Seanad debates

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Seanad Reform: Motion (Resumed)


4:00 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)

That is a reflection on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges rather than anyone else because that is the method whereby one suggests it. Convention dictates that one does not raise a proposal on the floor of this House to invite an individual to this House. It is done through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, as laid down in Standing Orders. Many of these initiatives have already been undertaken but that is not to suggest that the wording of the motion and support for it by all sides in this House should not continue to embrace that notion. We should not be concentrating on the method of election to the Seanad but on the function and effectiveness of the Chamber. The constitutional committee which ironically in the context of recent events, was chaired by the late Deputy Brian Lenihan came up with a number of proposals on how Members should be elected or access this House. It was suggested that the Dáil would elect a number of Senators and other Senators would be elected by universal suffrage. I suggest there is an inherent weakness in a directly elected Seanad, it was highlighted by Eamon de Valera, who abolished the first Seanad because its independence, according to him at that time, frustrated the Government's programme. The Members were seen as being too independent and the programme that the Government had been mandated by the people to implement, in the eyes of the then Government and his own, was being frustrated. However, interestingly, he reintroduced a Seanad under the 1937 Constitution. To this day we continuously have arguments as to its relevance, its retention, method of election and whether it has a representative mandate. Yet, the Seanad is here so many years later and it will be the sovereign right of the people to decide whether the Seanad should continue.

To repeat, I do not believe we should get too hung up on the method of election. We could expand the electoral college. We could have some Members elected directly and it is not beyond the capacity of the collective brains of society or of this House to devise an election that would be practical, workable and acceptable.

The abolition of the Seanad makes wonderful headlines and in the present economic climate any measure that in any way indicates the Government can save the money of the hard pressed taxpayer is seen as a populist move. By abolishing the Seanad, we will save about €25 million, the figure the media is using, but I have not gone into the detail as to whether it is true. This is not money to be thrown away life snuff at a wake. It is a significant sum, especially if one is trying to live on €180 per week. In the context of a Government budget of almost €50 billion, for a Government to suggest that the saving it will make by this will impact positively on the lives of those living on €180 per week is ludicrous. There are many other areas of Government waste - and I use the word waste advisedly, that could be investigated, where savings considerably in excess of the €25 million it costs to run this House, could be considered.

Any debate on the future of this House should focus on the consequences of its abolition. The reduction in the number of elected members to the Dáil, as proposed by this Government, in addition to a reduction in the number of committees and the number of members on each committee will I suggest place enormous pressure on the Opposition to call the Government to account. Anybody who visits the Dáil on a sitting day remarks on the number of Members present. The way that parliamentary democracy works is that the Opposition appoint party spokesperson to shadow the various Departments and they make the case on behalf of the Opposition. All Deputies stand for election in multi-seat constituencies, causing the vast majority of Deputies to be more concerned with ensuring that they respond to their constituent's needs. Call it parish pump politics, if you wish, but woe betide the Deputy who does not look after his or her constituents. In the greatest democracy in the world, Tip O'Neill, the former speaker in the US House of Representatives said that "All politics is local" and anybody involved in active politics in this country knew exactly what he was talking about. The Government has a massive majority and this has resulted in an Opposition that I suggest is so irrelevant that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte referred recently to dissent in the Labour Party as the real Opposition, while the Labour collective in Cabinet now regularly refer in the media to the "National Government". This is conveying the impression that there is a general consensus in Leinster House on the Government's programme - in other words, there is no Opposition. It is a national Government after all. We are focused on our objectives and we will not dissent. That is not what parliamentary democracy is about, nor, I suggest, should be about. It should be about effective Opposition. How much more important will a second Chamber be in this new dispensation?. Who will watch the Executive, a pliant media, a media that has been giving this Government a honeymoon? I suggest, and it is a partisan point, the media has an obsession with ensuring that not only did Fianna Fáil go out of Government, but its entire destruction as a political party. The media is hardly going to turn around in the immediate future on into the far future and say that there are questions about the accepted wisdom of what the previous Government did or did not do or what it was responsible for.


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