Wednesday, 3 November 2010
Seanad Reform: Motion
That Seanad Éireann:
- believing that it should operate primarily as a House of influence, reform, scrutiny, reflection, consolidation and persuasion and rather than replicate or undermine the Dáil, should act in parallel to it by giving new breadth to the parliamentary process;
- believing that the House should seek to convince by force of argument and logic rather than compel by weight of numbers and formal powers;
- recognising that the future of Seanad Éireann cannot be secure unless it is seen to have a viable and creative role;
- appalled by the Government's lack of progress on Seanad reform;
- resolving that the membership of the House should be a fair reflection of civic society and that the various panels and constituencies should be designed to reinforce that concept and to ensure the citizens of the State be the main stakeholders;
- believing that every citizen eligible to vote in Dáil general elections should also be eligible to vote in Seanad general elections;
- demands, as an indication of its determination, that from 1 January 2011 all degree holders who are Irish citizens and graduates of Irish universities be entitled to register on the register of electors for a six seat higher education constituency and be entitled to vote in all Seanad general elections after that date;
- supporting proposals for a Seanad structured along the following lines:
— 23 directly elected by national popular vote using a list-PR system;
— 6 directly elected to a higher education constituency under PR-STV;
— 23 indirectly elected under PR-STV to a national constituency by Dáil Deputies, Senators and county councillors;
— 8 nominated by the Taoiseach; and, an automatically re-elected Cathaoirleach of the Seanad;
demands that, such an arrangement be in place for all Seanad elections beyond 2012 and demands that the Government should now implement such proposals by bringing forward the necessary legislative and constitutional amendments and putting them to the people by referendum or proposing them to the Legislature as appropriate; and
decides that, even though citizens may qualify to vote on more than one panel, insists that no voter may exercise more than one vote at an election for Seanad Éireann and, in that regard, must make a personal choice as to on which panel he or she will register.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I understand the senior Minister is dealing with a crucial legislation in the other House. I have no doubt he will keep an eye on this motion.
I could stand up here and say "ditto" or "the same again" because it is embarrassing that this topic has been discussed many times in the House. This Chamber is not fulfilling its role as contemplated by Bunreacht na hÉireann. In its current embodiment it is indefensible, it is not viable as a political institution and there seems to be no political will for change. I could quote what the Minister, Deputy Gormley, said two or three years ago. I could refer to the discussions with the Minister in various places and I still believe that he was well intentioned towards it but he has been completely outmanoeuvred by the main Government party which has ensured he has made no progress whatever on this matter. In my view, the Seanad will die if it continues the way it is going. It is indefensible as it stands at the moment and we must examine its role.
It is not a question of whether the Seanad has sufficient powers. The Seanad was never intended to be a mini-Dáil or to subvert the will of the people as articulated in the Lower House. That is not the role of an Upper House in this part of the world. It is that way in Washington, which is why they are in trouble today because the Administration only controls one of the Houses of Congress. This causes legislative gridlock, which was never intended in the Irish Constitution and which, I wish to make it clear, is not what I am proposing in this motion.
The Seanad was meant to be a deliberative Chamber with experienced and knowledgeable people who would inform, amend, extend and consolidate legislative and policy initiatives through persuasive argument and thoughtful debate and which would make a distinctive contribution to the parliamentary process. The main Government party has its head in the sand. I do not want Members opposite to regard my statement as being a personal criticism of them. I have no worries about the people who sit opposite and anything I say is not to be taken as a reference to them because this is not the case. They are good people who mean to do the right thing.
That said, anyone who thinks the criticism will go away is wrong. It is also wrong to believe we can survive the onslaught of negativity about the Upper House. The response of the Fine Gael leader, much as I disagree with it, is understandable but is inadequate and inappropriate. Surely at a time of recession, politicians should know better than anyone, having seen what has happened in other countries and during other times of recession, that it is inappropriate and inadequate to try to row back on the structures of democracy.
The Green Party Minister, Deputy Gormley, stated in this House three years ago this month that he intended to use the period of this Parliament to address reform of the Seanad. He has not done so. In that context, I have some sympathy for the point of view articulated by Deputy Kenny. I do not agree with it but I understand his frustration.
The Seanad should be a tether to the people, connected at all times. It should be the conduit between politics and the people. It should form a synthesis with the people and that is what it was always intended to be. Any reading of the Constitution will make this clear. It should be the voice of the various components of our community. It should be the channel for bringing the vocational experience and knowledge to the legislative heart of Parliament and also to the policy drivers of our democracy. This is what it was meant to be, not a place to embarrass, subvert or overturn the Government. It was meant to add to rather than take from. The thinking was that rather than demonstrating outside the gates of Leinster House, seeking grace and favour meetings with Ministers, Deputies and Senators, or having to lobby individual Members of these Houses, groups in society would be in a position to have their views articulated within the Parliament. This is how it could work. The role of the Seanad is only discussed during election time and perhaps we are in election time again.
I am making proposals in this debate which go against the grain for me because time and again I have said I would oppose any attempt at reform which was merely to change the university panel and nothing else. I have moved back from that position, in pure frustration.
I propose we put in place what the people decided 30 years ago, namely, to extend the franchise to Irish graduates of all Irish universities.
In order to discharge the function about which I spoke - our role in society - ordinary citizens should be the main stakeholders in the Seanad. That is crucial. The Seanad cannot continue merely as a creature of political parties. It is past time for the Government to take a serious look at how we can change it and how it is working currently. I will not go down the road, which I could easily do, of talking about the great things we do at times, the very good debates we have or the great people who have come through this House. I will not go down that road because it would sound overly defensive and like self-justification.
I would like to look at this as if I was not a Member and I was outside trying to create a second House of Parliament. I would begin by acknowledging that Seanad Éireann is exclusive, undemocratic, unrepresentative and, in particular, that its opaque system of election is in urgent need of abolition. One can no longer justify that 43 Members of the 60 are elected by fewer than 1,000 local authority members.
However, I wish to put that in context because earlier I listened to people like Senator Glynn speak about issues on which I agree with him. I support the principle of one tier of democracy electing a distilled version above it. The idea of members of local authorities electing people to the Houses of Parliament is one I welcome. It works very well in other ways. However, I do not welcome that they should elect 43 Members out of 60. That is indefensible.
We need to look at how people get elected to the Seanad. All of us on the Independent benches are very political people but we are not members of political parties. However, the only way we could get elected to the Seanad was through the university panel. As someone who came from an education and trade union background, the choice for me to go on the university panel was difficult. I believed it to be an exclusive cadre. I could not justify it, except that other people had the vote. It reflects a time which is long gone.
We should give voting rights to people. In each of the panels, there is a nominating bodies sub-panel and an Oireachtas sub-panel. Those on the Oireachtas sub-panel are nominated by four Members of the Oireachtas while those on the nominating bodies sub-panel are nominated by the nominating bodies. There is a more simplistic approach, although I do not propose it as an absolute solution but it is an example of how this could be done. If those on the Oireachtas sub-panel were elected by local authority members, it would deal with that issue. The nominating bodies sub-panel could be elected by members of the nominating bodies. That is the way one could get them involved. The agricultural Oireachtas sub-panel would be elected by local authority members while the nominating bodies sub-panel would be elected by those involved in agriculture. The same would apply to the labour panel and the remaining vocational panels. Every citizen should be entitled to vote in a Seanad election and this could be achieved by the simplest of constitutional changes. Members could be elected in the manner I just outlined and in other ways.
Imagine if the Seanad was put together in four different sections. Section one would be elected by registered voters in large geographic constituencies, for example, the European Parliament constituencies. People entitled to vote in a general election would be entitled to vote in a Seanad election. Section two would be ordinary citizens elected through a variety of panels, like the nominating bodies sub-panel about which I spoke, and including the university panel.
The only way one can justify the retention of a university panel is if other people can vote. In a modern democracy in the 21st century, one cannot justify the idea that people have a vote because they are graduates of certain universities. My colleagues and I find it embarrassing.
Exactly. That is the argument. The exclusive nature of restricting the vote to graduates of certain universities is indefensible. Outside of that, it becomes very easy.
Section 3 could be elected by local authority members while section 4 could be nominees of the Taoiseach. I do not have a difficulty with nominations by the Taoiseach. I am not interested in creating a situation where the Government could be overwhelmed, toppled, restricted or perverted in this House. However, the Taoiseach's nominees should have to subscribe to various categories. People would have views on the walks of life from which they would come, whether the emigrant community, the Northern Ireland community or various other areas. I will not go into that but there should not be a free reign for a Taoiseach to nominate his or her buddies to the Seanad; it must be specific.
Recently, many of us met our Northern Ireland colleagues in County Down and talked about a North-South parliamentary body. One of the big issues being addressed is a civic forum, North and South. In the past two weeks, I heard people talk about the importance of a civic forum in which ordinary people would have a voice. That is what this House was intended to achieve and what it should do, that is, be a bicameral Chamber where people would reflect the views of various groups. If every group in the community was represented in the Seanad, one could get a full view of the community. It would add to the debate and make it much more important. It would give ordinary people a stake in what goes on here, which they do not have currently.
People do not feel connected to this House. I defy anybody to disagree with me on that. Our job is to be a conduit for people. If we cannot be such, we are going nowhere. It is not as if the Dáil does it that well but that is its business. There is a huge disconnect, some of which we cannot control. However, we can control other parts of it. What I propose in the motion is an attempt to build that bridge to the population and to make the people stakeholders in the formation of the Seanad.
I endorse what Senator O'Toole said and congratulate him on tabling this motion. I do not agree with every detail in it but the thrust of what was said about the need for Seanad reform and dramatic change is indisputable. I will not go over old arguments but the Seanad is in serious danger of extinction. That is because the main Opposition party has said that if it gets into Government, it will abolish it. That is a populist and reasonably thoughtless response to what is undoubtedly the public's view. However, one cannot necessarily blame it for doing that because it is in the business of reflecting public opinion even if it is a cheap jibe at something in which it has participated and played the game extremely well for a very long time. However, that should focus our minds on the fact the Seanad is in danger of being abolished. Even if it is a cheap response, it has some sort of justification. If we reflect on what has happened in the Seanad in recent times, the respect or the attention it gets not only from the media - I would not worry about that so much because everybody is always bellyaching about the media which has its own agenda and we can let it get on with it - but from the Government in power is pretty derisory. I do not want to be disrespectful to the Minister of State present but it is indicative that we constantly get a Minister of State in here baby-sitting various motions. That is what happens.
During this period of financial crisis the Minister for Finance has not been in here as often as the Minister of State. The Minister has been in the Dáil, Brussels and all sorts of places - I know he is a busy guy - but it shows where we stand in terms of priorities. This is not only the case with the Minister for Finance but other Ministers constantly dispatch people in here to take a debate which they do not take seriously. They are sent in here to get legislation through. That is what is happening. All that tells us is that the Government does not have very much time for the Seanad.
Senator O'Toole was right in what he said about the Seanad. It has not been much use to the public. It has not reflected very much what the public wants to hear or see, rather it has reflected what political parties want. The Seanad has become a tool for political patronage. That may or may not be what it was designed to be. One never knows what was in the extremely Byzantine mind of Eamon de Valera when he set it up. The result was that it is people who are favoured particularly by the leadership of political parties who find their way in here. They have an agenda which is basically not to rock the boat and to get seats in the Dáil. That is what it is all about. As a result of that, they do not take legislation as seriously as they should. I heard a Member refer to "my constituency" here today. His constituency is a panel but what he was referring to was his geographical constituency. He regards his constituency as being in here to serve a Dáil constituency until he gets in there. That is what this place is all about. There are some exceptions and I do not want to say too much about the university seats but I will speak about them.
I thought the first and obvious reform would be a simple one, namely to have Dáil and Seanad elections on the same day. I cannot see that being a problem except that it would not allow people who have ambitions to be in both Houses to stand. That would be the idea of it. It would immediately give a new character to the type of person who would stand for election to this House. It would be someone who had made a decision that he or she would stand for this House, that he or she would not stand for the other House and very likely he or she would have less ambition to be in the other House than to be in here. That is a dramatic but simple change that could be made, whereby people would opt to stand for election to this House.
The other problem is the electoral system. One of the best examples of the way the original idea was denied, that of making the Seanad a vocational body for people who have a different and less political contribution to make, was the candidacy of Ken Whitaker for this House. Ken Whitaker, whatever one thinks of him, has an extraordinary expertise, which is and would have been of great value to the nation after he retired from the multiple positions he held in the Civil Service. He was nonimated to this House, as most Members will know by Garret FitzGerald in 1981. He was also nominated to it in 1977 - he was nominated twice. He was a very articulate and useful contributor and offered an expertise, which was not available, because of his background in the Central Bank, the Civil Service and his work with Seán Lemass. He was not nominated by, I think, Charlie Haughey for reasons which are probably political but that is neither here nor there. In 1987 Ken Whitaker decided he would stand for one of the panels and, as a man of great expertise and distinction regardless of what one thinks of him and many people like him and many people do not, one would have thought that if this was a great vocational body of any sort, at least he would be worthy of being in this House but he got a derisory vote. People would say that shows a naivete on the part of a person who did not understand the political system but it also shows an absolute and utter ruthlessness on behalf of the electorate who happen to be extraordinarily political in a party political sense.
I thought we wanted more people like Ken Whitaker in this House and fewer people whose sole ambition is to get into the other House. There is nothing wrong with having that ambition but there really is not a place in here for people whose sole ambition is to do that.
There are other areas where we could do great experiments. There have been some great contributors here in my time, mostly of a non-political basis. It was a great education to listen to Seamus Mallon, Brid Rogers, Gordon Wilson and others from Northern Ireland - Senator O'Toole touched on this point - and they were listened to with enormous respect because they had an expertise. They educated people here about what was happening there, which we did not know anything about because most of the people here had not been there. They made an enormously valuable contribution. That type of contribution is something which the Seanad can very valuably make.
I do not care whether we defeat legislation. That should not be our purpose or role. We do not have to have powers to delay legislation for 90 days. That is not the point of having people here who are not elected by the people. The point is offer expertise where subjects are debated in a non-politically contentious manner and where it is easier for a Minister to say that an amendment tabled is sensible and that he or she will take it on board and no political embarrassment is attached to it and there does not necessarily even have to be a vote on it. That could be an important role. The Seanad does not need a democratic mandate from all or any of its Members if it does not have those sorts of powers. If its powers are simply vocational and moral, that is all it needs.
I wish to make a few points about the university seats. I agree with everything Senator O'Toole said. It is virtually impossible to justify the structure of our seats at present. There is no way we can say that Dublin University should elect three Members, the National University should elect three Members and that DCU, Limerick and all the others be deprived of the democratic franchise. That is utterly and totally indefensible and unjust. If we are to survive and if the Seanad is to survive, which is now very much in doubt, and rightfully in doubt, part of the solution must be that these seats are radically reformed in a way which is acceptable where we cannot be accused of being part of the kind of elite which comprises this House.
If we do not do anything about it, this House will not necessarily be abolished because Fine Gael will have difficulties about that if it ever gets into power, but it will wither away into complete and utter irrelevance and it will attract people with little talent, vision and energy. That is the fate that is facing us if we continuously refuse to confront this problem.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
"recognising the need for comprehensive consideration of reform of certain electoral matters, including matters relating to Seanad Éireann, notes:
the deliberations of an All-Party Group on Seanad Reform, chaired by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with the aim of establishing the level of consensus regarding options for reform of the Seanad;
the various proposals contained in the submissions made by the political parties as part of this process;
the lack of adequate consensus to pursue constitutional change in relation to reform of the Seanad;
that in the absence of such consensus it falls to Government to give due consideration to reform of the Seanad and make decisions accordingly;
the commitment in the Renewed Programme for Government of 10 October 2009 to establish an Independent Electoral Commission incorporating the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission, with enhanced powers of inspection;
that the Commission will be mandated to, among other things, outline new electoral systems for Seanad Éireann;
resolves to request the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to bring to the attention of the Government the results of the earlier deliberations of the All Party Group on Seanad Reform and relevant matters raised in the course of the debate on this motion."
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit.
One good feature of today's debate is that at least we are talking about Seanad reform, which we have done on many occasions. There have been quite a number of reports on it, one having been published not many years ago, which up to now has been gathering a layer of dust on a shelf. We are talking about Seanad reform and, hopefully, some day soon we will get there.
I commend Senator O'Toole and the Independent Senators on tabling the motion. However, in light of my position in the House, I will be unable to support it.
I am extremely proud to be a Member of the Seanad. I eventually succeeded in becoming a Senator following many efforts to do so and I am pleased my electorate has given me a mandate for a third term. We must consider the issue of Seanad reform in a deeper way than has been the case thus far. We are informed the Seanad is a House of legislation, which is the case, and that as Members of the Upper House we are supposed to have in-depth knowledge of how legislation is amended. If one takes this statement to its ultimate conclusion, the question begs as to how one interacts with the people for whom one is supposed to legislate, namely, members of the general public.
Let us consider the facilities or lack thereof available to Senators. While this may not be a popular statement to make at this time, it is true none the less. Senators are not given an office allowance, the Seanad is regarded by some members of the public as an entity from outer space. People do not see a role for Senators because they never see one and they do not have constituency offices. Provision is not made for Senators to behave and interact in a way than would endear them to a greater degree to members of the public who are, after all, the beneficiaries or objects of legislation passed in the House. As I have stated previously, this is wrong. Senators should have a facility to enable them to interact with those who are paying their wages, namely, members of the public.
Senators O'Toole and Ross indicated which people are disenfranchised under the current system. Another large group of people is also disenfranchised. I raised the ire of Senators on all sides when I made this point on previous occasions. I refer specifically to town and borough councillors who do not have a vote in Seanad elections, despite certain town councils having a larger population than some counties.
If one takes the position that currently obtains to its logical conclusion, a Senator must have multi-locational talents and must be able to take on board the views of people from the four corners of the country. If we were to interfere in a major way with the current system of electing the 42 Members on the five vocational panels, this would certainly be the requirement.
As a democrat, I accept the need for change and reform. The commitment in the renewed programme for Government of 10 October 2009 is to establish an independent electoral commission incorporating the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission with enhanced powers of inspection. The commission will be mandated, among other things, to outline new electoral systems for Seanad Éireann.
As I stated, the good thing about tonight's motion is that we are at least discussing this issue. In the fullness of time, we must do something about Seanad reform but I strongly repudiate the uninformed views of those who argue that councillors should not elect Members of this House. In the exercise of the franchise who is better informed than those with a mandate who are at the front line of public representation? I refer, of course, to county and borough councillors as well as Deputies and outgoing Senators.
I strongly support giving voting rights to graduates of all third level institutions. People in Northern Ireland should also have some say if we are to give recognition to our aspiration to have a 32 county republic although that is a matter for a different debate.
Many issues need to be considered when one speaks of Seanad reform. It is regrettable that this House has been used as a stepping stone into the other House and continues to be used as a place of refuge for some who have had the misfortune of losing their seats in the Dáil. It is necessary to have professional Senators and, like many Senators on both sides, I lay claim to that role in the Oireachtas.
Local authority members have a pivotal role to play in Seanad reform. If electing a number of Senators through single transferable vote from the general population would bring about a connection between this House and citizens, I would welcome any such measure.
I commend Senator O'Toole and his Independent colleagues on producing the proposals set out in the motion. I accept to some extent the comments made by Senators O'Toole and Ross on the Fine Gael Party's policy on the Seanad. The utterance by the leader of the Fine Gael Party was unhelpful and I am given to understand he did not have universal support among elected Members of his party in this House or on local authorities.
In any event, the one good thing about this debate is that Seanad reform is at least on the clár and being discussed. Whether we agree on what steps should be taken is irrelevant; some day we may stop the talk and indulge in the walk.
Áine Brady (Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People and Health Promotion, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context
On behalf of the Government, I thank Senator O'Toole for putting forward some interesting proposals on the Seanad electoral system, even if the debate is liable to range over similar ground to that covered in the debate on the Second Stage of the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) (Amendment) Bill 2008 on 20 October, which resumed in the House earlier today. I am pleased to set out the Government's position on the matters in question.
During his speech on the recent Private Members' Bill, the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran, gave an extensive account of both the role of the Seanad and the current electoral system. For this reason, I do not propose to revisit these details. Senator O'Toole's motion focuses specifically on the electoral aspect. It is interesting to note that the proposals he is making seem to reflect closely some of the recommendations of the report of the Sub-Committee on Seanad Reform published In April 2004. For example, the report proposed that a number of members be directly elected, a list PR system be introduced, six seats be filled from a reformed higher education constituency with graduates from all higher education institutes in the State being eligible to register, indirect election by Oireachtas and local authority members continue and the system of Taoiseach's nominees be retained. These issues have previously been debated and, as has been pointed out in the course of the relevant debates, it is clear all-party consensus does not exist for all of these proposals, which would require significant constitutional change. As the 2004 report acknowledged, it would also involve some difficult decisions.
One specific element of the 2004 report would be most unlikely to meet with enthusiastic public support in the present climate, namely, a proposal that the number of seats in the Seanad be increased to 65 Senators from the current total of 60. I am rather surprised that Senator O'Toole also appears to propose an increase in the overall number of members of the Seanad, albeit by only one rather than five. This seems to be an inevitable consequence of his proposal that the Cathaoirleach be returned automatically.
However, in the context of demands for retrenchment and rationalisation in public administration, it is surprising to see any proposal being put forward by a public representative that would be likely to give rise to even a marginal increase in cost to the taxpayer. No doubt the main Opposition party would be strongly opposed to such a proposal in view of its desire to abolish the House.
One issue on which there does seem to be a measure of agreement, at least in broad principle, is that of the university constituency. It is generally accepted that the current restriction of the Seanad university seats to three elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland and three by Trinity College graduates is unsatisfactory, although I am aware that some have even questioned the continued existence of these seats. There already is constitutional provision for the extension of the higher education franchise, by legislation, to other institutions of higher education in the State. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, has already indicated his agreement with the principle of widening the third level franchise and I can confirm that this commitment stands. However, a number of detailed issues must be addressed with regard to implementing possible changes in this area.
The 2007 programme for Government contained a commitment to seek to advance Seanad reform as part of the Government's overall approach to Oireachtas reform. The matter has subsequently been considered by an aII-party group on Seanad reform which identified a number of possible options on a range of issues, including electoral matters. It also identified a fundamental absence of consensus among the political parties on how best to proceed. It noted that 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. The group narrowed its consideration to the following four main areas.
First, the group considered an enabling amendment of the Constitution to permit subsequent reform by legislation such as, for example, to provide for changes to the electoral system. However, it generally was considered that the details of any new system would have to be known before a proposal was put to the people. Second, the group considered the expansion of the higher education constituency. However, the university Senators were opposed to this issue being treated in isolation. The third area was scrutiny of certain senior public appointments by the Seanad to improve transparency, while the fourth was making provision for the membership of the Clerk of the Seanad of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The party responses on these matters indicated that while there was consensus on making some changes, there was little aII-party support on the major issues of Seanad reform. In the absence of adequate consensus to pursue constitutional change to reform the Seanad, it will fall to the Government to give due consideration to reform options and make decisions accordingly. To inform the Government's consideration, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, intends to bring to the attention of the Government the results of the deliberations of the all-party group on Seanad reform.
As for wider electoral matters, the renewed programme for Government of 10 October 2009 contains a commitment to the establishment of an independent electoral commission with a wide mandate that would incorporate the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission with enhanced powers of inspection and wide-ranging responsibilities. The commission will propose reforms to the electoral system which will include making recommendations on the feasibility of extending the franchise for presidential elections to the Irish abroad. In addition, it will examine and make recommendations for changes to the electoral system for Dáil elections, including the number of Deputies and their means of election. It also will outline new electoral systems for Seanad Éireann, advise on the basis for European elections to reflect new realities of the role and influence of the European Parliament, including consideration of moving towards one national constituency and using a list system. In addition, it will make recommendations on the possibility of extending the franchise for local elections to those aged 16 years and over and set minimum standards for the taking and publication of political polls within the State to ensure fairness and accuracy.
While the particular proposals made in the motion relate specifically to electoral aspects, it is clear from the overall text tabled by Senator O'Toole that there are wider questions surrounding the role of the Seanad. This was also evident during the debate on the recent Private Members' Bill and earlier today in the House. Senator O'Toole made some interesting and insightful contributions to that debate. For example, he expressed the view that in its operation the House as contemplated by Bunreacht na hÉireann was to act as a civic forum, that it was never meant to be a "mini-Dáil" but a deliberative Chamber and that he opposed the idea of additional powers for the Seanad. The motion makes the point "that the House should seek to convince by force of argument and logic rather than compel by weight of numbers and formal powers".
I am unsure that it is self-evident that changes to the electoral system per se are required to make progress on these civic objectives. Perhaps Senator O'Toole is of the view that the Members nominated and elected under the current system are not sufficiently representative to attain these goals. However, one hears regularly, including in the recent debate on the Private Members' Bill, comments to the effect that the quality of debate in this House is very high, possibly higher than in the Dáil. While that may be so, perhaps it begs a question as to whether Senators are content for the House to be regarded in some quarters as a form of high level debating society. Can the Seanad play a more meaningful and effective role, even within its current parameters? As is incumbent on every public institution in the current economic environment, can it identify ways of achieving greater efficiencies and ensuring effectiveness in how it conducts its business? The fact that today it has held two debates covering broadly similar territory appears to indicate potential in that regard.
Senator O'Toole made a striking observation in his contribution on 20 October that "there is no goodwill or support for this House among ordinary people." Clearly, the Fine Gael Party not only shares this view but also believes the Seanad is in terminal decline and calls for a drastic measure. I suggest, however, that the issue of public credibility presents a challenge for the House itself. While changes to the electoral system may, to some extent, be capable of enhancing public identification with the Seanad, it also is necessary in the first instance for the House to demonstrate its relevance to those to whom the Senator referred as "ordinary people". It should, for example, be able to make a substantial input to addressing the difficult challenges the country faces and an influential contribution generally to the economic, social and political affairs of the nation.
Seanad reform involves wider issues than the electoral system, but that is the aspect of most direct relevance to the core functions of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the specific issue raised in the motion before Members. As I have indicated, electoral matters generally will fall to be addressed more comprehensively in the context of the electoral commission. In the meantime, however, the Minister proposes to bring the results of the deliberations of the all-party group on Seanad reform, including electoral aspects, to the attention of the Government as indicated in the amending motion, with relevant matters arising during the debate on this motion.
I understand the Minister is also giving consideration to the approaches to be taken to implement the programme for Government commitment to establish an independent electoral commission. This is, of course, one of a number of items on the electoral reform agenda in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in which the legislation for a directly elected mayor of Dublin is an immediate priority, as is the Government commitment to address the issue of political donations. The debate on the Bill to provide for the directly elected mayor is commencing on Second Stage in the Dáil today and this represents a significant departure in the development of local democracy in Ireland. The Minister will also be taking forward decision-making on local government structures in Limerick on foot of the recently published report of the Brosnan committee. Comprehensive proposals for the modernisation and development of local government will subsequently be set out in a White Paper on local government which is being finalised by a Cabinet committee.
I was amazed to learn from the Minister of State's contribution to the debate that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, had not yet gone to the Cabinet with the findings of the deliberations of the all-party group on Seanad reform, as he was meant to so do almost one year ago. My understanding was that he intended to come to this House before December with recommendations from the Government. What has happened to that process? When does the Minister intend to take the actions he proposes in respect of the electoral commission? One can only conclude from what the Minister of State said that yet again Seanad reform is not on the agenda.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank Senator O'Toole and the Independent Members for using their Private Members' time to facilitate a discussion on Seanad reform. However, if one were to examine the agenda of the Seanad since its return, one would be obliged to express extreme disappointment at the fact that the Government has not placed any legislation on the Order Paper of the Seanad in the last four weeks. Why is this the case? What is happening to the legislative programme of the Government? As this House has taken as its primary function the examination and amendment of legislation, it does not help if no legislation is brought before it. This makes it very difficult for Members to gain credibility.
While Members are debating Seanad reform tonight in the context of its future, such a debate does not take place in a vacuum. All Members must recognise the extent to which confidence, trust and faith in the body politic and its ability to deliver are unquestionably at an all-time low. At such a critical time for the country from a fiscal, economic, social and political point of view, it is a serious issue that the people have so little confidence in the Oireachtas and in how our democracy is run. It is one we have taken very seriously in Fine Gael.
I reject Senator Ross's comments. His description of the work we have done on the New Politics document is far from the truth. We have taken the question very seriously, as anyone who reads the document will see. A lot of research and thought have gone into it and we have not pulled the recommendations made from anywhere. We made them following examination and detailed work with a view to reforming the political system to make it more effective and efficient, which is what the people want to see.
The people have been left feeling very despondent, yet Irish people care about their political structures in delivering. The public meeting, Building the Future, held in the RDS on Saturday last was attended by 1,000 citizens. Some 2,000 people had applied to be there to talk about what mattered to them, how the State was run and how they wanted to see it delivering for its people. This is something Irish people care about, even if they are disillusioned with the structures. Therefore, it behoves us to address the issue.
We must accept that the problem goes further than the Seanad. The Dáil needs radical change to deliver a Parliament of which the people can be proud. That is why Fine Gael has stated that when in government we will witness the biggest revolution in parliamentary structures since Independence, including holding a referendum; asking the people what they think about the future of the Seanad; reducing the size of the Dáil; strengthening the role of Members in the committee system; changing the budgetary system; and producing other radical reforms. We cannot talk about reforming the Seanad in isolation. Reform is about how both Houses operate.
How the budgetary system operates is relevant as we approach budget day in the next few weeks. How many times have we discussed changing the way we deal the budget? That has relevance for this House, as well as the Dáil. How many times have we talked about having meaningful dialogue, looking at the Estimates and having real discussion in the Houses? It does not happen. How many times have we talked about having a register of lobbyists and reforming quangos? It is extraordinary how slow the system is to change and respond. That is why the people are disillusioned. They see report after report being produced.
The Fine Gael report, New Politics, analyses the history of unicameralism in Europe and how other countries provide for checks and balances in the legislative process and other areas. The biggest failing of the Seanad is not how it has done its work but the inability of Governments to fix it. We have had 12 separate reports which we have reviewed during the various debates on Seanad reform. The most recent was drawn up in 2004 when there was a real sense of agreement. Reports were also compiled in 2002 and 1997. There was the report of the all-party Oireachtas committee on the Constitution in 1967, the report of the Seanad Electoral Law Commission in 1959, the report of the Joint Committee on Seanad Panel Elections in 1947 and the report of the Commission on Vocational Organisations in 1943. Other reports date back to 1928, but none of the recommendations made in any of these reports was taken on board, to any degree. So much effort has been put into producing reports but so little into implementing the recommendations made. This is a general failing of the Government. We bring in consultants and receive reports, but their recommendations are not acted upon and the reforms not made.
The Seanad has failed in spite of and not because of the quality of its Members. Everyone is agreed on this. Work of quality has been done in this House, whether one talks about people who started their careers or spent part of them here. It would be invidious to name names. Some have been named tonight, many of them politicians. It is wrong for Members to denigrate politicians who come through one part of the system as opposed to another. There is no question that reform is needed across the gamut of the Seanad electoral system.
The failure has not been of those in the House but in the way it is constituted. The flaw is in the design and goes to the heart of the Upper House. There have been superb debates in this House. People often say the standard of debate is stronger in the Seanad than in the Dáil, but it does not receive the coverage we would like. That is just one example of how the Seanad is viewed.
We cannot look at Seanad reform in isolation from reform of the Oireachtas. That is the key point Fine Gael is making. Having reviewed the issue, we said it would make more sense to bring about substantial change in the Dáil, including adding the checks and balances that modern democracies with similar chamber parliaments have adopted, rather than maintain the illusion of checks and balances in the current bicameral Oireachtas. Many disagree with this approach, but it is the point of view we are presenting on reform.
I do not think anyone disagrees that reform is necessary. We must reform the way politics does its business in both Houses of the Oireachtas. The reform agenda has long been talked about and we desperately need to take action. I welcome this debate, but the time for talking is long over. We must take action. I am not impressed by the approach of the Minister who said he was serious about reform and would present a plan before December last year. What has happened to that plan?
I would like to be able to answer Senator Fitzgerald's question. I find myself speaking on the issue of Seanad reform while still learning what the Seanad is about. Perhaps getting the perspective of a Seanad novice might not do any harm in this debate, coming as I did to the House in February this year.
A number of things struck me. The first was the resonance the Fine Gael leader's call for the abolition of the Seanad had among people I know and speak to and who were anxious to know "what it is like there." That is a conversation I have had many times in recent months.
The clauses included in the motion are impressive. The proposers believe "that the House should seek to convince by force of argument and logic rather than compel by weight of numbers and formal powers". That is a lofty and worthy outcome to pursue. Would the demands that follow in the last two paragraphs of the motion help to make it realisable? I do not think they would. They do not go far enough. Either the idea should have been dropped or the demand should have been far more radical. If this issue was put to a referendum, as Fine Gael states it will do, the people would probably vote the Seanad out of existence. It is a question of reform or die. It seems to be that reform - radical reform - is the option that should be chosen in the context of the much greater political reform that needs to happen.
Recently I made the point that the number engaging in the electoral process on voting day, while still high, was slipping. The level of engagement, particularly among younger people, seems to be lower than in the past when I was growing up, when people were less detached from the political process than they are now. That is worrying and the political system needs to respond to it.
The overall reform agenda the electoral commission envisages taking on is something I would dearly love to see happening, as a matter of priority.
It is disappointing that the goals set out in the programme for Government over a year ago to establish an independent electoral commission incorporating the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission have not made sufficient progress at this point. The outcomes this commission looked forward to achieving concerned constituency boundaries, the voter registration process, voter education programmes, advice on mechanisms to increase the participation of women in political life - an issue on which I have spoken on several occasions - a review of the electoral systems for Seanad Éireann, making recommendations for changes in regard to Dáil elections and getting rid of the weaknesses of the multi-seat constituency system. All of these are worthy and engaging ideas that would in all likelihood lead to a far greater level of interest and engagement from voters and future voters. In particular, the recommendation on the extending the franchise for local elections to those aged 16 and over was a strong idea which would mean a person's introduction to the electoral process could happen in the context of their secondary school education. A fertile crossover could be created when the promised electoral commission begins its work and delivers its recommendations which are passed. We are a long way from all that but there are many exciting ideas.
In the context of all these ideas and while I generally agree with the proposals for changing the voting mechanisms for the Seanad, they are a long way short of where we need to go to make the Seanad the Chamber it can be. With regard to the votes councillors have in Seanad elections, I was excluded from that process although I was on a rating and planning local authority. Even in that case, there was a degree of fairly arbitrary discrimination in regard to how councillors could vote and this is magnified tenfold when one considers the range of graduates who can vote. It is fundamentally unfair that graduates from certain colleges can vote while those from, for example, the institutes of technology cannot. It underlines the fact we still have not fully embraced the whole third level sector as being of equal importance and merit. It is a strong signal that the institutes are still considered to be secondary in the overall scheme.
I spoke on radio with Senator Norris one morning in regard to Seanad reform. He described the unfortunate level of wind-baggery that goes with some of the contributions here. This has struck me too, although I could be accused of it at this moment.
A certain amount of time filling takes place and there is a leisureliness to the way matters are conducted in the Chamber. I say this with the greatest of respect. I do not understand why we are not dealing with more legislative proposals.
There are occasions when we give our opponents a stick to beat us with and these are errors we could avoid. Even in the restricted context of the present situation, we could generate a much more positive impression of the Seanad.
Overall, the wider framework of political reform is the context in which a much more radical overhaul of Seanad procedures and functions should be considered. In that context, I will support the amendment which the speech delivered by the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, explained quite well.
I will try to keep the wind-bagging to a minimum. I congratulate Senator O'Toole and his colleagues on tabling the motion. There is an element of this debate that is profoundly depressing because it is shot through with a terrible feeling of déjÀ vu. This is at least the third time in my short time in this Chamber - although not as short as that of Senator Dearey - when I have stood up to make pretty much the same contribution I am about to make. That is not acceptable, and it is not acceptable that the Minister, Deputy Gormley, would finish his speech to the House in January 2010 with the following conclusion:
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.
He is correct about successive Governments having shied away. I will take that criticism in so far as it involves parties on this side of the House. However, that is now almost one year ago. The Minister had said the same thing in the House some months earlier and the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, said the same thing again today. Senator Fitzgerald was right to ask whether this proposal has been brought to Government.
We cannot fly everything on the electoral commission. Either the Government has serious proposals to bring forward or it does not. Perhaps it should just say it does not see Seanad reform as being a priority at this time. That is what I gathered from listening to the Minister of State and, although it is not what she in fact said, it was what any reasonable person would have concluded. She tipped us off when she asked what we were doing about it. I wonder what the Leader thinks about the very thinly veiled criticism of some of the procedures and practices in the House. For example, the Minister of State was unhappy today that we had two debates about the Seanad and wanted to know what reforms we were bringing forward ourselves. In so far as it goes, that is not an unreasonable point for her to make but it does not constitute a response to this debate.
I and others have raised this issue repeatedly. On the Order of Business last week, I asked the Leader to name one reform, however minimal, he had brought forward in the lifetime of this Seanad. Our of respect, I tried to maintain my practice of not interrupting when he replies to the House and although sometimes I fail, on that occasion I did not. He announced in his reply that he had brought about a change, namely, a practice had been introduced whereby Ministers who made statements in the House would take questions. That is not a reform that has been introduced since 2007 because it has been in Standing Orders for many years. Therefore, the sum total of the reform that has been introduced since we all were elected to the House in 2007 is exactly zero.
People on both sides are blue in the face talking about the economy and the grave financial situation facing the country. Why can we not have a debate that is structured differently? Why is it all about the Minister making a statement before we make set-piece statements? Why can we not have a more committee-style debate? Why can we not - perish the thought - interrupt each other sometimes, not in an attacking way but in a way which seeks to clarify what each Member is saying in order that we can add to the debate and move it forward?
I am a member of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges where these issues have arisen. I have also raised at the CPP the issue of a petitions system which the Labour Party has been pushing for years and which was, I understood, agreed at the CPP. Senator O'Toole can correct me if I am wrong.
It has been agreed for years but where is it? We do not need to change the Constitution for any of these issues. The Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, asked what the Seanad itself is doing about making itself relevant. It is a perfectly reasonable question and it should be answered. As a Chamber, we are not doing anything about it. We stand condemned. I do not take the blame because I believe it is principally a matter for the Government to bring forward the proposals. It has not done so.
I commend Senator O'Toole on his remarks. There is no question but that the future of the Seanad is on the line. Its survival, in terms of its place in our political system, is open to question. If it is possible to have reform instead of abolition, we must realise that much of what is in the motion describes the kind of reform of which I am in favour. It draws attention to the sorts of issues we should be addressing. I remain sceptical as to whether we can reform this Chamber on its own. We require considerable reform across all our democratic institutions in the near future. We need a much stronger Parliament, as everyone is saying, and we need a stronger committee system. I doubt we can or should be trying to address only one aspect of the reform required.
We must ask ourselves what the Seanad is for. It is implied in the motion that we do not want to be a second Dáil or a shadow Dáil. What would be the point in that? What is the point in having a mini-Dáil upstairs? The Seanad should have a separate, credible and identifiable role but it is not really clear what that is at present. The only constitutional role there is for the Seanad is to pass legislation.
When Senator Ross was speaking, he implied it did not matter one way or another whether we pass legislation or not. Passing legislation is the only role we have under the Constitution. It may come as a surprise to Members to know that between the Seanad election in mid-2007 and the middle of 2009, only 40% of the Seanad's sitting time was devoted to legislation. Unfortunately, I do not have figures for 2010. The Order of Business took up 25% of the entire sitting time of the House during the period in question. There cannot be many parliaments in the world whose orders of business account for 25% of sitting time.
The Order of Business is an opportunity for Members to raise topical issues. However, as Senator Norris stated, it is a bit much that we do not have a more structured and realistic way to have regular daily debates than engaging in the fiction of having them on the Order of Business. It does not make sense. This is a matter we could consider but we just do not seem to be capable of doing so or want to do so. It ought to be considered.
Since we resumed six weeks ago, we have not had any Government legislation at all. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. It is pretty extraordinary, therefore, that the Minister of State asked about what the House could do to become more efficient. Many people have questions to answer.
One possible answer to the question of Seanad reform, which will not be very popular, is that rather than panicking about sitting three days per week and trying to ensure we fill the time with business every day to take away the bad look, we should sit less often. This should have a financial implication for Members. Members should be paid for the time they sit here. I propose this for consideration.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and am glad to have the opportunity to discuss this issue. As I was listening to the debate, I wished I were a university panel Senator. A great luxury certainly attaches to the position. I then decided the only better position would be a Minister. I reflected further and concluded that it is not bad being a Taoiseach's nominee either. Considering the aforementioned question of the constituencies to which Members cling, at least a Taoiseach's nominee has the country as a constituency. As with the majority of Members of this House, I am one of the revolting creatures who aspire to getting into the Lower House.
I was about to say it is a legitimate ambition. None the less, since becoming a Member of this House, I discovered how enjoyable it is. It is true to say the standard of debate and ability to interact in a debate are much better here. Wearing my Independent hat I must state-----
I do not agree with every word of the motion but certainly agree with the feeling behind it. I listened to the Minister of State's speech. When the debate came to this side of the House, enthusiasm became progressively cooler. Senator Dearey was clearly uncomfortable in making his remarks. I will bite the bullet and say I am not supporting the Government amendment. I am going to support Senator O'Toole's motion because I believe he is correct in contending that if we do not do anything proper to reform the Seanad, it will be gone.
I am from a party that believed in the abolition of the Seanad but, having spent some time here and having reflected maturely on the matter, I have come to the conclusion that it has its merits. However, it needs to be something totally different from what it is.
I totally disagree with the notion of moving over on the trough in dealing with the university panel seats just to allow those who have a degree access to voting rights in the Chamber. Change needs to be much more radical. I like what Senator O'Toole has proposed because I believe we need to proceed on a different basis. As other speakers have said, we should not mirror the Dáil. The Dáil elects Members for constituencies and it is their duty to represent them. We have a different duty in this House.
As a Member of this House, I noticed that one really must have the national interest at heart. This is one of the reasons I am not going to support the Government amendment. Opposing the other side of the House, in either direction, for the sake of it is nonsense. The motion before us is very good and deserves further consideration and support.
Having been in a political party and being a believer in the political party system of governance, I believe one needs some of the discipline that comes with being in a political party. This presents its own problem. Senator Ross spoke about people of the calibre of Ken Whitaker who stood for a certain position in the Seanad, naively or otherwise. It is great to think he could have been elected but our political system is tribal and its rules operate on a tribal basis. Unless one is a member of one of the political parties under the current system, one will not get elected.
I admired Senator Fitzgerald's honesty in referring to a general failure of Government. Senator Alex White spoke about this as well. Let us not be under any illusion about the fact that the Government will always protect the status quo. I am supporting the Independent Members' motion because change will only come from the Independent benches.
Bearing in mind the Minister of State's speech, I agree completely with Senator Alex White's comments on the establishment of an independent electoral commission. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, is in the other House dealing with the question of the Dublin mayor. That is not a priority for us at present. I would prefer if the Minister was bringing forward the Bill relating to the independent electoral commission which the country needs much more than the creation of another layer of government through the establishment of the position of a directly elected mayor for Dublin.
As previous speakers indicated, the Minister had the opportunity to prove that he would deal with the issue of Seanad reform. There is no need to reopen the matter because the previous Seanad did a great deal of work on it. Everyone is aware of what must happen. The Minister had the opportunity to take action, but he has failed to come back to the House and the people to demonstrate something can be done. He has illustrated the fact that Seanad reform is not a priority. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the House to bring about reform. If, as Senator O'Toole stated, the Seanad fulfilled the role originally envisaged for it, it would operate in a much better way.
There is a degree of antipathy on the part of the public towards the House. I was interested in Senator Fitzgerald's comments on how Fine Gael would put a question to the people in a referendum. I wonder about the nature of such a question and whether it would be as straightforward as asking whether people were in favour or opposed to Seanad Éireann remaining in operation. The answer to such a question would be an overwhelming no. That is the reality. Whether Fine Gael will get the opportunity to put such a question to the people is another matter.
As previous speakers stated, we have an opportunity to create a dynamic second force in Irish politics which would have greater relevance and in which, as Senator O'Toole stressed, ordinary citizens could feel their voice would be heard. That is the direction in which I would like the House to move. It is only through reform that this will be achieved. I hope this debate will progress the type of reform to which I refer and will encourage the Minister, Deputy Gormley, who will be under pressure from his colleagues in the Green Party to bring forward true proposals for reform and establish the independent electoral commission.
I compliment my colleagues on the Independent benches on tabling the motion. I have listened to the entire debate up to now and I am of the view that not one new idea has been brought forward. A number of interesting ideas have been propounded but not a single new one has been offered. I challenge colleagues to demonstrate that I am incorrect in this regard.
There has, however, been one interesting and welcome development, namely, the statement by Senator O'Malley to the effect that she proposes to cross the floor of the House and vote with the Independents. The Senator has displayed a remarkable and courageous attitude. However, she could not have received a more seductive invitation to cross the floor than that offered in the weak, vapid and inane amendment placed on the Supplementary Order Paper by Senator Cassidy whose name is unaccompanied by any of those of his party colleagues which may perhaps reflect their embarrassment regarding the amendment.
I wish to consider amendment No. 1 in detail. As usual, it proposes to delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and then states the House "notes", which means nothing at all will be done. It notes the deliberations which took place on various proposals, the lack of adequate consensus, the absence of such a consensus, the commitment contained in the renewed programme for Government and blah, blah, blah. It then resolves to request the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to blah, blah, blah.
I have been through all of this before and have campaigned on the issue of Seanad reform for 30 years. It is nearly a quarter of a century since I was elected to the House. One of the platforms on which I was first elected was reform of the Seanad. I assure Members nothing has happened during the entire period to which I refer. Not one scrap or iota of Seanad reform has been introduced. I accept there has perhaps been some minor and ineffective tinkering at the edges of the Order of Business, but there has been absolutely nothing else. On my first day as a Senator I tabled a motion in which I welcomed and suggested the implementation of the recommendations of the all-party committee. Those on the Government side voted down the recommendations to which I refer and which had been brought forward by a committee established by the then Government. That will inform Members as to the degree of movement they can expect on this issue.
I was later appointed to and sat on the all-party group on Seanad reform chaired by the current Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. The Minister of State has indicated that not everyone agreed that we should proceed with just reforming the university constituency. That proposal was made and I am absolutely unapologetic. The notion that we should tackle the position on the university seats first has often been brought forward. I respectfully demur from what Senator O'Toole stated. There may perhaps have been a slight blurring in the language he used and he may not entirely have meant what he said. However, I make no apology whatever for being a member of the only democratic element in the House. University Senators do have constituencies, of 65,000 and 110,000. Senator Dearey made a most engaging contribution and was humble in a way to which I could only aspire. However, he was elected by the votes of only 237 people. I find it difficult to take lessons from an apparatus which produces elections in which candidates need only 237 votes when people such as Senator O'Toole and I are required to attract the votes of tens of thousands of individuals. I apologise if what I am saying appears to be arrogant in nature, but it is also a fact.
Having dealt with the amendment, I wish to proceed to the Minister of State's contribution. She stated "I am pleased to set out the Government's position on the matters in question." Where have we heard that before? We hear it every night on radio and television when people state "I am glad you asked me that question," which in reality means they are not glad at all and are going to provide a completely wooly response. That is, of course, what happens. The Minister of State also referred to the all-party group on Seanad reform chaired by the Minister, Deputy Gormley, but stated "a number of detailed issues must be addressed with regard to implementing possible changes in this area." Translation: one should not hold one's breath because nothing is going to happen.
The Minister of State then began to wander around various areas of the Constitution, stating an enabling amendment would be required, that the higher education constituency would have to be expanded, etc. I absolutely applaud and support the latter. However, it must be managed efficiently and properly and reflect the interests not only of Seanad Éireann but also those of voters.
I stated not one new idea had been expounded during the debate. However, Senator O'Toole did bring forward a fairly new idea - it represents the most valuable suggestion made during the entire debate - namely, the creation of a hybrid method of election in respect of the panel system. He suggested some element of contact with local authorities could be retained but that the other sections of the panels could be broadened to encompass universal suffrage. That is the way to proceed because it would make Seanad Éireann truly representative.
The Minister of State referred to the commitment to establish an independent electoral commission. It is just that - a commitment. I once heard a very decent Leader of the House, former Senator Mick Lanigan, give a commitment to Senator O'Toole which he then failed to honour. The Senator will confirm that Mr. Lanigan accepted that he had given a commitment but that it was not binding. We know, therefore, how much commitments are worth. The electoral commission is not even in existence but Ministers are relying on it to defend their position.
The Minister of State made a number of interesting comments. For example, she referred to "making recommendations on the feasibility of extending the franchise for Presidential elections to the Irish abroad," to which I say, "Hear, hear." However, the franchise should not just be extended to the Irish abroad, it should also be extended to the Irish on this island. People who are citizens of the Irish Republic and live north of the Border are prohibited from voting in Presidential elections. Members are probably asking why I am referring to the Presidential election. I am doing so because I am interested in it and my hat is in the ring. If anyone did not know that, they do now.
Since we have wandered into this area and given that we are discussing democracy, a recent poll carried out by MillwardBrown Lansdowne indicates that my level of support among members of the public is greater than that of the next two candidates put together. However, I may never be able to enter the contest for the Presidency because the political parties control the mechanism of election. In order to stand, I would require the support of either 20 Members of the Oireachtas or at least four county or city councils. If the political parties believe in democracy, they should take steps to prove it by removing the rigid application of the Whip in order to allow councillors to make an independent determination in this matter.
The Minister of State has referred to whether we are content to have the House viewed as some sort of debating society. I am all in favour of such societies. However, the Minister of State displayed some cheek when she said the House really was a debating society and asked whether it could play a more meaningful role. We could if the Government produced legislation. There are more than a dozen items of legislation from this side of the House; every single one of my Independent colleagues has placed legislation before the House. That takes work, determination and expertise.
I respectfully disagree with Senator Alex White who said we should reduce the time involved. That would be the death of the Seanad. If we were to reduce it further, we would be a total laughing stock. The work we do does not just take place in the Chamber. Colleagues on both sides of the House work 14 to 18 hours a day and I do not want to work for nothing. I want decent, modest recompense. I want my work to be recognised, not just financially. I want people to know about it because I sometimes leave here at midnight. On my way home I hear repeats of programmes in which radio broadcasters say the Seanad does a day and a half's work in the few weeks it meets. Lots of us work hard in this place and we deserve respect.
People have moved on from this House to become Taoiseach, the first lady Tánaiste and the first lady leader of a party. There are members of the Cabinet who served in this House where they gained tremendous experience. Being a member of the Upper House is a privilege and gives one experience such that when one serves in the Dáil one is at a distinct advantage on one's first day in office or as a Member of the Dáil.
She was party leader of the Progressive Democrats. I have checked all my facts. I have been here a long time, for longer than most; only one other person has been here longer than me.
To put the record straight, when I became a Member of the House in 1982, the Seanad sat for about half a day every week. The situation changed and colleagues now on the Independent benches should know that in 1987 it sat for about a day and a half each week. It now sits three days a week. The business conducted today is completely different from that which was conducted 25 or 30 years ago.
On the opportunity to initiate a Bill, 25 or 30 years ago it would have been cause for a celebration for Members of the House if one Bill a year was initiated in the Seanad. In 2008, 30% of all legislation was initiated in this House and 1,201 amendments were proposed and accepted by the Ministers of the day. The priority of the House is to deal with legislation. Senator Alex White is correct when he outlines our constitutional obligations as Senators.
Since I became Leader in 1997, I remember only two occasions on which the debates on Bills had to be guillotined. That is our great strength, as I keep on saying. All Bills in the Dáil, because of time constraints and the fact that there are 166 Deputies, cannot be debated in full and it has to guillotine the debates on Bills at some stage, but that does not happen in the Seanad. We are the protector-----
------of the Legislature, the Constitution and the taxpayer, for which we make no apologies to anybody.
It was said in this House that Fianna Fáil was holding up the review of the reform of the Seanad. That is not true. I am holding the Fianna Fáil submission made, with those of other colleagues, parties and groups, and it is now with the Minister who has given due consideration to it. It is definitely not the fault of the major Government party, Fianna Fáil, which accounts for almost 50% of the membership of the Seanad.
In regard to how we are elected or selected from panels, let us wait and see what the findings of the Government's deliberations are. We have made a contribution. I take in good faith what Independent colleagues have said about their electorates with a turnout of 30% or 34%. We cannot justify this because under the panel system there was a turnout of 98.5% in the last seven general elections to the Seanad. That is the highest-----
It was said some colleagues on the university panels were promoting themselves with a vote of 2,500. I received 7,500 votes but did not win a Dáil seat. Let us put everything into proper perspective. The people we represent are the most hard-working and decent of people, each of whom represents, on average, 1,000 people. We are democratically elected. If there was to be a change, I would love to see at least five or ten members of the Northern Assembly represented here and to have a 32-county Parliament. People who have gone before me would dearly have loved to have seen it during their lifetimes. If there is to be change, we will embrace it and do everything we possibly can to assist in the process. There is not a day that goes by on the Order of Business without demands and requests being made to me for debates to take place. The debate today on overcrowding in our prisons had to be rolled over. I cannot accede to requests made on the Order of Business for a debate to take place on the same day because I have to consult with Ministers. They might need to be in Brussels or Luxembourg. Members, therefore, have to be reasonable. I welcome the debate and thank Senator O'Toole for placing the motion on the Order Paper.
I have served here with some very distinguished colleagues, including the late Jim Dooge, Seamus Mallon and the late Gordon Wilson, whom I sat beside. I highlight the fact that Charles Haughey acknowledged and appointed Members from Northern Ireland, including Seamus Mallon and Gordon Wilson. Other Taoisigh did the same.
This House is necessary and has a great future. In our review perhaps we should also examine whether proceedings could be broadcast live for at least one hour a week to let the people see the great work being done in the House on a daily basis.
This has been an interesting debate and I thank Senator O'Toole for tabling the motion. I was delighted to hear Senator O'Malley's words. She spoke openly and clearly about her views on what happens in the House.
The concept behind the House was correct back in 1937 when Eamon de Valera held the view that there was a need for a second Chamber. What he tried to put together was a House that would represent different vocational interests. Unfortunately, the manner in which he put it together meant it did not work in the way envisaged and we have ended up with a Chamber which is not performing as well as it should because, to a very large extent, we now have political parties which do not give their members freedom to vote in the way they would like. The benefit of the House comes, to a large extent, from having Independent Senators, most of whom are elected from the university panels.
I have stated previously that I do not believe the Seanad needs more power. If we do, we should earn it ourselves and we have the ability to do so. There are examples. Senator Norris has stated each of the Independent Senators has brought forward legislation. I am looking forward to the Construction Contract Bill passing through the House in a couple of weeks' time, as it is a Bill that will bring considerable benefits and I only hope we can get it through quickly enough for it to become law. I am not in favour of having a more confrontational Seanad. We have learned during the years how we can benefit from debates, but we must work together in doing so.
The Seanad has what political scientists call "output legitimacy", which means it does work which is relevant and effective and has done so during the years. However, it lacks input legitimacy because the way in which Senators, particularly from the vocational panels, are elected lacks credibility. The vocational panels were originally designed to produce Members with experience and expertise, but they have been rendered much less representative largely because of the manner in which Members are elected. If we are to achieve greater recognition, we must focus on the way Members of the Seanad are elected. As Senator O'Toole has proposed, we need reform that goes beyond merely changing the way university Senators are elected. I agree fully that university graduates not currently represented should be entitled to vote in all Seanad elections by next year. We do not need a constitutional referendum to do this because that constitutional amendment has already been agreed to.
There was an interesting article by Mr. Neil Callanan in The Sunday Tribune recently in which he made the point that two Ministers could be appointed to the Cabinet from the Upper House, but the stipulation is that they cannot be made Taoiseach, Tánaiste or Minister of Finance. That is acceptable. Perhaps we should look at increasing that quota instead of abolishing the Seanad, although we do not need to increase it because the provision is only used on rare occasions. There is an opportunity to bring into the House using that system persons with more experience and I do not refer only to business persons, although I certainly include them. One need only look at the example of Sir Philip Green who was recently brought on board by the new British Government and who suggested he could cut £20 billion from the cost of the public sector. He is a successful businessman, but one could say Mr. Colm McCarthy has done something similar here. Therefore, there are things we could do and we should do them.
The attractions in increasing the Seanad representation at the Cabinet table are obvious. There would be no direct answering to constituents. Successful persons would be like those in the United States who the President brings on board in the Cabinet and who do not rely on the votes of constituents. Therefore, they are able to act in the best interests of the state, in the way somebody running a business acts in the best interests of its customers. In the newspaper article Mr. Callanan made the valid point which I have made on many previous occasions that we simply did not have enough persons with real-world experience at the Cabinet table. Instead, we have career politicians, many of whom have inherited seats, in many cases from their fathers, and who do not have outside experience, which I would like to see.
It is interesting to note that some in New Zealand are pushing for the reinstatement of the Senate. Earlier this year the New Zealand Policy Unit of the Centre for Independent Studies proposed an election to a Senate in 2011. It proposed an Upper House with 31 seats, with members being elected using a proportional list system by region, with the members of the House of Representatives with 79 seats being elected using a first past the post system; in other words, there would be a contrast between the two. The New Zealand Senate was abolished in 1951, but the report on its reinstatement states importantly that one of New Zealand's constitutional problems is that it is too easy to pass laws quickly and without proper authority and that having a Senate would provide a publicly visible role for Senators in revising legislation such that those deciding to block or support certain laws would be politically compelled to explain their decisions to the public. New Zealand is one of the few countries which has a system based on the Westminster form of government. It is one of the few that had a bicameral system - as we do to a certain extent - that decided to abolish its Senate but is now planning to reinstate it. It reminds us that the Seanad serves an important function.
I am very pleased to support Senator OToole's worthwhile proposal. Like so many other institutions, the Seanad can be improved and modernised. I urge the Government to take on board the calls made in this House to take action on the issue. It has not done so tonight. I am disappointed at what I heard from the Minister of State, Deputy Brady. There are steps that have been suggested that are reminders of what could take place, one of which, suggested by Senator Ross, was holding the elections to the Dáil and the Seanad on the same day. That would make sense. It would be logical to do so and one would not need a constitutional change. Neither do we need a constitutional change to bring on board graduates of the University of Limerick and DCU. I like the concept proposed by Senator O'Toole because it suggests, "Let us shake this up. We can turn this into a worthwhile Chamber." We can make it one that would be regarded highly because we will earn that right. I, therefore, urge the Government to respond positively to Senator O'Toole's motion, not in way it has responded tonight but with enthusiasm and support.
I compliment Senators O'Toole and Ross on raising this issue again in the Seanad. Senator O'Toole did so previously, with the support of his colleagues on the Independent benches. However, I wonder whether it is an exercise in futility as this is the third such debate since I was elected in 2007. On the first occasion the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, spoke confidently that by Christmas of that year legislation would be brought forward and that in the next election to the Seanad, so far as the university seats were concerned, there would be a wider pool of graduates. Within a year we had a second debate. This time the Minister had pulled in his horns enormously. He was much more cautious about making predictions about whether and when there would be change. Now in a way that is laughable the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power - I mean no disrespect to him as he is a man of accomplishment and ability, but he is not the Minister in charge - has been sent to tell us the bad news that there will be no progress made.
We have moved from being somewhat hopeful to very disappointed to massively disappointed and it seems that amounts to progress around here. It is regrettable that, given all the reports that have been produced during the years involving Members of this House and the efforts of Senator O'Toole and others to advance the issue, we are being mocked, not only by the failure to obtain clarity on what will happen and when, but also by the technique the Government sometimes uses in picking out and rubbishing a small net point in what has been proposed in order to be seen to be making a substantive argument.
The example I want to pick is the pathetic argument and sheer waste of time by the Government in addressing the point that Senator O'Toole is proposing an increase in the overall number of Members of the Seanad, albeit by one, rather than five as previously proposed. It makes a mockery of the debate to focus on such a point and engage in posturing in respect of concern for the public purse. God knows the Government has wasted enough money and I need not recount the various white elephants about which the public has heard in recent years. Spending time on making such a pathetic argument shows how little thought has been given the Government's response to the motion. It is very disappointing. Everybody knows we would be happy with a Seanad with 60 Members, if only there was a proper system for electing its Members.
We must accept that our parliamentary system has fallen into disrepute in recent years. There is widespread awareness of how the Oireachtas has failed to hold the Government to account. We can look at the economic crisis and can see instances of how the hard questions were not asked, either by backbenchers on the Government side or by Opposition Members. We have a weak parliamentary system and there seems to be no will to change it. In this context, I would like to state that, unlike some of my colleagues, I believe we do need to strengthen the role of the Seanad. As our parliamentary system has failed to hold the Government to account, let us look at giving more powers to the Seanad. Let us look at a future where the Seanad might vote against Government legislation and the sky would not fall, much less the Government. If Senators were allowed to vote against Government legislation, they might be less subject to the party Whip and in that way there might be a genuine debate about proposals instead of the nod and wink when we make sensible suggestions on legislation and a Minister glances at his or her civil servants who say "no can do" and the Minister offers a glib refusal without ever engaging intellectually or in any substantive way with what has actually been proposed.
We should look at a strengthened Seanad which would not merely scrutinise public appointments or prison visitation committees, although we could certainly usefully spend some time doing this type of work, but would also have the power to knock down badly thought out or problematic legislation. This will only happen if we change the way the Seanad is elected, making it more directly accountable to the people and in some way seeking to mitigate the negative aspects of the party Whip system as it operates in the other House. We should take seriously the idea that the Seanad should be a forum for people with alternative and varied ideas about issues who would have the power to force back legislation if it was desired to do so.
Somebody mentioned one could not justify how the House of Lords was selected but often it manages to do the job. Turning back legislation happens more often in Britain, where legislation from the House of Commons is turned back by the House of Lords. Sometimes it even suits the House of Commons to hide behind the skirt of the House of Lords, so to speak. The Leader would have a conniption if the Government even lost a vote on the Order of Business, on something as pathetic as that. This is not taking democracy seriously; it is contributing to the circumstances whereby we are a laughing stock among the public. It is simply no argument for the Leader to state the low turnout in graduate elections for university seats is relevant when he claims 99% or 99.5% vote under the panel system. Be honest with people-----
They are rotten boroughs. Of course, they must all vote because to my knowledge they must consult each other and sometimes I believe people are even made to show how they will exercise their franchise in what is a further mockery of democratic practice. It is true to state the current system of electing six university Senators in the way we do is a scandal and does look elitist. However, it looks all the more elitist when the other vocational sectors are not given a chance to be involved directly in the election of Senators. It would look less elitist if Members from the other vocational panels, including the Agricultural and Industrial and Commercial Panels, were voted in by those sectors of the community.
Then we would have an acceptable third level graduate franchise. I will not make any claims about the particular contribution the university senators have made during the years; they have simply done their duty. However, it further brings the Houses and our system of government into disrepute that we had a referendum in 1979 providing for the introduction of legislation that would widen it and it still has not happened. It is embarrassing for every university Senator when we canvass people whose degree is as good as our own but who cannot vote in Seanad elections because of an out-of-date system.
We are very fortunate in some of the Senators we have, not only those on the university benches; they come through this rather corrupt and outdated system. We are very fortunate to have Members such as the Acting Chairman, Senator Ormonde, whom I have heard make very interesting and insightful points on a range of issues. The same goes for Senator O'Malley and the Leader. The fact is they come through a system which is unjustifiable. We just happen to be lucky. We all know there is another side to the way in which Senators are elected from the other panels which involves from time to time patronage and other things about which we should not speak too much lest we anger the public even more.
Let us have a serious attitude in favour of necessary change. Let us take seriously the anger and be more philosophical about the way our democracy is working. Let us be honest enough to say that just because we have always done it this way does not make it right. Why not have genuine engagement by the Government and the Houses on making the Seanad more fit for purpose and regaining some of the trust and respect of the public, to which we would be entitled if we were working in the way we should?
I thank the House for the time given to the motion and the various speakers who contributed. It has been a very interesting debate, but I am totally discouraged. I have spent 24 years trying to make movement on this issue, but no movement has taken place. I am glad Senator Mullen made his concluding points. My criticism of the system of election is not to be taken as a criticism of the people who come through that system. I completely agree with the point made by Senator O'Malley and others that it is quite in order and to be welcomed that people aspire to move to another House of the Oireachtas, be it the Presidency or the Dáil. I do not have a problem with this. I also welcome Members who have been Members of the Dáil. For me, these are not the issues. The issues are the ones about which I spoke.
Senator Ross stated we were in danger of extinction. I value very much the contribution of local authority members. One of the problems is the lack of power at local authority level. If I had time, I would develop this further because I feel as strongly about it as I do about the situation in this House.
The speech made by the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, was appalling. Senator Mullen made the point that it was a mockery. He also made a simple point about the extra Member. If one reads very carefully one will see it would not be an extra Member; I pointedly did not indicate how that person - the Cathaoirleach - would be returned. I could give 5 or 6 ways in which that person could be returned without increasing numbers. I was very careful not to increase them in order that it would not be jumped on as a simple way of having a go. It was jumped on anyway, which I regret. For me, the most serious matter about the speech of the Minister of State, Deputy Brady, is that we now realise the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, has not reported to the Government on the outcome of our meetings. That is appalling.
Senator Deary made the point that the motion did not go far enough. I could make a speech about all of the "does not go far enough" speeches I have heard during the years. This is an incremental attempt to effect change. The same applies to the speech of the Minister of State; of course, there are things we could do on our own. I found it a bit much to listen to the Minister of State say the House could do much more itself. I will agree with Leader that he would make many changes here - not as many as I would like - but he does not have the agreement of the Government. That is the reality. I know this to be the case. If we were allowed to change things, we could change them in the way many want.
Senator Alex White raised the question of how we would operate and on what we spend our time. He is right. I will gently add to one point he made about the amount of time spent on the Order of Business. He is absolutely right about the amount of time we spend on it but it is time well spent. Other Parliaments such as the Bundestag spend the first hour or hour and a half dealing with the topical issues of the day; they do not call it the Order of Business, which would be a more sensible way to deal with it.
Senator Alex White is also absolutely right in the point he made about a petitions committee, which would fit in completely with what I stated about us reflecting civic society. Many Parliaments have such a committee and we have seen it in action. We have proposed a Standing Order in order that we could put one into operation in the morning. There are only minor reasons it could not be done. It might cost marginal amounts of money. I have seen committees work where ordinary people with ordinary issues come before a committee of a House of Parliament to make their point. Petitions committees do not have the power to effect change.
The point on which I take greatest issue with the Minister of State concerns her comment about this being a high quality debating society. That is the saddest comment I heard all night long. One could say the same to a senior counsel going into the courts. He or she makes an argument with no power, except the power of persuasion. It is the person who hears the argumentation that makes the decision. If a Minister of State does not understand this, is it any wonder I am discouraged because we are not going anywhere? I do not mind a Minister of State arguing and stating he or she does not agree with me.
If this House cannot produce a debate of high quality with argumentation and persuasion, it is up to him or her to respond. If he or she does not respond, there is no point in him or her saying this House is only a debating society. This proves the point that no thought is being applied.
I welcome very much what Senator O'Malley had to say and her offer of support which is deeply appreciated. I am not surprised because she is a woman who has always been independent-minded and expressed a point of view.
On the issue of broadening the electorate, I assure the Members opposite they do not need to be afraid of everything. For instance, if I may be excused for referring to Senator Ó Murchú as an example, he is elected from the Cultural and Educational Panel. He would be elected on an extended Cultural and Educational Panel if educationists and those involved in Irish culture had votes. I want people to think that way, but the Members opposite are afraid of what I am saying. There are opportunities here, not just threats and crises.
I visited the New Zealand Parliament where they had invented measures to slow down the passage of Bills by introducing extra Stages. There were seven Stages to a Bill which gave more time for debate.
I will be unable in the time remaining to deal with all of the issues raised, except to say this House could bridge the gap between the people and the political system. We could be the conduit between them. This could prove exciting, challenging and effective, as well as restore faith, trust and confidence in what we do. There is nothing to be afraid of. I would be prepared to do this in a way that would help everybody.
I ask that the university panels issue be dealt with, but, in deference to my colleagues opposite, that rather than make the changes for the next election, they should not take effect until the following election in order that there would be more than one term to prepare. In the meantime ordinary people would have an opportunity to make their commitment. All citizens would have an opportunity to vote, but they would have to decide which voting panel to which they belonged. For instance, a person who is a graduate but also a farmer, a trade unionist and an ordinary citizen would still only have one vote and he or she would have to choose the panel for which they would register. This would allow younger people to be given a vote if this was so decided.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 27 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, James Carroll, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Mark Dearey, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Paschal Mooney, Niall Ó Brolcháin, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ann Ormonde, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 28 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Ciarán Cannon, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Pearse Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Michael McCarthy, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Fiona O'Malley, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Niall Ó Brolcháin and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Rónán Mullen and Joe O'Toole.
Amendment declared lost
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 28 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Ciarán Cannon, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Pearse Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Michael McCarthy, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Fiona O'Malley, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Feargal Quinn, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)
Against the motion: 27 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, James Carroll, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Mark Dearey, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Paschal Mooney, Niall Ó Brolcháin, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ann Ormonde, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Rónán Mullen and Joe O'Toole; Níl, Senators Niall Ó Brolcháin and Diarmuid Wilson.
Question declared carried