Wednesday, 20 January 2010
Seanad Reform: Motion
That, in the light of public criticism and of the numerous reports on the subject, Seanad Éireann requests the Government to embark urgently on the process of comprehensive Seanad reform.
I place before the Seanad tonight an urgent motion on Seanad reform. I do so because the reform and, indeed, survival of Seanad Éireann is undoubtedly the most critical issue facing this House. The leader of the Opposition, Deputy Enda Kenny, in a surprising and perhaps ill-conceived move some months ago, committed his party to the abolition of this Chamber, if it is successful after the next election. He was quite unequivocal about this even though the context in which such a decision was taken was, to say the least, obscure and open to different interpretations. Nevertheless, political stunt or not, his action has had the immediate effect of making reform of this institution of paramount importance if it is to survive. In the view of many people, including myself, the conclusion is clear: reform or die.
Nothing could more dramatically illustrate the need for Seanad reform than the recent by-elections. Out of courtesy, I held my fire during the recent elections of Senator James Carroll, who is an intelligent and decent young man for whom I wish a distinguished career in politics, my old friend and valued colleague, Senator Paschal Mooney, who I am happy to congratulate on his welcome return to this house, as well as Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin. The worthiness of the candidates aside, it is undoubtedly deeply distasteful to the public that for election to a seat in the Upper House of our Parliament the entire electorate consisted of a mere 227 votes. Talking of rotten boroughs, this is something that would have disgraced the most corrupt politics of 18th century Ireland. In addition, the squalid wheeling and dealing that has surrounded these types of campaign, whereby political parties controlled blocks of votes with rigid authority and, on the basis of political pragmatism, elected people who were often entirely unconnected with the alleged interests of the nominating panel, has brought the system into contempt in the eyes of the people.
There have been innumerable reports and recommendations for reform of the Seanad. On the first sitting of this Seanad after the general election I tabled an amendment to the Order of Business by putting forward a motion urging the Government to implement immediately the recommendations of the O'Rourke committee, an all-party committee sponsored by the Government. The degree of cynicism involved in this charade of Seanad reform was revealed as Members of both parties on the Government side trooped obediently into the lobbies to vote against their own proposals. Since then a committee was established, which has just completed its work, under the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, whom I welcome to the House. I attended that committee as a representative of the Independent university Senators. At the first meeting, as I predicted, it became clear that the initial target was, as usual, the university seats. I indicated forcefully to the Minister, as he will remember, that as far as I was concerned it was all or nothing - a comprehensive reform of the Seanad whereby nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. The university seats should not be uniquely targeted in a cosmetic exercise.
Meanwhile the public controversy was fuelled by inept performances from some leading Members on a regrettable "Late Late Show", during which a small proportion of the show was devoted to a demolition job on the Upper House. The programme appeared to be conceived as a populist ambush of one of the institutions of the State, in which the negative side was privileged by being given an extended soap box at the opening, during which a prepared attack was read from an autocue. No parallel opportunity was offered to the defenders who were divided among themselves, subject to scatter-gun questions from the host and then thrown on the mercy of an audience whose hostility towards politicians in general had already been ignited.
I first stood for election to Seanad Eireann in 1977. I was virtually unknown to the public but I got coverage for one remark during that campaign, which was: "That the Seanad had come to resemble a convalescent home for the casualties of the Dáil election." This remains a significant problem, although I have come to believe the presence in the Chamber of a limited number of people with Cabinet experience can be valuable. My views on this and other matters are unlikely to be widely held by my colleagues. The reason is that I am one of a small minority in this House who have specifically chosen to make their political career in the Seanad and have no ambitions to use the Upper House as a launching pad into the Lower House. Many of our colleagues, as we know, would sooner not be here. They are merely in transit from Dáil Éireann in one direction or the other.
First, whatever the difficulties concerned, the Seanad can be reformed and made a more effective element of our democracy. If I did not think so or if I thought there was a cast iron case for the abolition of the Seanad and that it served no function, I would feel honour bound to resign straightaway and not to defraud the taxpayer, especially in these difficult times. Every element of the Seanad needs overhaul, including the university seats. I am on record for many years as supporting the extension of the franchise to other third level institutions. However, I have no doubt that it is the remaining 54 seats that most need to be examined. Of these, 11 are filled by direct nomination by the Taoiseach of the day to establish an automatic Government majority. This is done without even the pretence of an election or a publicly accountable selection process. There are no guidelines and no parameters to the selection of the Taoiseach's 11. They are in the princely gift of the Taoiseach of the day.
The remaining 43 Senators are elected by a system of panels which have nominating bodies covering a wide area of Irish life. However, these groups carry no political clout and are in effect meaningless. This is because they possess between them not one single vote. In recent years one nominating body, the Royal Irish Academy, nominated its president, but he did not receive a single vote. The right to vote is confined to Members of the Oireachtas and members of county councils, thus placing the fate of every seat, apart from the university seats, firmly in the grip of the political parties. I recall seeing party officials herding Members into offices within this building so they could stand over them to ensure they put the tick in the right box. How democratic is that? Does it still happen? Should the electorate be so confined?
If I may, I shall give a clear practical demonstration of some of the dangers of confining voting to county councillors. In a previous Seanad I managed to persuade the then Leader to establish a formal committee of Seanad Éireann to inquire into rendition flights passing through Shannon Airport. The committee was established and about to begin its deliberation when a delegation of local authority members from the Shannon region made a pilgrimage to Dublin, leaned on the Government and was able to have the committee of inquiry dissolved. To prevent people having access to the truth about what was occurring because of parochial and political self-interest was a day of shame in the political life of this country.
I have always been able to maintain that the university seats were democratic because these two constituencies were unique, in that they enfranchised the ordinary members of the nominating bodies. In both NUI and Trinity, it is the graduates who, as a corporate entity, form the nominating body and it is the graduates who vote, in the case of Trinity over 50,000 and in the case of NUI over 100,000. Those are real constituencies. Why not do something similar with the other constituencies? First, we would need to examine the nominating bodies to ensure that all walks of life were represented, therefore giving a degree of universality, and then allow the ordinary members of each group to play a role by voting.
Consider the richness of talent that would be brought into public life - doctors, lawyers, farm workers, trade unionists, fishermen, nurses, dentists, building workers, architects, business people, people from the world of culture, the arts and entertainment. If we let their representative bodies become nominating instruments and allow the ordinary membership to vote, we would have people talking from the depth of their experience with knowledge and technical capacity on matters with which they were particularly qualified to deal. We would mobilise the resources of wisdom and experience. Moreover, were such a scheme to be properly devised, the entire island would be covered in a way that did not slavishly duplicate the Dáil. There is little point in having geographical constituencies that mimic arrangements in the Lower House. Why should the taxpayer pay twice for the same act? We could then do what I have often suggested and make the dates of the Dáil and Seanad elections coincide.
I spoke on the subject of Seanad reform and on whether the Seanad should be retained at all at a meeting of the Dublin South-East Labour Party branch on Monday night. Among the usual questions - interestingly, the general feeling of the meeting was overwhelmingly that the Seanad should be retained and reformed - two struck right to the heart of the matter, namely, why should we have a Seanad at all and what is its justification and how many successful Bills had originated spontaneously, so to speak, on the Seanad floor from Opposition parties or Independents. The second, at heart, related to the question of whether the Seanad is merely a rubber stamp for Government policy and an ineffectual talking shop. The two questions link. There is nothing wrong with being a talking shop. That is just another name for a think tank, a commission or any of those other bodies that have become so fashionable and are seen as being valuable in providing a catalyst for new ideas and new approaches to public life. That is certainly a part of the function of the Seanad that is not shameful and should be vigorously defended.
We are traditionally and constitutionally a revising and amending body. The Seanad operates effectively in this area. I can list a number of amendments that I have secured and I was also happy to second important amendments of Senator O'Toole to the NAMA Bill, a significant achievement by the House. There are even more frequent occasions on which the Minister will accept the principle of the argument and introduce a Government amendment subsequently. In these circumstances and even though the amendment cannot be directly claimed by a Member, such an amendment would not have been made without intervention in this House and the Seanad can legitimately claim the kudos of the impact it has had upon such legislation.
The amending function of the Seanad is not assisted when, as occurred several times recently in terms of important legislation, amendments were tabled in good faith by Members that were neither reached nor discussed in either House of Parliament, allegedly because of time constraints. This despite any disclaimer by the Leader represents the effective operation of a guillotine.
The second question concerning legislation is interesting. Let it be said that every single Member of the Independent university group has placed at least one item of legislation before the House for consideration within the last session. The fact that none of these has passed into law is regrettable, but it does not mean they have not had an impact. Often, the House acts as a catalyst and the Government eventually takes over and implements ideas that originated here. The matter of civil partnership, for example, which is a current issue in the Lower House, was first placed before the Seanad in 2004 and it was several years before first the Labour Party and then the Government took up the issue with serious political intent. There can be no doubt, however, that this House played a significant role in that area, as it has also done with items such as AIDS, climate change, broadband, embryonic stem cell research etc. by the depth and knowledge of the debate that took place here.
It would be futile to deny that a large part of the impact of individual Members is extrasenatorial. For example, Senator O'Toole has made a considerable contribution to the life of this country by his involvement in the trade union movement and the social partnership talks. Senator Ross has made a real impact on the awareness of the public on financial matters, principally through his editorship of the financial section of the Sunday Independent and his recent book. Both men have undoubtedly found the status of being a Senator valuable, but their major impact on life so far has been found outside these walls. This is perhaps sadly inevitable in the present circumstances.
There is virtually no media coverage of the doings of Seanad Éireann. I look forward to the day when the proceedings here will be streamed live to those who are interested rather in the manner of American television's C-Span channel. In the meantime, we are dependent on the broadcast and print media. Apart from The Irish Times, the Upper House is virtually completely ignored by all newspapers. Even the coverage in The Irish Times is often pitiful. This is not due to lack of effort on the part of the correspondent Jimmy Walsh, who is universally respected. Even in The Irish Times, the doings of the Seanad are eclipsed by every other activity within Leinster House so that sometimes all that survives is a couple of shorn paragraphs. "Oireachtas Report" on RTE makes an attempt and I certainly cannot complain of not being covered, but it is indicative that the coverage of the proceedings of Seanad Éireann is invariably placed at the tail end of the report after everything else, including reports of committee meetings.
This clearly indicates that the Seanad is less significant than not just the Dáil, but also any committee that happens to be sitting. If the Dáil does not sit, there is no "Oireachtas Report" at all, although the Oireachtas consists of two Chambers. This attitude is reinforced by regular media reports and publications dealing allegedly with the "general election" that, on closer perusal, turn out to be coverage of Dáil elections only. No other radio or television station gives routine coverage of any kind to Seanad Éireann.
This does not inhibit many of my colleagues from alternately attacking and then toadying to the media. One recent instance was the sentimental reception given in this House to the 25th anniversary of "Morning Ireland". It was described as such a brilliant production, such a wonderful programme, etc. I listened to the programme that day and I had to restrain myself because it would not have been appropriate to be the pooper at that particular party. I listened to the programme and it did not deserve the praise it received. I am reaching the end of this paragraph, but the Acting Chairman knows there was a lot of injury time. The show's production values were terrible, the link to London was inaudible, historic clips were drowned out by inappropriate rock music and, inevitably, we were treated to the usual whinnying and giggling at facetious jokes by the presenters. The only bright spot was the momentary re-emergence of David Hanly.
This is all of a piece with the general dumbing down throughout the media. Instead of hard news, what we are given is infotainment and factoids in the American manner. We hear much about investigative journalism. However, as a fully paid up member of the NUJ, I can tell the House that there is damn little of that around. Most of what passes for investigative journalism in this country is little other than muck raking.
We do not help with our performance in this House. I will continue with this point after I have listened to my colleagues. I also have more to say regarding the way in which the House is organised or, rather, disorganised. We had a classic example of it today when we met at 5.30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. and no Minister was present. When asked, people did not know what was going on.
I thank my colleague, Senator Norris, for his impassioned contribution to the House. I also thank him for asking me to second his motion which I will do in a restrained fashion. I support his general points.
I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. While he has taken this issue in hand, it is important to recognise that he is being outmanoeuvred by the main Government party. I have stated this each time the Minister and I have discussed the matter. It would be unfair of me not to put it on the record of the House. Fianna Fáil is playing ducks and drakes with the Minister's good ideas and is throwing them back in his face. We had understood that all the decisions the Minister was to take in respect of this matter were to have been taken last April. It was then announced that they would be taken last summer and finally we were informed that they would be taken prior to Christmas. As yet, no such decisions have been made. I do not agree with everything the Minister is doing. In the interests of making progress, however, I am of the view that we should do as he suggests in respect of this matter.
We should approach this issue in a proper fashion and we should not attempt to destroy people's political careers. In light of the fact that we live in a modern democracy, however, it must be stated that the method of election relating to this House is nothing other than anachronistic, unrepresentative and undemocratic. In saying this, I do not intend to cast any reflection on those who are Members of the House. I accept that the best of people may become Senators by means of various routes on offer with which I disagree. I, therefore, intend no reflection on current Members or their contributions.
Events taking place today provide a good example in the context of circumstances in which the Seanad lacks relevance. During the past two days the Minister has been hammered in the media in respect of the investigation into the activities of the banks. This is the only matter in respect of which those in the media wish to ask questions and it is the only issue under discussion in the Lower House. One would imagine that the Upper House might be of the view that such a matter might be important, topical and relevant and that it is worthy of discussion. However, we are not discussing it today. I do not intend to discuss the whys and wherefores in this regard but this is an example of the circumstances in which topicality and relevance are lost.
There are a number of issues which we should consider. I informed the Minister previously that one of the difficulties which continually arise relates to those who have a vote in the University Panel and who are also in a position to vote in respect of the various panels. I admire the contributions made by colleagues who are elected through the vocational panels system but, like Senator Norris, I disagree with that system as it is currently constituted. I am not, however, opposed to a system whereby those in the first elected tier in a democracy elected the members of the next tier. That is a well tried process in many democracies and I do not have a difficulty with it in principle. My difficulty arises in respect of the fact that in this country, said system is used to elect 43 out of 60 Senators.
How should we deal with this matter? I am of the view that for each of the vocational panels there should at election time be an inner and outer panel. In the case of the agricultural panel, for example, the former would be comprised of those nominated for election by any four Members of the Dáil or Seanad and the latter would be comprised of those nominated by the agricultural bodies. In my opinion, those on the inner panel should continue to be elected by members of local authorities and those on the outer panel should be elected, in one form or another, by people attached to the nominating bodies. That would make sense.
We could formulate the new system in such a way that far fewer Senators would be elected by local authority members.
As stated previously - some consider my remarks in this regard sacrilegious and do not agree with them - in fairness to colleagues on the Government benches who have built up constituencies on the various vocational panels, I would be satisfied if the Minister decided to proceed with a system such as that which I have outlined in the election after next. I accept that many would not agree with this but it would give people a period in which to come to terms with the new system. I am of the view, however, that fair is fair.
There are three different groups of Senators. First, there are those who are in the Seanad because they want to make a contribution to its work. Second, there are those who are here because they failed to gain election to the Dáil. Third, there are those who are here who are trying to build up a profile to gain election to the Dáil. Unlike Senator Norris, I do not have a difficulty with this. I like the idea of people who aspire to membership of the Dáil and those who were Deputies - even some who held ministerial office - becoming Members of this House. If the structure of the electoral system is right, then I have no problem with that which I have outlined.
The position is similar with regard to the University Panel and I agree with the point made by Senator Norris in this regard. In 1979 we took a constitutional decision that the franchise should be extended to the other colleges and this should be done immediately. We are of the view, however, that nothing should be agreed until everything is agreed. It would be just too easy to change the position only as it relates to the university panel. I would be prepared to change the position regarding the university panel now and not changing that which obtains in respect of the others as long as legislation relating to those panels came into operation at some later date.
Every citizen should, in some form or other, have one vote - only one - in the Seanad.
The idea of people having seven votes is nonsense.
There are other issues with which we must deal. Those who state that the Seanad should have more power do not understand its function, as established under the Constitution. It would be completely wrong for the Upper House to pervert permanently the will of the people as expressed in the Lower House. Our job is, by force of argument, to introduce new information, put forward new perspectives and try to delay, inform, moderate, modify and add to legislation. The argument that the Seanad can never overturn the Dáil is about as good as that which states that there should not be an Opposition because it cannot overturn the Government. This argument is nonsense and does not stand up.
We must ensure we make the changes to which I refer. The Minister has taken this matter on as a crusade of sorts. I applaud him in that regard and have informed him that he has my full support.
I wish to comment on a final matter. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to commit to public life. The way the media operate, it is becoming a less attractive option and fewer people will choose to be public representatives in the future. One of the things of which I am extremely proud and in respect of which I get a great deal of hassle is the fact that I negotiated a safety net for teachers who chose to seek election as public representatives. I ensured these individuals would be supported and that they would have jobs to which they could return if they lost their seats or left public life. People might object to the terms of the deal I negotiated but the principle behind it is correct.
I want someone to ask those in the private and public sectors what they are doing to support people who are good enough to put themselves forward to represent their fellow citizens in the Houses of Parliament. There is a huge problem in this regard. In the same way that a person on maternity leave or whatever cannot be sacked, it is equally important that a person who is elected to parliament should be able to take up office without putting their families at risk. We should ensure there is a fair system of protection for those who give up everything for the sake of serving the citizenry in parliament and who might subsequently lose their seats. This is not directly relevant to the matter under discussion. However, the Minister should challenge people in respect of it.
Everyone appears intent on having a go with regard to the calibre of Members and that which happens in Leinster House. Regardless of whether we agree with the system of election or that for which people stand, those who are currently Members were elected by the will of the people, in some form or other. I am of the view that more people must be encouraged to put themselves forward for election.
I fully support the proposals brought forward by Senator Norris. I regret that the Minister has not moved forward in respect of this matter with greater enthusiasm but I accept that a great deal has happened elsewhere in the past six or seven months. I assure him we will stand with him as long as he goes the whole hog.
I wish formally to record the fact that the Government parties are not proposing an amendment to the motion.
As someone serving his third term in the House, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on Seanad reform. The renewed programme for Government contains a commitment to establish an electoral commission which will be tasked with proposing reforms to the electoral system in a number of areas, including outlining new electoral systems for Seanad Éireann. The final meeting of the all-party group on Seanad reform was held in November. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is to report to the Government on its conclusions. The commitment to seek to advance Seanad reform forms a part of the Government's overall approach to Oireachtas reform. It is clear the Minister, Deputy Gormley, is committed to Seanad reform.
The issue of Seanad reform was put under the spotlight - not in the way that I or any Member of this House would like - by the Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Kenny. The Government's reaction at the time was that we must bear our democratic institutions with great care. Given that even the poorest democracies in the world have a two-chamber system, why should Ireland have only one? At the end of my contribution I shall outline some of the attributes that have been justly earned by this House in terms of scrutinising legislation.
There is no doubt that Seanad reform must be pursued. We have done the talking; now let us do the walking. It would be wrong to simply abolish the Seanad to save money. We could save money by halving the number of Deputies or by abolishing many of the cabals throughout the country, many of them very worthy organisations. If we take that simplistic approach we will not be doing any good. The abolition of the Seanad as put forward by Fine Gael cannot sit as a proposal on its own. It must be accompanied by significant institutional and constitutional reform. There are several references to the Seanad in the Constitution.
The Seanad was established in the interest of a proper functioning democracy. Abolishing the Seanad would improve vertical accountability of the Dáil as it would be the sole Legislature, but it would remove horizontal accountability, as another body would not check the Dáil's business. I shall give examples of what would have happened had this Chamber not been in existence. It would reduce parliamentary oversight of the Executive. Getting rid of the Seanad may speed up the passing of legislation, although the passing of the bank guarantee scheme in September 2008 is an example that showed that legislation could be done quickly in a bicameral system.
All parties need to play a constructive role in moving forward with Seanad reform, which is why we do not oppose this motion. In terms of reform, it is clearly important for any organisation to look continually at the way it does its business. We should not be afraid to push the boat out and examine how we operate. However, simply to close it down as Fine Gael has proposed is not the answer.
The sub-committee on Seanad reform published a report on Seanad reform in April 2004. I did not agree with a number of those recommendations, but as a democrat I had to take account of what the majority in the Government parties felt at the time. The report set out a package of comprehensive recommendations for further consideration and action concerning the composition, functions and future role of Seanad Éireann. Many of these recommendations were radical and far reaching.
Reference has been made to this House being used as a stepping stone. I shall refrain from using the term "to bigger and better things." I am proud to state that I am a career Senator.
Senators get no help. This is one of the reasons we have been criticised. I would have a difficulty in drawing a salary and expenses without giving a service back to the people who pay my wages, the taxpayers. However, what help do I get to do that? In a word, none. There has been a parliamentary response to an ill-conceived report in a national newspaper last Sunday which was grossly inaccurate even in my case. It was only wrong by €10,500, but that is all right. If the truth gets in the way of the story, the story is a one-way winner every time. Senators need to fund it if they want to give a service. If they want to open an office they need to fund it. One can imagine the job that is in these times. To say it is impossible would be the nicest thing one could say.
Senators Norris and O'Toole spoke about the nominating bodies. I take a somewhat different view. I have the honour of being the only Member of the House to be nominated to stand and elected by local authority members and Oireachtas Members given that I was nominated by the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, the oldest local authority organisation in the country. Even though I represent it as its nominee, it is short-changed in this House. While at all times I seek to put forward its views, it does not have a vote. Some of the biggest urban authorities, including those of towns with a bigger population than some counties do not have a vote.
I was also nominated by the Irish Foster Care Association. During a debate on a Private Members' motion last year we gave a good airing to the great work it does. The object of the exercise was to ensure its work was known about, promulgated through our friends in the media - if we have any left - and to ensure the people sitting in the Visitors Gallery know that Members of at least one House of the Oireachtas are appreciative of its work.
Last year, 1,199 amendments were made in the Seanad at all Stages. When the raft of equality legislation went through the Dáil in 1993, one Bill focused on the issue of unlawful dismissal. It established for the first time in law sexual orientation as a ground for discrimination in employment matters. The Bill went through the preliminary consultation process, eventually passed all Stages in the Dáil and arrived at the Seanad. Eight grounds of discrimination were set out in the Bill, but Senator Quinn noticed that one important ground had been totally left out - discrimination on grounds of age. In the Electoral (Amendment) Bill there was all-party agreement to a ban on opinion polls in the period before elections. On discovery that a poll could be published on the morning of the election the provision was deleted in the Seanad and its deletion subsequently agreed in the Dáil.
I crave your indulgence, Acting Chairman, as these are important. In the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund Bill, Senator Quinn highlighted that the scholarships were for people from the Republic only and the Bill was subsequently amended. From 1998 to 2008, an average of 30% of all Bills initiated in the Houses of the Oireachtas were initiated in this House.
Throughout its history, the Seanad has provided greater representation for women. A higher percentage of women have been Members of the Seanad both at present and since 1922 than of the Dáil. While only 13% of Deputies are women, the Seanad has a better representation at 22%.
We have had Mary Robinson, Catherine McGuinness and Gordon Wilson - all great people. It stands as a proven House that is worth retaining. We should amend the way we do our business and our powers. This is an untapped resource that needs to be brought to its full fruition.
I thank Senators Norris, O'Toole and Bacik for raising this issue and for their real engagement with Seanad reform. I listened very carefully to Senator Norris's very interesting speech. It was the first time I have ever seen him read a speech.
It was certainly read at a fast pace as well. The Senator probably broke all records for that one. I wish to respond to some of the points he made. While they might be considered to be incidental points, I agree with the thrust of what he said. There is just a small correction. He mentioned how he had initiated a Civil Partnership Bill in this House and mentioned how it had been taken up by the Labour Party. It was also taken up by the Green Party.
I concur with his analysis of what is occurring in the media. It is a very serious issue that was taken up by his colleague, Senator O'Toole. The way this is going I have no doubt fewer people will want to enter public life. This is a serious issue. I believe colleagues will agree with me when I say being a public representative is a very honourable profession. We should encourage more people from the various professions outlined to enter public life. In that way we would have greater variety. I am looking at Senator Quinn, for example, who has brought his business experience to bear and made a very significant contribution. As highlighted by Senator Glynn, the Seanad has, no question, made a major contribution in altering legislation. I have always said this at committee meetings and value very much its contribution.
The motion requests that the Government embark urgently on a process of comprehensive Seanad reform. I am pleased to say the Government does not oppose the motion. I was very clear on this and believe we should wholeheartedly support the motion. Reform of this House merits attention.
I should like to comment on the words "public criticism" used in the Senators' motion. The public has every right to expect our institutions of State will work as effectively as possible on behalf of the people. The operations of the Oireachtas must continually earn legitimacy from a society which justifiably demands quality decision-making and legislative action. That is the reality of the social contract. Therefore, I welcome fair criticism and scrutiny of the Oireachtas which can spur necessary reform and which reminds us, as public representatives, that those we represent are ever watchful. However, I do not welcome criticism which misunderstands or willfully ignores the role of and contribution made by the Seanad. While some of the criticisms of the Seanad in the last 12 months have validity, some comments have not contributed to reasonable and informed discourse and have done this House and its Members a disservice.
Despite a wealth of reports on reform of the Seanad and the expenditure of considerable energy and thought over the decades, we have not succeeded in achieving all-party agreement on substantive reform. The motion refers to the numerous reports on Seanad reform. Eight reports have been made since 1943, the most recent in 2004. Therefore, extensive reportage has not translated into successive programmes of radical reform. It is fair to observe that the political system has not embraced wholesale change of the House in the last half century. However, I have sympathy that there is a natural caution in that regard. One must remember that the pursuit of constitutional change requires a considerable mandate which has not always been readily apparent. It is also undeniably the case that the issues involved are complex and multi-faceted. Contemplation of reform necessitates consideration of the constitutional, political, legal, administrative and resource implications and repercussions. Notwithstanding my appreciation of a certain guardedness in relation to constitutional change, the time comes when change must be contemplated. No institution is immune to the need to maintain its relevance, mandate and effectiveness.
An Agreed Programme for Government from 2007 states the Government will determine the extent of cross-party agreement on the recommendations of the report on Seanad reform and advance proposals for implementation. The commitment to seek Seanad reform is part of the Government's overall approach to Oireachtas reform. The 2004 report which the all-party group considered argued that there was "an urgent need to accept the political reality that Seanad Éireann really must be reformed if it is to make a viable and distinctive contribution to the economic, social and political affairs of our country". In terms of its composition, the report recommended a Seanad with 65 seats: 32 directly elected, 20 indirectly elected and 12 Taoiseach nominees. The report made a number of recommendations regarding the functions of the Seanad, including in relation to the scrutiny of legislation, EU affairs, the review of public policy and the scrutiny of public appointments. As acknowledged in the report, many of its recommendations are radical and far-reaching and a number would require constitutional amendment.
The former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, requested that I chair an all-party group on Seanad reform in line with the commitment made in the programme for Government. The aim of the group was to establish, in a small number of meetings, the extent of cross-party agreement on the 2004 report's recommendations. The group met on four occasions during the period 2008-09 and included Members from both Houses representing all parties in the Oireachtas, as well as the Independent Senators. It provided a forum for the comprehensive consideration of reform of the Upper House. I publicly thank the members of the group, Deputies and Senators, several of whom are present, for their contributions. All political parties engaged in a positive manner with the group's business.
Despite the view of all participants that reform was necessary, the reality is that there was little all-party consensus on what route it should take. The all-party group's deliberations indicated that party positions varied from complete abolition to reform within the existing electoral system, save in relation to the higher education constituency. The group's work ranged over the nature of the Seanad electoral panels, its electorate, functions and possible enhanced role in areas such as North-South and EU affairs and a potential role in relation to public appointments.
The group noted the most significant changes to the composition of the Seanad would require constitutional amendment. There was a collective appreciation of the difficulty of pursuing constitutional reform in the short term. After some discussion, therefore, the group narrowed its consideration to four main areas. The first had to do with an enabling amendment to the Constitution to permit subsequent reform by legislation which was discussed in detail. It was suggested the detailed prescriptive provisions currently in the Constitution which set out how the indirect panel system operates could be replaced with a simpler enabling provision that would allow greater flexibility to reform the electoral process by legislation. However, it was generally considered the details of any new system would have to be known before a proposal was put to the people.
The expansion of the higher education constituency was another issue considered in detail. The current system of electing the representatives of graduates of the National University of Ireland and Trinity College has been acknowledged by all parties as anomalous. However, the university Senators were opposed to this issue being treated in isolation, as highlighted by Senator Norris in his contribution today.
The group also considered two other reforms: the scrutiny of certain senior public appointments by the Seanad to improve transparency and the provision for the membership of the Clerk of the Seanad of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The party responses indicated that while there was some consensus on making a number of changes to the operation of the Seanad, there was little all-party support on the major issues of reform.
I have stated previously that I favour widening the third level electoral franchise. However, it should be noted that there are now over 500,000 graduates in the State and widening this franchise could have significant resource implications. Again, this was a valid point made by Senator Norris at the committee hearing. The issue also needs to be considered in the context of examining wider reform. Today's announcement by the Minister for Education and Science that the NUI is to be abolished will also have to be taken into consideration in deciding how we move forward.
It should be noted that the work of the all-party group has been somewhat overtaken by the renewed programme for Government which commits to the establishment of an independent electoral commission which will incorporate a number of electoral functions and be tasked with proposing reforms to the electoral system in several areas, including outlining a new electoral system for the Seanad. The programme also states options for the timing of elections to local authorities, the Dáil, the Seanad and the European Parliament will be considered, to include the possibility of mid-term elections and running some elections on a staggered or rolling basis in order that they would not fall on the same day for every candidate or Chamber.
We seem to be some way off cross-party consensus on reform of the Seanad and I will be reporting this conclusion to the Government. I intend to submit a report for discussion with my colleagues in government shortly. We will have regard to the views expressed by all parties and the commitments given in the programme for Government. We will then consider the next steps to be taken in the process. While consensus remains elusive, I have previously informed the House that the absence of consensus cannot be allowed to lead to paralysis. It is my ambition that the Government will press ahead with reforms from which successive Governments have shied away.
Deputy Enda Kenny's proposal is to put in a referendum to the people the question of whether we need to have two Chambers in the Oireachtas. Ultimately, it is the people who will decide what type of system we will have for the future. In the here and now those who are most important in considering the issue of reform within the Oireachtas are the parties in government. There have been eight reports on reform of the Seanad. It is clear, therefore, that very little has been done. Constitutional changes are required in respect of all the reforms proposed for this Chamber, but nothing has ever been done.
First and foremost, the Government needs to pull up its socks and get a move on in changing the way the Seanad is run and how it operates if we are to win the confidence of the people that this Chamber is relevant. I have no doubt that there are great debates, including legislative scrutiny, in this Chamber. For five years I was a Member of the Lower House where I was my party's spokesperson on health. There is the same quality of debate and commitment to politics in this House. If I am asked to do so by my party, I will stand for election to the Lower House again. However, as regards being a politician, I find the role of Senator somewhat limited. While I have access to officials in the civil and public service through my role as a Member of the Oireachtas, there are serious problems in this House. It is up to the Leader and the Government parties to make the required changes.
I have worked in the private sector in which I ran a general medical practice. There was a day-to-day business element, as well as an emergency service element, which cannot be planned in advance. In some respects, this House reflects that position. There are things that can change at short notice and matters that can be planned for well in advance. At times, however, the business of the House is chaotic. This would be unacceptable in the private sector.
Reference has been made to Senator Quinn. If he ran his business the way this House is managed, he would not be in business. He would be unknown because he would have been broke years ago. As that reflects what happens in the House, we need to make changes. If we want to be relevant, we can make ourselves so. For instance, we put questions to the Leader on the Order of Business and ask him to obtain replies from Ministers, yet I have not once received a letter stating what a Minister thinks of my request. I am sure that goes for Members on both sides of the House. Notwithstanding the fact that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, is present, Ministers do not pay much attention to what happens in this House. Many avoid turning up here. For instance, there is no commitment on the part of Ministers to attend on Committee and Report Stages of legislation to see what amendments are tabled and if adjustments need to be made. Ministers of State attend the House and say they will refer back to the Minister, or else they just stonewall and do nothing. It makes the House look irrelevant, which is the public perception of the Seanad.
We can stand up for ourselves and discuss the matter as Opposition Members, but it is up to Government representatives to put pressure both on their party leaders and Ministers to show a strong commitment on how the House works. We do not need to dive straight into constitutional issues. Reform can start by reorganising the business of the House and getting Ministers to make it relevant. It is a two-way process in that we can also take direction from the Leader and the Cathaoirleach or Acting Chairman if speeches are considered to be irrelevant in debates or if Members are making Second Stage speeches on Committee or Report Stage. However, it is up to the Leader to start giving the required leadership. The Government often dictates what happens here, which can be to the detriment of how we are perceived. If the Leader is instructed by the Government not to facilitate matters, we are the ones who look foolish because we will not be seen to be debating topical issues or to deal properly with legislation. We have a role in making the House more relevant. If we make ourselves more relevant, we will be more relevant to the people.
I will cite one example, of which Ministers are well aware. All of the Oireachtas Members for County Wexford were asked to meet to discuss the issue of policing committees. As I was in the House, Senator Walsh went to the meeting to represent Senators. The five Wexford Deputies voted to take the five positions on the policing body themselves. They deemed the Senators to be irrelevant. However, I do not believe the Minister can do anything about this. I do not even know if he has any views on whether there should be at least one Senator on various State or local authority bodies, including policing committees. At present there is nothing to stop the five Deputies from taking such positions, thus excluding Members of the Seanad. The Minister could take this on board and sort out the matter quickly on our behalf.
We should bear in mind a health and safety issue for staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas, as well as departmental staff who assist Ministers. The carry on in sitting late into the night, with no idea of whether we will sit on Mondays, Tuesdays or Fridays, is absolutely stupid. It is disrespectful to those working in the Oireachtas and Departments. They must make provision to get home, sometimes after midnight. In addition, when they come to work, they do not know if they will be working late. That might be fine for many of us; perhaps we like to be machismo in working all night and doing things backwards, but what about the staff? We are asking people who work for us to go home late at night. They may not be able to afford taxis and buses may no longer be running. They are going onto the streets late at night, which is unnecessary. The health and safety aspect applies to everyone who works late, including the ushers who are here all day and work long nights. I have no doubt that from a medical viewpoint such a working environment places unnecessary stress on staff. This should stop.
When we discuss reform, the big questions relate to constitutional issues and how we can change the electoral system. If we really wanted to do so, in this session we change the small things I have outlined. That would result in a serious alteration to the way in which the House is run, as well as to how it is perceived. We should have respect for those who serve us as Members of this House and in Departments.
I am delighted to welcome my colleague the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Governemnt, Deputy Gormley, who is absolutely committed to Seanad reform. I have spoken to him about the matter on many occasions, most recently when I saw this motion on the Order Paper. I contacted him by text message and suggested we support the motion. He was quick to reply and agree. I will certainly support the motion which is a good one.
There are many issues to be debated on Seanad reform. Senator Twomey has broadened the debate, but what does Seanad reform mean? Does it only refer to the way in which elections are held? I think not. Senator Twomey spoke about the way in which the business of the Seanad was conducted, but that can be reformed without recourse to legislation or a constitutional amendment. We could do this tomorrow if we so wished.
There is no doubt that members of the public want the Seanad to perform a useful service on their behalf. In advance of this debate I was asked by a member of the public what my constituency was. I thought that was an interesting question. I was elected to the House in a by-election just before Christmas. The voters were Deputies and Senators. Members of the university panels are elected in very big constituencies by university graduates. Most Senators, however, are elected by councillors, Deputies and Senators, in other words, by all of the elected representatives.
Senator O'Toole made a valid point when he said every person on the electoral register should have one vote in Seanad elections. That is a good principle, which I would support. I have a background in many areas, one being information technology.
I can see that the various Seanad panels were established at a particular point in history, but they are now outdated. It is time for reform. Last year Deputy Enda Kenny stated he would like to abolish the Seanad within one year of assuming power. I stand to be corrected, but he certainly said he would like to abolish the Seanad if he was elected Taoiseach.
His wish was to abolish the Seanad. I would like to know his rationale. I felt he was grabbing headlines, which was unfortunate. He was being outmanoeuvred by his Opposition colleague, Deputy Gilmore, and therefore felt he had to make a grand statement on abolishing the Seanad. I could make a statement in the House on abolishing Deputy Kenny with a view to looking for headlines.
Perhaps we should have a referendum on the issue. These considerations are churlish. Somebody said to me that the Roman Emperor Caligula appointed his horse as a Senator. In my locality, people were calling me a horse and I am sure many other Senators are called horses. This is nonsense. We do not appoint horses to the Seanad, thank God.
I do not see any Members falling asleep behind me. It was always a bit of fun to watch on television live coverage from the House of Lords to see how many people were falling asleep. It was quite extraordinary. That is not the system we have here.
It is a great privilege to be a Senator and to be able to stand here and debate as a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is extraordinary and a great privilege to be debating in the Chamber with people whom I regarded during the years as having household names.
Senator Glynn stated 1,199 amendments were tabled in the Seanad last year. This is an extraordinary number. It is not the case, therefore, that the Seanad is irrelevant. However, there is a great difficulty associated with how this House is perceived. Most members of the public, to many of whom I have spoken, have no idea what the Seanad does or does not do. An educational process could form a part of Seanad reform immediately. I have watched visitors trooping into the Visitors Gallery, for a number of minutes in most cases, to watch debates in the Seanad. Bringing children into the Seanad is very worthwhile. Many others visit the Seanad to see what is going on. It is very much the case that those who visit are interested in doing so. It is quite important that we embark on an outreach programme. I am sure it has been tried before. It is important to make the Seanad relevant. I do not want to see it abolished.
I have ambitions. I have stood for election to the Lower House twice and would welcome the opportunity to do so again. I have been selected to do so again and would love to be elected. However, I take the business of the Seanad very seriously. It is an enormous privilege to be here and I intend to put my heart and soul into being a Senator and into making as great a difference as I can while I am here, albeit making no assumptions as to what will happen in the future. None of us can do that and none of us knows how long the Government or this House will last. While it does last, it is important that each of us makes as strong a contribution as possible and does his best to achieve what he can.
This will be an ongoing debate. The key point for me, as a new Senator, is that we make a difference in what we do. I hope this is not a debate, involving only the ten or so Senators present, that disappears into the record books but that it spurs real reform. A statement made to me, a truism, was that very few people elected by a particular system are prepared to reform that system. The university Senators are saying it would be unfair to reform certain aspects of the Seanad without reforming everything. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas; nevertheless, we have come to a point in our history where there is great disquiet over the political system. There is a great need for reform and every Member should be prepared to see a decent level of reform. I hope it happens.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady. She will be reporting on this debate to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, who had to leave.
I am glad to be associated with this motion and to have joined Senators O'Toole and Norris in proposing it. I am glad the Government is supporting it, which is very important. The cause of Seanad reform is important and we need to debate it, particularly in this House. In the brief period since I was elected, just over two years ago, this has been the third substantial debate on Seanad reform. We certainly debated it in November 2007 and March 2009.
Circumstances have changed somewhat since we last debated the issue. In March 2009, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, was more upbeat about the prospect of real reform of the Seanad. I was rather disappointed to hear a note of frustration in his speech this evening. I do not know if I am correct in that regard but believe he was frustrated by the lack of progress on achieving consensus on Seanad reform. I am disappointed about this because I attended some of the meetings of the all-party group on Seanad reform. I certainly believed consensus was emerging. A clear consensus had emerged in the weighty and considered report produced on Seanad reform in 2004. I believe I am correct in stating it had all-party support. It made recommendations on the future composition of Seanad Éireann. For the most part, they were sensible recommendations on the processes by which Senators are elected, with a view to making them more democratic, and on the business the Seanad should be conducting. They would make the Seanad's structures more efficient and effective.
Consensus was reached and the all-party group was seeking to identify practical ways to act on that consensus. From what the Minister is saying, I understand events have overtaken the group. His speech states "there is little all-party support on the major issues of reform" and "we seem to be some way off reaching cross-party consensus on the Seanad and I will be reporting this conclusion to the Government". There is a tone of defeatism and it is unlikely, from what the Minister is saying, that we will see substantive reform. I would be grateful for clarification on whether my interpretation of the Minister's speech is correct.
It will be a pity if there is stagnation. The university Senators are very keen to see reform, as is the Labour group. I speak as the only university Senator in the Labour group. The group is very keen to see significant reform of the method by which the Seanad is elected and in the business it conducts. Unless such change occurs, the role and relevance of the Seanad will continue to be questioned by the public to such an extent that convincing arguments may be made for its abolition. This is perhaps where Fine Gael is coming from. We do not support outright abolition in that we contend there is a role for a second Chamber. However, it must be reformed substantially in order to answer the arguments being made for its abolition.
The problem concerns what kinds of reforms to be made. We have the benefit of an all-party group that issued a report and made recommendations. Let me address some of the recommendations and suggest ways in which the Seanad could become more relevant, thus allowing its retention to be supported much more widely by the public. Since I have been elected, the strength of the Seanad has lain in its debates on legislation, particularly on Committee Stage, during which we tease out the technicalities. The Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, has been present for some of those debates. She will have noted that there is space in Seanad debates for more considered and thoughtful contributions on Bill amendments than in Dáil debates. In particular, the university Senators have demonstrated during the years a strong commitment to bringing forward amendments that might have no space to be debated in the Lower House. The debates on them often lead to the improvement of a Bill, even if the amendments are not directly accepted by the Minister, although they often are.
The Seanad has served a valuable function in providing a platform for views to be expressed which are often not expressed in the Lower House. It gives an opportunity for people to be represented in a way that they may not be in the Lower House. For example, while they may not have directly fed into legislation or have been adopted by the Government of the day, one of the Private Member's Bills from the 1970s of my predecessor from Trinity College Dublin, Mary Robinson, fed into a change in public opinion and ultimately paved the way for reform of the law on contraception, with important socially progressive legislation.
Yes, there is my Private Member's Bill, the Climate Protection Bill. I thank Senator Norris. I was going to go on to speak of the immense contribution he has made in this area. His Civil Partnership Bill 2004, in which I played a small role-----
-----and which the Government did not adopt, will be accepted in years to come as paving the way for the Government's own civil partnership legislation. It also helped to shift the public debate. The Seanad's role in shifting public debate and changing public opinion is often not sufficiently acknowledged. The Seanad plays a vital role in this regard, one that the Dáil cannot play. I always believed this, even before I was elected to the Seanad. Legislation such as Mary Henry's on the need to regulate assisted human reproduction and in vitro fertilisation was pioneering in a way in which Senator Norris's civil partnership legislation and Mary Robinson's on contraception was.
While I defend the role and existence of the Seanad, significant and substantial reform is needed. The election processes need to be changed. All Senators on the university panels agree on the need to extend the franchise to graduates of all third level institutions. The Minister claimed this would present logistical difficulties and have significant resource implications because, as he pointed out, there are over 500,000 graduates in the State. I am disappointed by this and again detect a note of defeatism and frustration. The case has to be made to making this reform to the university panels.
I also support the recommendation made in the 2004 report on Seanad reform which called for a broadening of the university constituency to a national higher education constituency and that other Seanad seats should be directly elected in a single national constituency using a proportional representation list system. This latter process would make the Seanad different from the Dáil because it would be not be based on geographical constituencies. It would also mean those entitled to vote in the higher education constituency would have to chose in which constituency they wished to vote. This would prevent people from being doubly enfranchised. This was a sensible idea to make the Seanad more democratic in its election processes.
As regards the Seanad's work, the Minister will be aware of the recommendation made in 2004 that it should be given a new role in scrutinising EU legislation. That is an enormous task. We are all conscious of the increased workload in that regard, particularly considering the Lisbon treaty's provisions in that respect. As a member of the justice committee, I am conscious of seeing an increased amount of EU legislation coming before it. There is a real argument to be made for the Seanad to have a greater role in this area. I am often concerned that legislation that might be controversial or have serious implications for changing policy might slip through the net unless it is debated in the Dáil or the Seanad. It seems the Seanad would be an appropriate forum in that regard.
The argument was also made that the Seanad should have a role in scrutinising senior public appointments, an eminently sensible suggestion. We have seen far too little accountability in the appointment of senior public servants during the years, a matter under the spotlight, given the talk about a banking inquiry and failures in regulation at the top levels.
There is clearly a role for an Upper House with clear functions it should undertake. In the two years I have been a Member I have seen an enormous strength in the House's role as a legislative assembly. Under the Constitution, that has to remain the primary function of the Seanad. However, there are other functions that have been recommended which should also be taken on. Clearly, much of what the House does is not effective. I have spoken before about how statements can seem to be pointless time-fillers. There is an argument for tightening the Seanad schedule to ensure it is much more effective in a shorter space of time. I agree with Senator Twomey on the chaotic ordering of business and the machismo of the House sitting through the night to deal with legislation. There should be better ways of ordering our business. It would be worthwhile examining how we can whittle it down and, then, if necessary, Member's pay and allowances, to ensure the work the Seanad does, as a legislative body and a scrutiniser of EU legislation and public appointments, is valid and genuine.
The Seanad has a role to play but for this to continue significant reforms must be made. Otherwise, the arguments for its abolition gain weight. There is no doubt such arguments already carry some weight with the public. We must answer them robustly by making a clear case for reform. I believed the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, had a genuine commitment to it. Even a year ago when the House last debated the issue, he was positive about the prospect of Seanad reform during the Government's term. I am not sure he is so positive now, which is a pity because we need reform before the next election.
In the seven and a half years I have been a Member there have been three Seanad reform debates per year on Private Members' business with an amendment to the motion. Tonight no amendment to this Private Members' motion has been tabled.
If members of the public were remotely and accurately informed about the level of debate, scrutiny and work done in this House, they would have much more confidence in our political system. Unfortunately, little more than lip-service is paid by many to the workings of the House. Senator Norris and other Members have mentioned how the media do not cover the proceedings of the House. He has never minded when I have often told him unless a Member is gay, a former president of the ICTU, a Sunday Independent business journalist or like some of the other fine Independent Senators, one can barely get a soundbite on "Oireachtas Report" and certainly not be covered elsewhere in the media. That is not to impugn the overwhelming contribution made by the mentioned Senators.
No, Senator Norris has, rightly, been covered on a great many issues.
Since its establishment the Seanad has been an admirable institution. The lack of media coverage, then their comments in an authoritative fashion as to their opinion on the Seanad's usefulness and uselessness and the suggestion of its abolition have done a disservice to the great work it has done. It has taken up quite a few debates, even on The Late Late Show, which I thought was the exclusive preserve of toys and soft entertainment. I did not participate in that debate because I knew it would be an ambush, which it was.
With past and current Members, I have been an enthusiastic supporter of Seanad reform. Throughout the history of the State Members of all parties and none have sought to preserve the status quo, namely, to use the Seanad as a safety net for the "also ran" and a launching pad to protect their future prospects. Notwithstanding this, as I pointed out, the Seanad is a useful forum in terms of considering legislation and the role its plays in society; meaningful reform could enhance its role further. Until there is a will to do this at senior government level I do not believe we will have the reform for which all of us in the House have always and will continue to yearn. Parnell was once described as "dry rot" in the House of Commons. Senators are often described, metaphorically by Members of the other House, as dry rot in the Oireachtas and the legislative process, with which I fundamentally disagree. We need to work to change this view - I am speaking candidly on the basis that we will not be voting on the motion - and to work collectively to convince people in the higher echelons of government - I include in that Governments made up of Fine Gael and other party members - to take a different view of the Seanad. Until we do this, we will not see the required reform.
Senators Norris, O'Toole, Glynn and others made valid points. The Minister stated it would be difficult to achieve cross-party consensus on this issue. Reforming an institution of State is a difficult mission. The reality is that if we cannot achieve consensus, we will require leadership to take us forward in addressing this issue as best we can. I look forward to this happening in the short term. It is ridiculous in the extreme that we have had eight reports on the matter and that we have had such preservation of the status quo. However, I believe it suited to have that safety net for the "also ran" and as a launching pad.
I have never contested a Dáil election and have never been a member of a local authority, although I might have liked to have been both. I am not suggesting it would not be nice to serve as a Member of the other House. However, I have taken my role in this House seriously and have tried as a member of the Industrial and Commercial Panel to reflect in legislation relevant to that sector my experience which is exclusively in industry as a business person, an employee and through my involvement in international marketing. I do not use my position exclusively to raise issues relevant to Sligo-Leitrim or solely for the purpose of raising my profile in order to enhance it. I fully expect to put my name forward in the next Seanad election, notwithstanding the intentions of Deputy Kenny, for whom I have great respect. However, in terms of his aspiration to abolish the Seanad and his call during interviews for reform from the centre and the top, which confuses me, I do not believe pandering to populist media driven reactionary politics is what the nation needs at this time. We should seek to improve our institutions and reform them in a meaningful way to ensure they are more effective, as in the case of the Constitution which has served us well since 1937.
In terms of the reforms I would like to see, I agree with the Graduate Equality Ireland Group which, with many other organisations, have lobbied for implementation of the seventh amendment to the Constitution to widen the university structure to reflect the position in the higher education sector in 2009 rather than in 1937. We are all agreed on that point. There are many areas other than that which should be reformed, including a reduction in the number of nominating bodies for those elected through the system, an area in which there is much duplication. The Taoiseach's nominees should always include representatives from Northern Ireland, although, unlike others, I do not believe this will happen. It is unlikely that the Queen will bestow peerages on us.
In advance of a final solution to the Northern Ireland problem, I do not believe we should indulge in this.
The Lisbon treaty provides for a Sixth Stage in the processing of legislation which will see draft legislation kicked back to national Parliaments. Therein lies the biggest value in terms of what Seanad Éireann can do for the future. So often Members have expressed frustration that we only rubber-stamp European directives. However, under the Lisbon treaty, we will have an opportunity to take a view on them. For two days each week it should be the exclusive role of the Seanad to scrutinise EU legislation. Only today I called for a debate on the draft legislative package on financial regulatory reform, an important issue. These are the debates in which we should be getting involved and taking an informed view. This would assist in bringing the public closer to this institution of State and assist us as a nation take a more informed view of proposed EU legislation in order that our Ministers, including the Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, and others, when they attend the Council of Ministers can reflect an Irish opinion as debated in the Seanad having listened to various interest groups.
With the Chair's indulgence, I would like to make a few more points. I support the call for the scrutiny of public appointments as mentioned by other speakers. A revised number of joint committees should be chaired and convened by Senators. Clearly, as Deputies are expected to be more involved in constituency work than Senators, Senators could chair and convene committees. I do not propose we receive any money or a reward for so doing other than that we do so on the days we attend the Oireachtas.
On the methods of election, some members should be elected through the panel system but I am not against universal franchise on a constituency basis such as the European constituencies. Another issue on which I would like to see some work done - I acknowledge some work was done in the past - is the petition system, whereby, for example, 50,000 members of the public or any three of a list of prescribed organisations could petition the Seanad to consider an issue and on which - this is interesting, although it may not be possible to achieve agreement on it - an open and free non-partisan vote would take place to determine a follow-up recommendation or achieve referral to the Cabinet which would, in turn, respond on the matter within three months. However, such a recommendation would not be binding. This would be greatly welcomed by the public. I am not being populist but such an initiative would be worthwhile.
More than anything I hope that during the remainder of my time as a Member of this House some reforms will be made. Senator Norris has often stated that on opening day of the Seanad the issue of Seanad reform is always one about which there is great enthusiasm but that the level of enthusiasm usually lags after the first two or three weeks. I hope that with the help of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, the rest of the Government and Members of this House that will not happen this time. I know every Member of this House is a strong and enthusiastic supporter of Seanad reform. I have expressed a few of my ideas, some of which may be a little radical. Nevertheless, they are genuine in their ambition to see what is a relevant and important institution and arm of State become even more effective. While the media have chosen not to provide coverage of our work, that is their hard luck. We continue to do good work.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I compliment the Independent Senators on putting forward the motion. I begin by clarifying for Senator MacSharry that Deputy Kenny was not pandering to populism in his remarks. We have had eight reports on Seanad reform and the matter has been discussed ad nauseam. It is time the Minister, in the absence of consensus, moved forward and introduced reform of Seanad Éireann. I am disappointed the Minister did not refer to any future heads of a Bill or to an expectation of legislation for reform of the Seanad. It is time the Government, if it is intent and serious about Seanad reform, presented to us legislation to move this process forward. As Senator Norris so eloquently stated the process has taken us to the highways and byways of ideas and suggestions. It is time we had reform.
The political process is broken. We have lost our connection with the people. It is exemplified in this House by the fact that tonight in an important debate the Minister, Deputy Gormley, has left us. He is not alone in doing so. While I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brady, and wish no disrespect to her, the Minister dealing with a specific Bill should be here for the duration of the debate and should engage in a process of questions and answers, consultation and dialogue with Members. This happens on Committee Stage, but that is different in that it deals with amendments. Where we have statements, the Minister should stay for the duration of the debate and should engage in questions and answers and open a two-way process of discussion in this House.
We are in the midst of an economic recession. People are under pressure. They have priorities such as jobs, retaining their homes, education and child care worries. The media have generated much of the debate about the Houses of the Oireachtas which are under greater scrutiny. If we are honest and objective, we can state quite categorically that this House is not working effectively.
Yesterday in a vote of the people in the State of Massachusetts defeated a Democratic candidate who was 30% ahead in the polls four weeks before Christmas. They sent a message to politicians which can be translated here, and if we had elections in this country tomorrow the same message would resonate. The people are asking politicians to listen and to lead, to work on their behalf and to promote job creation, greater accountability and transparency in our work in this House and in the other House, and in local authorities. Our fundamental task in this House is to work on behalf of the people. We can do that by better structuring our business.
Senator MacSharry used the word "ambush". We ambush ourselves in this House by the way in which we structure and order our business. I do not mean to apportion blame to anybody-----
-----in the context of the way in which he takes his direction from Government, as Senator Twomey stated. He has an obligation to run this House effectively, competently and comprehensively by having meaningful debate and interchange between Ministers and Senators, and that is not happening.
I like a bit of bluster too and I am good to give it, but we need to have genuine interaction.
The Minister and Senators have spoken about how we can implement reform and change. The Lisbon treaty, as we mentioned, has been passed which means European legislation and European scrutiny can come into this House. Rather than having an EU scrutiny committee, which is doing good work, it could be done here.
I will incur the wrath of the Independent Senators, but we have this great line about having to reform how the Independent Senators are elected and to include new universities. The Minister for Education and Science today has abolished the NUI. What implication does that have for the Seanad? At the stroke of a pen, he abolished the NUI.
Personally, I have no difficulty in advocating reform of the Seanad because in my two and a half years here I have tremendously enjoyed it. I find the debate here to be invigorating and I get a great lift from it. Unfortunately, much of the debate here goes unnoticed. While I might not agree with what is said, there is a great sense of participation by the Members who have a good ability to communicate the message of whatever debate. There have been some great suggestions from all sides of the House that have not gone anywhere, which we need to reflect upon and we need to change and amend.
Part of the difficulty, be it driven by the media or for whatever reason, is that people see this House as irrelevant, which it is not. It is very relevant in the scrutiny of legislation. In time, and when the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 which has gone through this House comes out into the public domain, there will be consternation. Under this Government, there is more power devolved back into central government, taken away from the regions, taken away from the councils and given back to the Minister and to the mandarins in the Department, which is wrong. There needs to be greater scrutiny here and we need more time devoted to scrutiny of legislation without guillotines. We need to schedule our business more effectively and efficiently, and orientate it more towards this House having relevance beyond the gates of the compound of Leinster House.
In the context of the electoral process of the Seanad, I certainly have no difficulty in holding the Seanad election on the same day or staggered from the general election, but we need to look at the context of the Seanad.
Deputy Kenny's proposal to abolish the Seanad has set another debate going, but the motion is valuable. The Minister spoke about the establishment of an independent electoral commission. He should not wait for that. He should go forward himself with zeal and gusto and reform the Seanad, and he will get support. I commend the Senators for the motion and thank them for putting it forward on the Order Paper.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brady, and thank Senators for tabling this motion for our consideration.
I remind the previous speaker who made the point about the polls in Massachusetts that it does not necessarily say also in Ireland that because his party is 33% or 34% in the polls, that will hold when the time comes. It goes to show that all is there to be won and we should always keep that in mind. It is an important point and I thank Senator Buttimer for bringing it to my attention. I am grateful.
No more than his good self who will come up against these matters from time to time, I appreciate that.
Much work has been done by the leaders, the representatives who have sat down with the Minister and tried to get a consensus on how we can make the Seanad more meaningful. As far as I am concerned, the suggestions that have been made here by various colleagues for the Seanad are all worthwhile and most of them are worthy of being included in Seanad reform.
The suggestion that we should sit here at least one day a week on the sixth stage of legislation on European directives and assisting the nation and the Ministers when they go to Europe is good, and we fully support it. That was one of the proposals we, in Fianna Fáil, included for the Minister's consideration.
I am here as long as anybody with the exception of one Member. The value of the Seanad is there is no guillotine on legislation. The value of the Seanad was seen on the NAMA legislation and the various legislation on banking that came before us recently where every section was debated and discussed in minute detail, section by section and line by line. That is the difference between Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. Dáil Éireann does not and cannot say that every section and every line is debated and discussed because we know that is not a fact. The guillotine is used there because the considerable membership in the Dáil does not allow time. It would be sitting seven days a week if that was the case. The strength of the Seanad is that there is no guillotine used. Certainly under my leadership since 1997, no guillotine has ever been used. We have sat until 4 o'clock and 5 o'clock in the morning, and even 8.20 a.m. on the NAMA legislation.
The taxpayer and democracy are well protected. Every section of value for money legislation proposed by any Minister or Government is discussed in minute detail.
Let us consider the workload of the Seanad. Last year, we sat for 100 days. Never in its history has Seanad Éireann sat for 100 days. Last year, Dáil Éireann sat for 101 days. These were unprecedented sittings and we are very proud of that fact. In 2008, the House accepted 1,201 amendments to legislation from Ministers who appeared before the House, a very significant contribution to legislation and to ensuring better, stronger and more relevant Bills. In 2008, 31% of all legislation was initiated in the Seanad. Certain colleagues in the House may remember the 1980s when it would have been a celebration if two Bills per year were initiated in the House. The substantial amount of legislation now being initiated in the House speaks volumes and indicates the esteem in which the Cabinet holds the Seanad and the importance of the House in helping and assisting the Government to process more legislation. This is very welcome.
The Fianna Fáil proposal on Seanad Éireann suggests a right of audience for Northern Ireland Assembly Members. It provides for a right of audience in the House for up to ten Members who may come down here on occasion, perhaps once or twice per year, and be present for debates to be agreed by the Chairs of both Houses. In return, Members of Seanad Éireann would have a right of audience in the Northern Ireland Assembly to see how we could assist in the great work of the Good Friday Agreement, the North South bodies, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and all the important committees and functions carried out by the Council of Ministers in respect of Northern Ireland.
We also support the automatic return of the Cathaoirleach as one of the Taoiseach's 11 appointments. The Cathaoirleach is in a very difficult position because he must stay completely independent and cannot attend any function. This makes it almost impossible or very difficult at least for his re-election, which is unfair. We suggested the same mechanism as that used in the Dáil at present. In the short-term at least, the Cathaoirleach should be automatically returned as one of the Taoiseach's 11 appointments.
I refer to the case of the Leader of the House as well - the position not the person - and the proposal in the 2004 report of my predecessor and the work of the associated committee. They worked so hard and proposed in the 2004 report that the Leader of the House should have a right of audience at Cabinet to keep the Seanad centre stage, given its importance, and to have it properly briefed every week. There are many good ideas to enhance the role of the Seanad.
My background was in the world of marketing before I came to the Seanad. The greatest problem is to let the good people of Ireland, our constituents, know what is taking place in Seanad Éireann. This is why we are working so hard and striving to have at least one hour of the Order of Business live on television, say on a Thursday morning. It is my wish and hope that by Easter all the difficulties and problems will be out of the way such that this could take place.
This House did not get its name as the Upper House from a one-liner in a newspaper, magazine or television show. It earned the right because of the level of debate. Colleagues on all sides of the House and our predecessors can take kudos from the fact that often people who visit the Houses remark to me that the level of debate in the Seanad is extraordinarily high and I thank them for their comments. If the people could see the House live on television they could make up their minds without reference to anyone's point of view. I have no wish to repeat what other colleagues have said but I welcome the proposal of the Senators who have tabled this matter for debate this evening and I look forward to the Minister reverting to the House with real, meaningful proposals. We fully support the awarding of votes to all graduates on the university panels and I recognise our university colleagues are fully supportive of this as well.
I wish to share time with Senator Ross. I have listened to every Member who has spoken in this debate and I have found it very interesting. In two weeks' time I will begin my 18th year in the Seanad. I appreciate the opportunity to have become involved and many Members share that view. I have been impressed with the level of debate in the Seanad during those 18 years and with what has been done. I agree entirely with those who maintain we are not recognised. However, if we are not recognised, it is our own fault and we can do something about it ourselves. There have been regular debates on reform of the Seanad during that time and this is just another such debate.
The Seanad does not need more power. If we need more power, we should earn it ourselves, and there are examples of where we have earned it. I am not in favour of a more confrontational Seanad. I believe we have learned over the years how to benefit from debates, but we must work together to do so. If we are to achieve more recognition, we must do something about the elections. I am concerned that the only electoral changes likely to take place will involve the university seats. I agree fully that university graduates not currently represented should be represented. However, I would be greatly disappointed if we went to the trouble of making changes in the House but that the only basic changes related to the university seats. That would not be useful.
The concept of vocational panels established in the 1937 Constitution was very worthy and worthwhile, and this is well recognised. We sought to have those vocational interests recognised but then all 43 votes were transferred to county councillors and it ended up that the 43 votes became party political. Once that happens, a confrontational issue arises. University votes in general have seldom elected party political Members and that has meant better opportunities. We should avoid politicians being elected from those 43 votes. I do not disagree with having the Taoiseach nominate a certain number of people. It almost allows the Government the guarantee of a majority, although not necessarily. The five Independent Members between 1994 and 1997 had the pleasure of holding the balance of power and one could see the benefits of that.
Earlier today, Senator O'Toole made the point that one worthy objective in the past was to hold Dáil and Seanad elections on the same day. I do not disagree with young, upcoming politicians envisaging election to this House as the first step on their road to the other House. I have no objection to that and I am perfectly pleased to see it. However, I am not quite so pleased to see someone who has lost their seat in the other House return here and stay until he or she gets a chance to go back there, because the heart is not in the right place. Senator O'Toole made a proposal I had not heard before but I believe it is worthwhile and worthy of consideration.
The fact that the issue is being raised again through Private Members' time shows how little we are moving forward on the issue of Seanad reform. I have shared my views on the subject many times before and I wish to explore a different angle this time. There is a similar debate on reform of Canada's Senate at the moment. It is not an elected body. There has been of the order of more than 30 proposals for its reform since the 1970s and in Canada, as in Ireland, there is even talk of its abolition. Thus, we are not the only ones. There is a significant concern in Canada of the amount of trouble in which they could end up if they proceeded with abolition and that it could cause untold problems. This is due to the way in which the Senate is formed based on the constitution. I read a remark to the effect that opening up the Canadian constitution would "tear the country apart". We could face similar problems in this country and that is simply one aspect of the debate.
The Seanad has a good deal of what political scientists term "output legitimacy", which means it does relevant and effective work and has done so throughout the years. However, it lacks input legitimacy because the way in which Senators are elected to the House is lacking in credibility. I refer to the vocational panels designed to produce a variety of experience and expertise. They have been rendered much less representative largely because of the politics I talked about which confines the electoral college to those who themselves were elected. We must move forward with legislation and extend the power to elect those from the vocational panels in a different manner. I believe we can do something about this.
I have touched only on election to the Seanad. A number of Senators, including the Leader, spoke about changes we can make to the work we do in the House. That is the second big challenge. Let us ensure we take it on and make this a more worthy, representative and recognised panel.
I thank Senator Quinn for sharing time and congratulate Senators Norris and O'Toole on tabling this motion. It appears the only place there is any real enthusiasm for change is on these benches. I should remind Members that I was first elected to this House in 1981. The first thing I did when elected was table a motion seeking Seanad reform. People shook their heads at me and said, "You are pissing in the wind. This is not going to happen. Seanad reform does not happen."
That is exactly what they said and they were right. In the past two sessions I was very privileged to sit in the Cathaoirleach's Chair before he did, and on both occasions I made a plea for some kind of Seanad reform which fell on deaf ears. A series of committees were set up since then, the purpose of which is not to advance Seanad reform but to delay such reform. The committees were put in place as a kind of cosmetic camouflage so that people might think something is going on. They are well calculated to be referred to another committee, and when that committee reports it is time for another general election. It is very cleverly done. It does not deceive anybody but means the game is pretty well played out over a five-year period.
The signs from the speeches today indicate there is not a huge amount of enthusiasm for Seanad reform. My fear is that the good intentions of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, for Seanad reform will be drowned by the Machiavellian machinations of Fianna Fáil by the time the proposals he spoke of reach the Cabinet. He said he would present a paper to his Cabinet colleagues shortly. Presumably this will be very low on the Cabinet agenda, will not rise very far on that agenda and will certainly take us to the next general election.
There may be-----
There may be a compromise, namely, that all will agree the one thing that really must be changed will be the university seats and consequently we will become the target for all the political parties. I do not apologise for believing - as I think everybody on these benches believes - that the university seats need to be reformed. It is grossly unfair that some graduates of universities have votes while others do not. That is absolutely indefensible and we agree that a change to that system should be made, and made quickly. However, we do not feel it should be done on its own. It should be done because it is right and should be done in any case but there are worse aspects of this House than the faults in our seats. Senator Norris put it very well when he pointed out, as he has done time after time, that we are elected by more than 50,000 people and the NUI Senators are elected by more than 100,000 people. That is a pretty large number of people and is a big mandate to win even if it is, as people accuse it of being, an elitist or specialised mandate. Of course it is.
However, concerning those other people who are elected in this House, if we need to be reformed - which we do - they need to be reformed in a much more crucial way. There are 43 Senators elected by the panel system which is a bit of a farce in the first place because it does not really elect people for vocational reasons. It elects people who can look after county councillors very well and that is the end product. The point about that aspect of the Seanad is that insiders elect insiders. Those 43 people are elected------
I hope I may speak without interruption from the Leader. Those people are elected by the outgoing Dáil and Seanad and the county councils. This guarantees that the favourite sons and daughters of the people in power in those parties are elected. It is even more of an inside job than Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party electing their own people. It means the leadership gets its own people elected by nods, winks and pressure. That needs reform.
Let us abolish the idea of the Royal Irish Academy somehow having a nominee to this House. It simply does not happen, nor does it with the IFA or, God forbid, IBEC or ICTU. Those bodies never get anybody elected, thank God, but nor does it happen that people with that sort of vocation succeed in getting people elected. The people who are elected eventually are the representatives of political parties. We need reform but they need reform just as badly, so let us have the package all together.
I wish to share time with Senator Mullen, if that is agreed. I am very proud to be a Member of the Seanad. The general public tell me all the time that the level of debate in the Seanad is much better than that in the other House. There are many eminent Members in this Chamber.
Regarding reform, Senators Norris and Ross stated that insiders elect insiders. My first time to run for the Seanad was at the last election and it is not an easy job to get elected. I would not like to have to go through it again. It is a democratic system.
In the last session the Seanad dealt with 1,200 amendments. The work is there and Senators perform it well. We sat on 100 days which is more than the Dáil.
There is one reform I would like to see. Since I came to the House I have seen Taoiseach's nominees deserting the ship and going over to another party. There should be some regulation concerning that. The sitting Taoiseach nominated a person who then moved to another party.
It is disloyal. Loyalty comes into the equation. That is something I would like to see dealt with.
As an example, the Senate in the French Parliament operates in the same way as this one. I read about this only the other night. It performs an important role as does the Seanad. We scrutinise legislation and ensure this is done to such a degree that no mistakes are made. From that point of view the Seanad is worthwhile.
The only point I would make is that the Seanad does not receive sufficient coverage from the national broadcaster. It is time we sought to promote ourselves and the House in a way that the people can discover what we are about. For example, the Order of Business in the Seanad should be broadcast live. I would like to see that happening. The Leader has made efforts in this regard.
Senator Ross made a point about the university panel but I do not believe everybody is zoning in on that aspect. We have respect for each other. I see nothing wrong with that system although others might disagree with me. To be honest, I would leave well enough alone. We should not have reform merely for the sake of it, to ensure we look good in the public eye and that we are doing something. There is no point in fixing something if it is not broken. I shall leave it at that.
Go raibh maith agat. I dtusach báire cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Áine Brady.
Deputy Kenny proposed some months ago that he would put a proposal to abolish the Seanad to the people in a referendum. As we all know, that was a bizarre exercise in populism.
The reason it has resonated with the people is that the people cannot have confidence in a Chamber whose Members they have no part in electing. There is a credibility problem with the Seanad; it does not fit in with the spirit of the times owing to its electoral system.
I accept what Senator Brady said. It is true France has a system of les grands électeurs who are representatives of the conseils régionalaux and others who elect Senators. However, that does not make it right. I strongly support what has been said by other speakers and what is contained in the 2004 report, that there should be direct election. I believe the report proposed that 32 Senators be directly elected by the people.
Much of the other criticism that applies to the Seanad also applies to the Dáil. We have a weak parliamentary system. There is huge need for reform in order that legislators actually get to be legislators. Examples were given of occasions when legislators in this House managed to point out something which the Government took on board, but we could do a great deal better than this. Yesterday there was a dramatic development in American politics with the loss of the Democrat seat in Massachusetts to the Republican Party candidate. When Ted Kennedy died, everybody remarked that he was a great legislator. The reason he was able to be a great legislator was that Congress in the American system had power; the President of the United States must horse trade with the elected representatives in the Senate and the House of Representatives. That can lead to problems; it will certainly pose problems for the health reforms President Obama is trying to get through Congress. However, at least it makes legislators what they should be, people who can take an active and sustained interest in legislation and policy. They are motivated to do so because they know they can have an impact and legislate for the good of their country. In Ireland we need to get to that position, sooner or later. That is not just a matter for Senators, it is also a matter for Deputies. Everybody knows there are some tremendously talented Deputies and Senators who give very little of their intellectual space to legislation and policy because they must first mind their constituencies. We need reform and a more thorough debate about all these matters, not just superficial change or sniping at the Seanad.
I very much regret that the Minister, Deputy Gormley, appears to be pulling back from a commitment he gave earlier. On the last occasion this issue was debated at the behest of Senator O'Toole, the Minister gave a commitment that a wider pool of graduates - I believe that is the phrase he used - would take part in the election of the six university Senators. Today he has said the university Senators do not want the university seats to be reformed in isolation. I dissent from this. We should not wait another day before carrying out what was mandated in the 1979 referendum. On my first day in the Seanad I told Members I did not want to have the embarrassment at the next election of meeting graduates whose degrees were as good as mine but who could not take part in the election of Senators because of an out-of-date system. That is the easiest part of reform to carry through.
There should be a single six-seat constituency in order that all university or college graduates would be on an equal footing in terms of the measure of representation available to them in the Seanad. It is no argument to contend that it would be an impossibly large constituency of voters. I believe the Minister quoted the figure of 500,000 voters. That is the same size as a European Parliament constituency. It can and needs to be done. Just because it is not the only reform needed does not mean we should not proceed with it. That said, if we should move to a system of direct election of Senators by citizens, we could also move to a system under which the entire process could be carried out on election day and not by postal vote. That would also deal with the problem to which the Minister referred.
I commend the work done by graduates of other colleges during the years, particularly by the organisation Graduate Equality, to achieve some movement on this issue. The announcement by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, of the proposed abolition of the NUI, a matter we will have to debate separately, could create complications for reforming the election of university Senators, but that reform must happen and not be delayed. I hope the Minister, Deputy Gormley, finds support for it in the Cabinet and takes the initiative sooner rather than later.
I thank my colleagues for taking part in the debate. It was a very high level debate, with a number of stimulating opinions expressed. Members of the House need more support. An example is access to drafting skills. We do not have such skills and it is difficult to draft legislation. All Members have excellent secretaries. My secretary is absolutely superb, but she is over-worked. She works desperately hard. We are cutting back on overtime, but she will still do the work, although she will not get paid for it.
Senator O'Reilly spoke about the difficulty of getting onto policing committees. I am a member of the north inner city committee. It is voluntary, unpaid work. People are not rejected because they are Senators; therefore, I do not accept that argument.
Senator Ó Brolcháin has said the panels are outdated. I agree. They must be reviewed.
Senator Glynn has mentioned the amendment about age that was cleverly put forward by Senator Quinn and accepted. That was in the context of an earlier one, the sexual orientation clause that I pioneered in this House. It is a double whammy for Seanad Éireann.
I was a Member of the House when the Cathaoirleach, Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Leader of the House were all rejected in the Dáil elections. How is that for democracy? We do not help with our performance in the House. First, we refuse to play to our strengths.
It is universally acknowledged that the most regularly interesting element of our day's work is the Order of Business, yet we continue to confine and cramp it and play it down. I have continuously attempted to expand it and to build on our strengths, with some small success. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, was surprised that I read out my contribution. I seldom do so. I did it once previously in an important debate on the demolition of the Combat Poverty Agency; I believe the Minister took part in that debate. I issued a script, but it did not appear anywhere. Why was that? The reason is that it was late and the media could not be bothered. There is laziness on their part.
The Cathaoirleach is placed in an invidious situation. To keep order he must rely on irrelevant and irritating tintinnabulations with a biro on his cow bell. The Order of Business is routinely chaotic. We never know properly in advance when, on what day or at what time we will meet. A classic example is today. We were informed the Seanad would sit yesterday. Suddenly, with no explanation, this changed.
-----and I had to abandon a press conference on the matter and hare across town to be on time for my debate. This does not inspire confidence, nor does the fact that at certain times of crisis the Dáil met while the Seanad continued in recess. Moreover, the public, rightly or wrongly, has the perception that the Seanad interrupts its operation to facilitate Members who wish to take part in golf competitions or attend race meetings at Cheltenham.
The classic Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly Wednesday night tit-for-tat charade also does little to help. Routinely during Private Members' debates the Government states white, the Opposition states black, a ritual vote is called, the Government inevitably wins and political honour is satisfied. However, is the public satisfied? Thank God, we did not do that tonight.
Rulings by the Chair are incontestable; at the same time they can be inconsistent and absurd. In a previous Seanad under a different Cathaoirleach I argued that a national ESB strike qualified as a matter of national importance. An hour later the Cathaoirleach of the day read out his judgment, that it was not a matter of national urgency. This happened at precisely the moment the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, was telling the Dáil that it was. Are we not entitled to some explanation of how these decisions are made? About six months ago there was a ruling by the Chair which appeared to be illogical and indefensible but which I had to accept on the day. However, I sought to have the matter raised at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and understand it was. I never received an answer to my letter or any explanation of the inconsistencies in the decision. This does not foster respect for the proceedings of the House.
Regardless of whether it is our fault, we have become the butt of the humour of commentators. I regret that some of the Leader's comments have contributed to this such as the statement in the middle of the economic crisis that the spirit of the nation would be uplifted by country music or that we could solve the mathematical deficiencies of our students by awarding them extra unjustified marks in their examinations. Such infelicities are guaranteed to be pounced upon.
It is galling to listen every day to the ill-informed comments of media personalities about the proceedings of the House and the workload and remuneration of Members. Over the Christmas period I found myself working 14 to 16 hour days, rarely leaving this building until after 10 p.m. I am sure many other colleagues were in the same situation. Yet all that is assessed by some broadcasters is the time spent in the Chamber, which is like assessing the work rate of a broadcaster simply on the amount of broadcast hours and refusing to include all the ancillary items such as research, preparation etc. I shall scream if I ever again hear the tired old canard about how few people there were in the Chamber while a Minister was speaking. I would have thought broadcasters would be aware of the existence of radio and television monitors in people's offices. The taxpayer would be cheated indeed were the Chamber full to the brim on a full working day with nothing else being done except easing our senatorial bums and catching flies with half open mouths, as one regularly used to see in the broadcasts of the House of Lords. The nasty thing is, these broadcasters know the facts perfectly well but it is popular and palatable to traduce politicians in a cheap but effective manner.
We have been challenged to say what we have done and we can answer in broad sweeps, each for ourselves. In my case, I refer to the significant amendment of the Child Care Bill some years ago, the initial legislative provision and debate about the metro for Dublin, the first real authoritative debates on AIDS, the Civil Partnership Bill, the establishment of the foreign affairs committee and the trenchant debates on the Iraq war and the dismantling of the Combat Poverty Agency and the Equality Authority. All of my colleagues will have similar lists and I invite them to place them before the House, alas not this evening, since the debate is concluding, but in what will be a continuing debate that will form part of the record of this noble Chamber of the Oireachtas.