Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Seanad Bill 2020: Second Stage
Ivana Bacik (Labour)
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and his stated commitment to reform in this area, which Senator McDowell has also noted. I commend Senator McDowell and his colleagues on bringing forward this important Bill. I also note Senator McDowell's most interesting account of some of the context and background to Seanad reform.
I spoke on this matter last week when we debated Senator Malcolm Byrne's Bill and I mentioned a sense of déjà vuwhich I believe many of us feel when we discuss this topic. It is useful to remind ourselves of the hugely significant constitutional role played by the Seanad. It is important that Senators continue to assert that role. It is, in fact, the reason a number of us, including me and the other Labour Party Senators and Senator McDowell, took a case before the High Court earlier this year to assert the role of the Seanad and seek clarification on the constitutional issue around the status of the Seanad post election. Without going back over that case, it was important.
Colleagues spoke about the contribution made by the Seanad and Senators to ensuring robust levels of scrutiny of legislation and bringing forward legislation. In my time as a Senator, I have had a number of Private Members' Bills accepted. These have become law on issues as diverse as the legalisation of humanist weddings, recognition of freelance workers for collective bargaining purposes and prohibition of female genital mutilation.
The Seanad can and does play an important role in the development and scrutiny of legislation. The current Seanad is different from the Dáil in one particular respect, namely, we have a far better gender balance with 40% of Senators now women. That is a record high.This is very welcome when the Dáil, however, continues to languish behind so many other European legislatures in its proportion of women Members, where only 22.5% of our Teachaí Dála are women, even with gender quota legislation in place. It is entirely right in this sort of debate to assert the importance and significance of the Seanad. We also acknowledge that reform is long overdue. Indeed, in 2013, when the referendum was happily defeated and the proposal to abolish the Seanad was vetoed by the people, this was really a vote for reform not for thestatus quo. All Members on both opposition and Government sides will acknowledge that. As Senator McDowell did, I also acknowledge that the Green Party in both the most recent election and in the negotiations for the programme for Government appear to have pushed for Seanad reform as a priority. I am glad that in last week's debate the Minister of State stated that although the programme for Government disappointingly does not include an explicit commitment on Seanad reform, the three composite parties have recognised the need for urgent action and that action would happen in 2021.
In that context we can consider the ground that has been laid and the preparatory steps that have been taken towards that reform. Without going back over all of the detail, we are all aware of the Manning report, which was a very important process chaired by former Senator, Maurice Manning. I am also a big admirer of him and he, along with his other colleagues, did extraordinary work in bringing on the process of reform and producing a very clear set of proposals in a Seanad Bill in 2016.
At the time of the preparation of the report, I made a submission on behalf of Labour Party Senators, which I spoke about last week and which put forward a series of practical ways in which the Seanad could be reformed to bring about universal suffrage, an expansion of the electorate for the six university seats and so on. Those proposals merit review because they answer many of the concerns about the need for reform to make the processes for the election of the Seanad more democratic.
We are all also aware of the Seanad reform implementation group so ably chaired by Senator McDowell on which I was glad to serve for the Labour Party. That group broadly endorsed many of the proposals in the Manning report and diverged from it on a number of issues. The group's report included a draft Bill, which Senator McDowell has mentioned.
This Bill effectively builds on the recommendations of those different processes. I am very happy to support it on behalf of the Labour Party because while it differs from the proposals we put forward to the Manning report in some ways, it nonetheless represents a practical and effective way to reform the Seanad. It has some merits.
The proposal to establish a Seanad electoral commission is welcome. It would manage the electoral process and deal with some of the undoubted logistical issues that arise from changing and expanding the electorate for the 49 elected Senators.
The provision whereby the Minister may appoint different dates for the commencement of the provisions to allow for an incremental expansion of the franchise is also welcome. That answers perhaps one of the main objections or obstacles to Seanad reform, which is that of cost and logistical difficulty. If one can set out an incremental process, that would address that issue.
The processes for the holding of Seanad elections and the nomination of candidates as set out in Part 4 follow the constitutional requirements and there are also provisions relating to the filling of casual vacancies, how the Seanad commission is to be set up and to function, and so on.
Crucially, the Bill would also do what Senator Byrne’s Bill sought to do in that it would expand the franchise for the six university seats to enable graduates of higher education institutions throughout the State to vote, which is very important, is something that I support and was in the Labour Party proposal in 2015. This Bill, because it is more comprehensive, is a better vehicle within which to bring about that reform for the very reason that I pointed out last week when we were debating Senator Byrne’s Bill, which is that his Bill would effectively bring about a lopsided Seanad and a very skewed electorate, with 800,000 voters electing 10% of the 60 Senators while the others would remain to be elected by the much smaller electorate that currently applies.
It is essential that we bring forward legislation that creates a comprehensive package of reforms for the 49 elected Members, albeit that we would allow, enable or provide for within that comprehensive framework the incremental bringing about of the expansion of the franchise. No Member would consider it as feasible to do everything all at once but it is important that if we are reforming the university panel by expanding the electorate there, we do this in the context of the broader reform proposals from the Manning report and from the implementation group. That is the big strength of this Bill as opposed to Senator Byrne’s Bill.
The Labour Party has always called for the need to establish an electoral commission, which is very important, and our proposals had some significant aspects to them that are not included either in this Bill or in the implementation group report. One of these, in particular, is that we proposed Seanad and Dáil elections would take place on the same day. That is quite a radical proposal and is permitted under the Constitution but would answer the critique often levelled at us that people who have failed to win a seat at the general election then turn around and run for the Seanad. This proposal did not find favour with either the Manning report or the implementation group and is again worth reviewing.
In conclusion, the principle of universal suffrage is of great importance as is that of the expansion of the university seats. The Government motion is disappointing and I ask Government Senators, who may be very reluctant to support that motion, to allow this Bill to pass Second Stage so that we can all work then together to ensure that it becomes reality. Gabhaim buíochas.