in this House.
Seventy-five constitutional amendments would be necessary to abolish the Seanad and entire articles would be deleted. In recent months, at least six reform packages have been proposed, but they are too much talk and far too late. Not enough decisions are being made. For all of the reform packages, not enough solutions have been proposed. I welcome debate and acknowledge its importance but action is necessary.
A main issue is that the public is not connecting with the Seanad or, for that matter, the Dáil. I have heard the term "disconnect" several times in this debate, particularly in terms of the Seanad. At times, it has rung true. If the public cannot relate to what we are doing, it will impact on trust and support for politicians.
The way through which Senators are elected and appointed is archaic and should not be aspired to by our forward-looking and reforming Government. Various sectoral interests, including the NUI and Trinity College Dublin, elect representatives. This is questionable.
The Seanad has been helped to survive by The Irish Times newspaper.
It has a certain section which reports on the House, thus giving it a life and a life chance. Given that, the Taoiseach has appointed many good experts to this Seanad. Senators Katherine Zappone, Eamonn Coghlan, Aideen Hayden, Martin McAleese, Fiach Mac Conghail, Mary Ann O'Brien, Marie Louise O'Donnell and Jillian van Turnhout all have, or have had, much to offer in the Seanad. However, I have heard, as have many of my colleagues, that the Seanad simply does not work. This leads us to make only one sensible decision, to put a referendum to the people.
I will play it by ear. I listened to some of the debate in my office. Many people share my belief that this State has a democratic and governance deficit. That is a view shared across all parties and none. We know from opinion polls that people hold politicians and political institutions in low esteem and low voter turnout across the State is another manifestation of this standing. If we were to read certain sections of the media we would all pack up our bags at this stage. Speakers have mentioned people being cynical about politics and political institutions. That is understandable if one bears in mind what we have been through, and given the aspirations of people as they look at their livelihoods and see things crashing down around them. For them, this pillar in society called "politics", which includes politicians and political institutions, has been pulled down, probably rightly.
This Government was elected in 2011, with one of its main promises centred on political reform. The programme for Government contains 69 separate references to political reform but all we have got after two and a half years is rhetoric and piecemeal reform. There is talk of Dáil reform but I have yet to see any reasonable and concrete suggestions come from the Government on this issue. The only idea that has been strongly suggested, the one that has curried favour according to spokespersons on radio and television, is cutting the number of Deputies by eight. That is a great idea. That will reform things. The Ministers who promote this will not let it happen in their constituencies and it will not be their seats that will be done away with. This will not offer anything by way of reform given the expectations people have.
There were commitments in the programme for Government to end the practice of Ministers of State reading scripts, as I am doing now, or as happens in a number of Departments, replying to Topical Issue debates on matters not covered by their brief. The Ceann Comhairle has probably heard this complaint from all sides of the House. The Topical Issues debate was a new mechanism to address urgent issues, a system where the body politic could respond to urgent or vital issues, but what has happened? Research by The Irish Times shows that on average Ministers fail to appear in the Dáil to answer Topical Issue matters appropriate to their Departments a whopping three times out of four. People believed this would be a change from the previous system but there has not been any real reform. The same research showed that 40% of issues were dealt with by a Minister of State from a non-relevant Department who merely read from a script. This is frustrating for any of us who use this mechanism to ask questions. A Minister looks blankly at the speaker and is clearly not aware of the issues. This can happen even with a Minister connected to the Department in question. It is hardly meaningful reform.
Research also highlights the fact that the Government guillotines the majority of Bills going through the Dáil. The argument against the guillotine was put when people sat on different seats but this Government has some of its most ardent advocates. Figures show that 52 of 90 Bills, some 57% of all Bills passed, were guillotined. Again, we say one thing but do the other in respect of reform. This will be surprising to some considering that the programme for Government states its commitment to restricting “the use of guillotine motions and other procedural devices that prevent Bills from being fully debated”.
There is a strong view across all parties that the Friday sittings are nothing but window-dressing and that real power has been centralised even more within the Cabinet, in particular around the four male-only members of the Economic Management Council which has significant powers.
The Government also took the hatchet to several tiers of local government. Town and borough councils are going and the number of council seats is to be reduced from 1,627 to 949. It is becoming increasingly clear that not only is this Government using the recession as an excuse to implement harsh and cruel cuts under the name of austerity but it also seems to be using the cover of reform as an excuse to cut away at political institutions.
I and my party completely support reform of the State's political system. If one talks privately to people most will say the current structures are definitely not fit for purpose and, more important, are not delivering for citizens. We do not stand over reform being used as a substitute for cuts, however. We need to look at where change can come. Reform must involve making changes and improving the role and remit of our political institutions, not centralising power around men in grey suits. I am wearing my brown suit today and I note the Minister is not wearing his grey one.
Sinn Féin believes Government and political reform should be guided by the key principles of democracy, accountability, devolution to local government and stronger public services. These principles must be the cornerstone on top of which we can build a national all-Ireland democracy. In its current form the Seanad is not fit for purpose. That is no reflection on current or past Members. Sinn Féin has always stated its belief that the current structure is elitist and undemocratic. In many cases the Seanad simply rubberstamps the decisions of the Dáil. People may take a different view on that. Other speakers have addressed how Members are elected, the question of university seats and how these can be opened up.
The Government had a real chance to improve the Oireachtas by placing the issue of Seanad reform before the Constitutional Convention before it proposed a referendum to abolish the Seanad. That view has been reflected by speakers across the House and Members of all parties express this both publicly and privately. I do not know why the decision was taken to go down this road. The Government could have proposed direct elections of Members to the Seanad, extending the vote to all citizens of this island over the age of 16. That would be a radical reform. People spoke this way about opening up the presidential elections and my party suggested that anybody aged over 16 should have that vote. The Government might have examined the somewhat controversial prospect of reserving seats for Irish Unionists. It could have explored the option of reserving seats for immigrants to Ireland, or having representatives for Irish emigrants, better known as the diaspora. We could have opened up to minorities or created mechanisms to involve civic society. There is a community forum deficit in that regard, both North and South.
The Government rejected this democratic and egalitarian approach to follow what many would call a crude and harsh route. It has pushed forward to promote a referendum with only two options, to abolish or to maintain. This does not fit with the views of many people and again reflects what so many say, that we say one thing in regard to reform but what is proposed is not real reform. We are only tinkering around the edges.
The Government is quick to argue that other countries function well with one chamber but it is not comparing like with like. Most of the countries in question have built in checks and balances to ensure proper accountability, transparency and representation for all their citizens, as well as effective systems of local government that ensure power is not as centralised as in Ireland. The parliamentary committees of these countries are not dominated and controlled by their governments. I have spoken to a number of people across Europe who expressed surprise that the committee system in Ireland is dominated by the Government. Other committees have strong powers to direct Ministers, unlike our system in which committees can only make a suggestion or send a polite letter. In many of these countries the division between the executive, the cabinet and the legislature is clearer than in Ireland.
A reformed Seanad would have an opportunity to right some of the wrongs in this State's political system by opening it up to a wide variety citizens and making it directly answerable to all the people of this island. That view has been expressed by a number of commentators.
The Government is using this debate as a smokescreen for the absence of real political reform. It is neglecting to tell the people that its programme of reform would result in a Dáil that is even more dysfunctional, a weaker system of local government and a Legislature dominated by the Executive. That is a criticism which other speakers have made during this debate. There is general agreement that governance reform is badly needed and the Seanad as it currently exists is not fit for purpose. The question arises, however, of what will replace it. If it is abolished, I cannot see it returning in a more enlightened form. People are saying they will bring it back if they get into power but if it is gone, it will not return. We have a real opportunity now to bring about change. I urge the Government to reflect on what has been said during this debate.
We should refer this important issue to the Constitutional Convention, which was supposed to be a mechanism for debating constitutional reform. The convention could propose alternative options to the current either-or choice. People will be frustrated when they come to the ballot box. If we asked people tomorrow whether they wanted to abolish the Dáil they would probably vote "Yes". I speak as a person who previously lost a seat in the Dáil. Reform is needed but we must work collectively to improve our system.
Many good people have passed through the Seanad and it has produced useful Bills. I am not aware of its day-to-day business. At one stage I could have been nominated to Seanad but my party decided to pick someone else. The Seanad was seen in the past as a place where people were put out to grass, but so was the European Parliament. That does not reflect the hard work many Senators do on a daily basis.
I appeal to the Government to reconsider this proposal. I do not expect it to change course on foot of what I say, but this debate has been useful. If we can come up with ideas for reform of this House and the Seanad, this will be a good day's work. We need to examine how this House is structured. I am as frustrated as everyone else about some of the carry-on in which Members engage. The committee structure certainly needs to be reformed and strengthened. I can understand why the Government might be reluctant to introduce radical change for fear that people might delay legislation or cause embarrassment, but if that happened, it would strengthen democracy in Ireland. It certainly would go down well with the electorate.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. This Bill is the result of an off-the-cuff commitment given in 2009 that the Seanad would be abolished.
The public tends to support any proposal to get rid of politicians but the democratic process across the world has also been a vehicle for change. The European Parliament is a good example of this. Brussels is built around the European Parliament. It is almost a city of bureaucracy. When we implement the various directives from Europe and have to explain to communities, including in particular the farming community, the nature of bureaucracy in Europe, we tend to overlook the value of the European Parliament. I once had a conversation with an official from the Parliament who told me that the bureaucracy beats war. The Parliament was born out of the ruins of the Second World War and the other conflicts that tore Europe apart over the previous century.
In the run-up to the Second World War, the Wall Street crash of 1929 caused difficulties across the world and created massive poverty. People took polarised positions on the extremes of the right and left. Many asked whether democracy was the right form of government or if an alternative system would have avoided the financial morass of the time. Some looked to dictatorships or other alternatives to democracy. However, democracy has stood the test of time despite its faults. Even now, the Americans are speaking to extremists in Afghanistan and elsewhere to try to build a democratic political process. We have enjoyed the enormous benefits of the democratic process on our island.
We have seen how the extremes in Northern Ireland have co-operated in the Assembly and in town and borough councils and made decisions that serve the community.
It is easy to propose to abolish this, that or the other when newspapers run articles on the salaries and expenses of politicians in local authorities and the Dáil, Seanad and European Parliament. The age-old approach is to propose to abolish something because one will get a clap on the back from media commentators and appease a certain section of society. Unfortunately, the issue is much more serious than that. By extension, the proposal to abolish the Seanad casts aspersions on the way in which the Seanad has operated over the past 75 years and raises questions about the contribution the Upper House has made to society. Speakers referred to the great contributions made by former Senators in challenging the status quoon social and economic issues. All modern democracies must have a place for second chamber, although I accept the case for Seanad reform.
Seanad Éireann, as structured under the 1937 Constitution, had great potential as a second Chamber. I come from Kiskeam, a village in north County Cork which was also the birthplace of Sean Moylan, one of the first Senators to be appointed to the Cabinet. Sean Moylan made a major contribution during his period as a Minister and Senator. The former Taoiseach, the late Garret FitzGerald, subsequently appointed Senator James Dooge to the position of Minister for Foreign Affairs in early 1981.
The Minister has proposed to abolish town councils, whose contribution to local communities has not been acknowledged. For example, some of them have vigorously marketed the tourism and commercial identity of their locality. Everything has weaknesses but we must also focus on strengths. As other speakers noted, if we were to hold referendums on the abolition of the Dáil, the President or the European Parliament, they would probably be passed and democracy would be finished. One of the lessons of history is that the democratic process has served the world extremely well. For this reason, we should strengthen democratic principles and institutions. In the case of Seanad Éireann, the electoral system should be reformed and the House should use its potential to improve representation for minorities.
The bottom-up approach taken to Leader funding when the programme was introduced in rural communities in the early 1990s has stood the test of time. One has to question whether, under the changes the Minister has introduced to Leader, the programme will be able to serve communities as well as it has done for the past 20 years. The Minister should reconsider his proposals.
Despite being applauded elsewhere in Europe, our bottom-up approach to Leader funding is about to be dismantled.
The abolition of a House of Parliament is a wrong step to take. Previous speakers referred to there being too much talk but problems occur when talking stops. In Northern Ireland, for example, we engaged with people and a democratic process emerged as a result. We need to get people to re-engage with Seanad Éireann. The concept of having different backgrounds represented in the second Chamber served us well in the 1930s and 1940s. For example, the Seanad's record of challenging the status quo had resulted in changes in policy.
On a different note, I question the wisdom of having Michael McDowell front the campaign to save the Seanad because I am not sure people have bought into him - I certainly have not bought into him.
Unfortunately, that is true and we paid an electoral price for doing so. The lesson to be learned is that there are no quick fix solutions. The Progressive Democrats Party offered a quick fix solution in 1985 and 1986 by pursuing the same policies as Thatcher and Reagan. These policies led us into our current predicament and were similar to those that caused the world economic crash in 1929.
The proposal to abolish the second Chamber is an attack on democracy. It must be viewed in the context of other periods of European history when people were applauded for destroying democracy in times of economic crisis. We must look beyond the rhetoric and consider the damage the proposal will do to society.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to the Bill. This morning, on the Order of Business, I called on the Government to withdraw this legislation. It is proposed to hold a referendum in the autumn which, if passed, will not take effect to 2016 at the earliest. Moreover, the abolition of the Seanad will not proceed unless Fine Gael and the Labour Party can stay the course. This stand-alone referendum will cost the State approximately €14 million at a time when we can least afford it.
Numerous Deputies from both Government parties have expressed reservations about the proposal to abolish the Seanad. No one has spoken in favour of retaining the status quo and there is agreement on the need for reform. Rather than propose to reform the Seanad, the Bill takes a lazy and minimalist approach. It has been introduced because the Taoiseach wants to keep a commitment he gave at a time of great personal political turmoil prior to the previous general election when he believed it would sound good to propose the abolition of the Seanad.
Previous speakers noted that one of the points in the Fine Gael Party's five-point plan in its election manifesto was to reform of the political system. Another one, about which we do not hear much, was an undertaking to create 100,000 new jobs in the lifetime of the Government. We are almost halfway through the cycle of the Government, yet it has certainly not created half the number of jobs promised. Time after time, the various reports setting out progress on job creation have scaled down the Government's commitment on job creation.
The Government came to power with an unprecedented majority. It argued that the election amounted to a democratic revolution and promised greater transparency, accountability and so forth. We have yet to see greater transparency and accountability or any of the major reform it promised.
We are being asked here to buy a pig in a poke. The Government has suggested it will reform this House if the Seanad is abolished. However, there is no mention of the types of reforms to be introduced into the Dáil if the Seanad is abolished. This legislation has been in the making for approximately two years. I do not know why the Government did not take an holistic approach and tell us the precise reforms it plans for this House. Even the Fine Gael Party chairman yesterday said that not many people are interested in looking at what happens here because it is stage-managed like a theatre and is not relevant to what is going on in people's lives.
Earlier this month we had a week in recess and I used that opportunity to knock on people's doors. Not a single person answering the door asked when we were going to abolish the Seanad. Instead they were asking what the Government was going to do to support the retail sector. Shops in towns and villages are closing every day with no supports coming from the Government. The Government has claimed credit for the fact that the rate of unemployment has stabilised in recent months. While that is welcome it has only stabilised because an unprecedented number of our men and women - mainly young but some not so young - are taking to airplanes and ferries to leave the country in search of a better life. They are talking about the crisis in the social welfare system where people applying for a disability allowance, domiciliary care allowance or carer's allowance are waiting approximately 12 months to have their applications processed even though they are entitled to those payments. No one is in a mad rush to abolish the Seanad except for a small number of people at the helm of the Government who are involved in a power grab. A few Cabinet Ministers want to ensure they take as much power as they possibly can.
The Government established the Constitutional Convention and, to my amazement, it failed to refer to it one of the main issues that should have been referred to it, which is the abolition of the Seanad. Why did the Government not refer this legislation to that body? It has suggested that we will have a reformed Dáil, yet it has failed to outline how those reforms will work. Since the Government has come to power we have only seen token reforms. To a point the Friday sittings are welcome because they give an opportunity for an Opposition Member or a Government backbencher to introduce legislation. However, because there are no votes, no Order of Business and no Leaders' Questions to the Taoiseach or Tánaiste, nobody is in here listening or debating in regard to the Friday sittings. Why would we not extend the sittings later on a Tuesday evening when so many Deputies from the furthest parts of the country are already in the capital?
The Topical Issues Debate was supposed to be a great advance. It replaced the Adjournment Debate because it was felt it was not appropriate to have it on last thing at night. I am thankful to have had my matter selected for the Topical Issues Debate tonight. We will debate the demise of our town centres at 9 p.m. and I hope the Minister will be present because one of the commitments made when the Topical Issues Debate was introduced was that the Minister responsible for that area would come in and reply to the debate. That happened for the first four or five weeks and then it slowly eroded. First one Minister was responding to two or three issues, next the Minister of State in a Department started to respond, and then a Minister of State from another Department started coming in to read out a prepared script. That is not good enough.
We talked about reforming the committees and a number of committees were abolished and streamlined. When I was first elected, I sat on a committee that dealt with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which was far too big. I am now on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, which deals with two separate and important Departments. Each Department should have its own committee, allowing appropriate time to debate the legislation and other key issues.
When the Government came to office, it was proposed that we would be allowed to submit parliamentary questions all year round, including periods of recess, but that has been forgotten about. I do not blame people being cynical towards politicians and towards the Government. It came in with an unprecedented majority and a great sense of hope, but it has all been dashed.
I call Deputy Broughan, who is sharing time with Deputy Naughten. The Deputy has ten minutes but will not complete that, as we must adjourn at 5.45 p.m. However, he may come back the next day.
I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy and the Technical Group for facilitating me and giving me the chance to speak.
I am strongly in favour of the abolition of the Seanad. I have been a Member of this House for more than 20 years and during that time I have observed that our second House is, on the whole, ineffective, lacks real teeth and does not have a proper role in the political system. I have believed for many years that the abolition of the Seanad and a move to introduce greater Dáil reform coupled with radical reforms in local government is the way forward in improving democratic accountability. On the issue of costs alone, I agree that the Seanad should be abolished. I am happy to go forward with 170 senior politicians - 158 Deputies, an tUachtarán and the 11 MEPs, but the savings made through the abolition of the Seanad should be ploughed back into enhancing the resources of Dáil Éireann and into local government.
I first visited the Oireachtas as a teenager when I was in the Irish politics class of Dr. Maurice Manning. While I might not have agreed with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael dominance of Dáil Éireann then - as now to some extent - I could see on that visit that Dáil Éireann had major and influential figures such as Frank Cluskey, Brendan Corish, John Kelly, Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey. When we visited the Upper Chamber, it seemed as if we had stepped into the somnolent parlour of some sporting or business club. The contrast certainly was a shock for our class.
Over ten years ago, when the former Deputy, Mrs. Mary O’Rourke, was Leader of the Seanad and held a public consultation on the operation of the House, I proposed the abolition of the Seanad because of its fundamentally undemocratic nature and its history of providing only a minimal contribution to Irish governance since Eamon de Valera reinstituted it. We should not forget that Eamon de Valera abolished the first Seanad.
Of course, I recognise that many Senators on an individual basis have made a considerable contribution to civic society and Irish politics over the years. Over decades past, people like T.K. Whitaker, Maurice Hayes, President Michael D. Higgins, Mary Robinson, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello and the late great Pat Upton have graced the Seanad. Senator David Norris continues to make an eminent contribution, as have other Independent Senators, including Deputy Shane Ross and Senators John Crown and Rónán Mullen, who have always contributed well to the wider public debate. As in every Seanad, the current group of Labour Senators led by Senator Ivana Bacik have always contributed well to Irish politics. Many of the talented cohort of current Senators of course could and should stand for election to Dáil Éireann during the next general election campaign, whenever it happens. Despite the good individual contributions made by a number of outstanding people, the Seanad remains a profoundly ineffective institution.
Montesquieu, of course, proposed the tripartite system of governance based on the separation of powers.
This is a feature of so many political systems today and it influences the famous constitution of the United States. The importance of the checks and balances between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary was also a feature of Montesquieu's theory.
Anyway, the current operation of our Legislature is regrettably largely controlled by the Executive of the day and many Members and commentators believe rightly that control is growing each year. Proponents of Seanad reform, including the newly established group, Democracy Matters, have argued that the abolition of the Seanad would further erode the ability of the Parliament to hold the Government to account. I do not agree with that proposition but I believe that any potential role the Seanad could play in this regard could just as easily be performed by the 158 Dáil Deputies of the next Dáil.
The Seanad has had little input in providing a meaningful contribution to legislation going through the Oireachtas. Professor Manning has noted in his history of the Seanad that only two Bills have been rejected in the Seanad. The first in 1959 related to proportional representation and the second in 1963 was the Pawnbrokers Bill. Furthermore, a potentially strong power of the majority of the Seanad along with one third of the Dáil to initiate a so-called ordinary referendum has never been initiated.
Coakley has pointed out that Ireland and Slovenia are the only two countries in the OECD that are unitary states with a population of less than 10 million which have a bicameral parliament. Ireland and Slovenia are also the only two countries in which the second chamber was designed to represent functional and vocational interests. De Valera's ideal that our second House would represent vocational interests has been largely illusory since most of the representatives who have come through the vocational system are politicians. Real vocational representatives have, generally, never been elected.
Most Seanaid, including the Seanad I first witnessed, are composed of older former Deputies or candidates who missed out on election, young and upcoming Dáil candidates, figures from civic society who have performed services to our nation and a few, sometimes independent, Senators who are long-standing professional Senators who would contribute to civic society whether they were Members of the Seanad.
In his speech the Taoiseach noted that the savings to be accrued from the abolition of the Seanad would be of the order of €20 million initially with a further €100 million saved over the electoral term. Others have put the overall related costs of the Seanad at approximately €200 million. Obviously, in the current challenging economic situation with which our country is faced savings of this nature are important. There is indeed a need to reduce the number of politicians in this country overall, but we cannot abolish a political institution simply to save money. Some savings should be made and the Taoiseach has also referred to savings that will be made under the Government's proposed reforms of local government. I strongly believe that reform of the Dáil system and the re-launching of true local democracy is the right way forward.
The sad reality is that the Seanad is impossible to reform and there is no real scope to reform it. In this small unitary State there is no political role the Seanad can be given. As has been pointed out in two excellent briefings from the Oireachtas library and research service, several European countries, including some from Scandinavia, as well as New Zealand, have abolished their second chambers in modern times. Those Scandinavian democracies and New Zealand function perfectly well with unicameral parliaments. What is striking about those countries that are now unicameral is that they continue to have strong local government systems.
Reform of the Seanad is impossible because it would inevitably lead to what in the United Kingdom used to be referred to as the House of Lords problem. If the Members of the Seanad were elected directly by the people, inevitably the larger constituencies needed would give Senators a better mandate than Deputies have. Greater powers would have to be given to such a democratic Seanad and, inevitably, clashes would occur with the people's House, the Dáil. The Liberal Government of pre-First World War England had to deliberately break the power of the House of Lords to stop it obstructing the will of the people. Ultimately, in a small unitary state such as Ireland the people themselves represent the checks and balances and are effectively the second Chamber. With the growth of online communications we can look forward to a time when the people could be invited to make key decisions on many more issues, for example, on the budget in October. We are not quite there yet but the day will come.
Not nearly enough reform of the Dáil has occurred since the Government took office in March 2011. We need real and substantial powers for the Dáil to examine fully legislation without the frequent threat of a guillotine and we need stronger committees. One small reform that has emerged since the start of this Dáil is that Government Deputies can now question the Taoiseach. This reform was led by several Members, including Deputy Joanna Tuffy, Deputy Durkan and myself.
I commend the Ceann Comhairle on his strong attempts and efforts to assist backbenchers and protect them during Friday sittings. Such sittings take place once a month but we still encounter a rigid whip system in the consideration of legislation of this nature. I have heard the Ceann Comhairle protest on several occasions that the Order of Business on that day should be set by Deputies and that the role of the Ceann Comhairle should be to guide us and conduct us through the day. I hope the Minister will take that point on board and that the whipping of Business on a Friday will stop. It is refreshing on Fridays that one can simply put up one's hand, come forward and say a few words.