Wednesday, 3 October 2012
Radical Seanad Reform Through Legislative Change: Statements
I thank the Leader for enabling me to initiate the debate. I hope the debate will stimulate not just a debate today but in the months to come because it is an important area. I came into this House almost 20 years ago. I remember coming into the House and realising that I did not know anything about legislation and I wondered how I would go about doing it. As I was a grocer all my life, I began to look for the customer in each piece of legislation. I found when I looked for the customer I was able to come up with changes or issues that had not been considered previously. The case for Seanad reform is similar. Having a debate on the future of the Seanad is important. There is a public disillusion about politics and parliamentary institutions. That includes both Houses. Many people say our system is not working. I would love to think that we in this House could enable it to work better. The public want change. They want reform of the institutions. It is imperative that we do not respond to that wish by the abolition of one of the Houses, which would make matters worse. I hope the debate today will initiate a discussion. That is the whole reason for this paper of 28 pages, which we hope will give enough reason for people to debate it.
Abolition is wrong. It would give rise to a number of errors, but the first one is that it would require 75 changes to the Constitution. The Constitution has served us well since 1937. I have listed the amendments on five pages. The Constitution has worked very well for us for 75 years yet we are suddenly going to do away with it. It would be a shame to do so because the concept de Valera had when he introduced the Constitution, in particular when he introduced the Seanad, was to enable the State to have a second opinion and view on all legislation going through the Oireachtas. The Seanad provides checks and balances. Just as we seek a second opinion if we go to see the doctor and we are told we need an operation, we go to another doctor to get a second opinion. It is the same with the Seanad. We have the chance to examine every piece of legislation and to give a second opinion. That is the onus on us. The Seanad provides a second opinion and its abolition would sweep very important safeguards away. It would be very difficult if that were to happen. Over the years I have been a Member, thousands of amendments have been made to numerous Bills in the Seanad. The legislation has been improved no end as a result. It would be a shame if that oversight were to be done away with.
The consultation paper is worth examining. It argues that the Seanad is cost effective. The suggestion made at the time of the proposed abolition is that the Seanad was costing approximately ¤25 million a year. The figure currently quoted is that the cost is ¤10 million a year. That has been confirmed by other figures as well.
Reform is necessary without the need for any new powers. In other words, I am not seeking a stronger Seanad. I am looking for a Seanad that will perform better but to do so the public will have to own it. The consultation paper sets out how to achieve that ownership, namely, by one person, one vote. The citizen does not have a vote, and some citizens have two votes. The reform can be achieved without any constitutional change by giving every citizen a vote, but only one vote. We have five panels. That cannot be changed because the panel system is in the Constitution but the system of voting can be changed. The consultation paper explains how that could be done. It would be very effective if we could manage to have ownership of the Seanad because that it is the main aim. In general, citizens at the moment do not have a right to vote for the Seanad and therefore they do not feel ownership.
I call on the Government to park the proposal to abolish the Seanad and allow time for a Seanad reform Bill to be considered. Such a Bill is capable of being put together after the consultation has taken place. If we use the next few months to consider the alternatives, look at what we can do, then the reform Bill could be introduced as early as January. If we introduce such a reform Bill as early as January we will be able to give a real alternative to abolition because it is not what we want. The paper is called "Open It, Don't Close It".
A very strong case can be made for maintaining the Seanad. The main case is that it gives oversight of every piece of legislation. This Chamber enables us to have two views of all legislation. We can to add to that legislation in very many ways and can contribute in many ways, and we do. However, we do not do it effectively enough because there is a lack of confidence in the institution. That lack of confidence would be overcome if every citizen had a vote - only one vote. The consultation paper describes very well what can take place and how. One would assume there must be a referendum in order to examine the Constitution but by changing legislation and without having to have a referendum we could create a Seanad that would add to the system of democracy in this country and improve legislation. Included among possible work we can do is scrutiny of European legislation as it comes through. Senator Zappone will speak on this point because she is very clear on the areas in which we can achieve, where at present we are not doing a very good job. The second thing we can do is look at pieces of legislation that were passed but have served their usefulness. It is interesting to note that in Germany in the past year, 2,000 pieces of legislation were looked at but were reduced to 1,700 because the second House was able to look at measures that were needed in the past but are no longer needed.
There are so many steps we can take and we can do so ourselves. We do not need a constitutional change to do this work, we can do it if we have ownership by the public. I believe the public will own this House if they have a vote and a system whereby they acquire that vote would work very well. We can still maintain the five panels. What we set out to achieve in 1937 was not to challenge the Dáil, have a second Dáil or look for further powers. The concept was a belief that the bicameral system was much more useful than having one House because there would be a second view of all legislation as it came through.
This consultation paper is worthy of much attention in the coming months. If we give it that attention, we can make the steps that will enable the public to believe this House has got not merely a use but can prove itself in its achievements as well as its usefulness. I urge that it be kept open, not closed.
In considering the foreword of the document presented to us, I agree that Seanad Éireann has consistently made an important contribution to our parliamentary process, thereby enhancing the quality of our democracy. I thank Senators Quinn and Zappone and their colleagues, Noel Whelan, former Senator Joe O'Toole and former Minister Michael McDowell for compiling such a well researched and informative paper.
As Leader of the House, I share my colleagues' impetus to reform the Seanad and to this end my goal is to make the Seanad more relevant and accessible to the public. Since this Seanad first met we have put in place some small but significant changes. For example, there has been a significant reduction in holiday periods compared with previous years and this has led to the House dealing with more legislation and spending more time here. The introduction of question and answer sessions with Ministers who are invited to the Seanad has greatly enhanced the quality of debates. The creation of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee constitutes a strong addition to the overall committee system and brings the Seanad closer to the citizen by allowing community representatives to appear before the House. We all agree that the sessions we have had in public consultation have been very valuable. I also worked with my ministerial colleagues to ensure that a much greater number of Bills are commenced in this House. In the past year, some debates that have taken place in the House on those Bills and on new legislation have been excellent.
I have no doubt that a Seanad which is motivated to work collectively to introduce reforms at this time will enhance the value and relevance of the Seanad for the benefit of politics and the public at large. While we are discussing the future of the House we must, however, look at what is wrong with the Seanad as it stands. One thing that stands out day after day and which has not gone unnoticed externally is the attendance of Members in the Chamber. I have arranged debates with Ministers on every possible topic since the Seanad commenced in May 2011 but time and again I have come into the Chamber and sat with fewer than five Senators in attendance, while Ministers have given up their valuable time to come to the House and discuss policy matters with us. Many of them have come to me afterwards and wondered why they had been asked to attend and address a practically empty Chamber. I can assure Members this does not encourage them to return with any haste. One can only imagine what the media and other observers looking in think about Ministers addressing what is practically an empty Chamber.
Members may well be watching debates, as most people do, in their offices but nobody outside knows that. None of the thousands of visitors who come to the Visitors Gallery every day are aware of that. I suggest, as a starting point, that Members begin to demonstrate their commitment to the actual Chamber by attending it more frequently and being seen to do so.
A related issue I wish to raise is the calling of amendments on the Order of Business asking for Ministers to address the House, on whatever topic, on the given day. Calling for votes and grandstanding in such a fashion on the Order of Business only serves to have a knock-on effect on business for the rest of the day. I accept that while my party was on the other side of the House we also engaged in that process, but it is not right. We all remember the day the Tánaiste came to the House last July and was left standing outside the door. That type of behaviour does nothing to enhance the standing of the Seanad.
Let us cut to the chase. We will have a referendum on whether the Seanad should be abolished; the Government is committed to holding it and it is included in the programme for Government. I am convinced the public will not support a Chamber as long as they have no say in who is elected to it. All other reports on Seanad reform dealt predominantly with how the Seanad should be elected, with some 80% of the reports dealing with that subject. This matter will have to be agreed well in advance of any referendum because the electorate cannot be expected to buy a pig in a poke. They will not do so.
I fully support the idea that European affairs and scrutiny thereof should form a greater part of the business of the Seanad. I wrote to the Oireachtas Commission in January, seeking additional resources to allow us to deal with those matters, had a meeting with the human resources section and believed we were going to get the required resources but nothing happened. I have written again on the matter to the chairman of the Oireachtas Commission and await a response. I am convinced we should play a greater role in the scrutiny of the EU work programme and EU directives, though without duplicating in any way the work being undertaken by the House committees already in place.
Debates on the future of the House should take place and we have already had a number outside the House. On the question of whether the Seanad should be abolished, in spite of the fact that I allowed time today for this excellent report to be debated and in spite of the excellent contributions in the report from Senators Quinn and Zappone, people outside the House will be listened to by the public to a much greater degree than the present membership.
They are the brief comments I wish to make on the document produced and how I see us moving forward. I am open to reforming the Seanad in any way possible - either within Standing Orders or by amending them, if necessary - in order to improve the way it works. The major problem we must address and in respect of which we must try to establish unanimity prior to the matter being put to the public in a referendum is how the membership of the House is elected.
I welcome the debate and thank Senators Katherine Zappone, Feargal Quinn and others for their work on the consultation paper, the launch of which I was happy to attend on Friday last. In today's edition of the Irish Examiner Michael Clifford comments on the launch of the paper and states:
I have never met Mr. Clifford, but what he has to say indicates what a journalist can see when looking in from the outside.
But wait, all is not lost. The Government is serious about one particular reform. The great unwashed can rest assured that they will be given the opportunity to rid themselves of the Seanad. This move can act as a perfect repository for the anger and frustration abroad at the political system. In pubs and clubs, and wherever citizens gather, they will pause in the depths of anger, and sigh that at least Kenny got rid of that goddamn talking shop.
That is what Enda Kenny and his cabinet must be hoping for, at least. For instead of real reform ? divesting supreme power from the executive, elevating the role of parliament, looking at the electoral system ? the mar dhea version will be available. Abolishing the Seanad will be sold as a "radical reform", when actually, if it does happen, it will represent nothing more than an attempt to distract from a redundant agenda of reform.
I have no intention of being disparaging, but there is absolutely no doubt that the Taoiseach failed to carry out in-depth analysis before deciding - by means of a knee-jerk reaction at a Fine Gael function held prior to the general election - to announce his intention to abolish the Seanad. It is difficult for him to row back from the position he has adopted. Of course, getting rid of the Seanad has proved popular with the other parties because there is a view that doing so will solve the various problems. The part of the Oireachtas which is in most need of reform is the Dáil. The commitment to reduce the number of Deputies by eight at the next general election is only tinkering at the edges. The Dáil and local authorities require full and proper reform, but it appears sight is being lost of that fact.
My party's current position is that it is opposed to the abolition of the Seanad, particularly as the Government has failed to introduce real reform in other areas. It is my view that abolishing the Seanad should not be seen as the means by which overall reform of the Houses of the Oireachtas might be achieved. The Fianna Fáil Senators met in an attempt to put together a paper on the direction we believe should be taken in this matter and also to formally oppose the abolition of the Seanad. We recommend that a formal system of public consultation be put in place in the Seanad in order that interested groups might have an input into legislation. I compliment the Leader on the efforts he has already made in this regard. We should, perhaps, be making greater progress in this regard, but I accept that the lack of financial support for the relevant committee may be hampering matters.
Fianna Fáil recommends that the Seanad be given a new role in respect of European affairs. A substantial amount of legislation which affects the citizens of this country comes from the European Union. In recent times, for example, in excess of 90% of directives from and legislation initiated in the European Union seems to have either supplanted or overlapped with domestic legislation. As a result, the Seanad should be given an enhanced role in the scrutiny of EU legislative proposals.
The Fianna Fáil Senators also made an interesting recommendation in respect of senior public appointments. Embarrassing scenarios such as that last year could be avoided if the Seanad was assigned responsibility for scrutinising the appointment of senior public servants. Why should this not be the case? The Seanad would be well capable of engaging in such scrutiny.
Fianna Fáil also recommends that two or three Members of the Seanad, including the Leader, for example, should be able to attend meetings of the Cabinet. There is a precedent for this and a number of Members of this House were very successfully appointed to the Cabinet in the past. The document produced by Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn and their colleagues, Seanad Éireann: Open It, Don't Close It, is worthy of a full debate. It beggars belief that in establishing the constitutional convention the Taoiseach and the Cabinet failed to include for consideration and debate one of the three anchors, namely, the Seanad, the others being the Dáil and the Executive, which hold our system of democracy together. That was a huge mistake because, whether by accident or design, the convention will be able to sidestep engaging in a debate on one of the most important institutions of the State. If abolishing the Seanad is put to the people in a referendum, that referendum will succeed. If that eventuality comes to pass, the Taoiseach will, when the history of this period is written, be condemned for removing one of the most important democratic institutions of the State. If the Seanad is abolished, I hope he will live to regret it. Abolishing the Seanad would be a massive mistake. Members must be aware of the fact that, in many ways, we are going to allow that mistake to be made.
I welcome the opportunity to comment on this important topic. I am sure this will be the first of many occasions on which we will be afforded the opportunity to discuss Seanad reform, a matter on which I have much to say. Given the time constraints, I will be obliged to withhold a great deal of what I wish to say until a later date. I congratulate Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone and their colleagues on the work they did in producing this consultation paper for our consideration. I attended the launch on Friday last and what was said certainly provided much food for thought.
Asking any Government of any hue or any group of Members of Dáil Éireann to consider the future of Seanad Éireann is akin to asking Dracula to reform the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. It is not in the interests of the Dáil or any Government to have a strong Seanad. That is simply how politics works in this country. We are engaging in this debate at a time when there has never been a more urgent need for new politics and new standards in politics. In the light of the number of documents that have been written about the need for new politics, it is easy to become cynical. Any development of new politics must begin with the Dáil, the electoral system and the relationship between the Government and the Oireachtas. It is in these areas that the focus of political reform must rest.
I read a recent Government report on political reform and really did not know whether I should laugh or cry. It provides information on the progress being made on political reform and indicates that the Dáil now sits one Friday each month. As far as I am aware, no questions can be asked and no votes can be taken during those Friday sittings, but this is heralded as political reform. It is time we got real with regard to political reform. Members of this and the Lower House must recognise what every citizen knows, namely, that massive political reform is required as a matter of urgency. Such reform is required in this House, but it is also required in the Lower House and at all levels of government. We should allow the debate in this regard to begin, but we must ensure it will be serious and fair rather than superficial.
There are many reasons to criticise Seanad Éireann. Those who criticise what we do present different planks to support their arguments.
The first well known plank is a silly, immature argument about the cost. It is unfortunate that people have been allowed to present the argument that Seanad Éireann is costing ¤25 million or ¤30 million per annum. To put it mildly, that is a deliberate falsehood. If the Government wants to save money and I am in favour of saving money, it should look at the cost of Government advisers and the cost of the apparatus of government which has been built up in the past ten or 20 years. Is one Government adviser worth three elected Senators? In my view, the answer is "No". Is one unelected Government adviser worth two elected Senators? I do not think so. If people want to argue about the cost of politics, they are looking at the wrong House. It is possible that Seanad Éireann costs ¤5 million or ¤10 million per annum under its current structure but in my view the taxpayer is getting value for money. I do not know of any society, any country, any civilisation, which benefited from less democracy rather than more. Some people will say that we are a talking shop. I think there is value in a talking shop. The problems of Northern Ireland and many other such problems across the globe would not be solved without dialogue and talking, therefore, sometimes talking shops are important.
This House has always been a reflective Chamber where difficult subjects which may not be approached with ease in the other House have been dealt with in a fair and balanced fashion. To those who say we are a talking shop I would say that we are the House which initially dealt with subjects which are very sensitive in Ireland such as divorce, family planning, Northern Ireland, gay rights, etc. Those subjects were a no-go in the other House but here in this House of calm debate those topics were debated and dealt with. This is a role we can play in the future.
The system for election to the House comes up for much mention. I refer to the document produced by Senators Quinn and Zappone and others which is so useful in this regard. Our electoral system has served its purpose and probably has passed its sell-by date and needs to be reviewed. We must all concede that there has to be some form of universal franchise for the Seanad and every citizen must have a role in electing the Seanad. When that involvement with the political system is introduced there will be a different public response. The current Seanad electoral system is confusing both for those who are elected and certainly for the people on the outside. If people do not understand an electoral system they have a mental difficulty with the whole concept. We are beneficiaries of the present electoral system and we have to be brave enough to admit to ourselves that in a new type of Seanad with a new electoral structure and system it is possible that most of us will never have the opportunity to serve here again. However, this debate must not be about saving our personal seats but rather it must be about saving Seanad Éireann and a new electoral system must be part of that equation. One possible scenario has been presented by Senator Quinn and other Senators that there would be five panels and a universal franchise. This is a very worthwhile suggestion.
I refer to a very fine document produced by Fine Gael in the summer before the autumn when we went into an abolition mode. Our official Fine Gael policy of June 2009 - a policy which was very mature and far-seeing - suggested that approximately half of the Members of the Seanad would be directly elected by the public on the same day as the European elections. I hope we will consider that suggestion. We have a lot to talk about and it will require more than one debate. Our first position must be that a Seanad that has served this country with such distinction and which provided a political forum for people such as W.B. Yeats, Mary Robinson, John A. Murphy, Gordon Wilson and Douglas Hyde and many more, is a House worthy not just of respect but is also worthy to be retained. We must reflect on the need for radical change and in tandem with the radical change in politics which is urgently required. Let us not be the whipping boys of those who are unwilling to reform their own House.
I welcome this opportunity to speak on Seanad reform and in particular to hear the considered views of my colleagues. I thank the Leader for his very prompt and gracious response to Senator Quinn's request for this time to allow Senators to put on the record their initial responses to our document that argues for retention and radical reform of Seanad Éireann through legislation. This session of formal consultation is an integral aspect of our preparatory work on a Seanad reform Bill and to which Senator Quinn referred.
My motivation for being involved in this effort is rooted in my experience of being a Member of the 24th Seanad, led by Senator Cummins and in my examination also of rigorous research analysis such as that of Professor Michael Laver who makes the argument that there exists a potential transformed role for the Seanad if it were to be elected directly and if its remit were to be extended to include significant responsibilities such as the oversight of EU legislation. As we have argued in the document, these kinds of changes would enable Seanad Éireann to fulfil finally the role envisaged for it by the designers of the Constitution.
Has our legislative function faded, as the Taoiseach put forward two years ago in support of his proposal to abolish the Seanad? My experience in the past 18 months does not provide evidence for such a statement. Senator Quinn referred to a number of Bills put forward, including his own Construction Contracts Bill which it is hoped will be passed before Christmas. Senators Crown, van Turnhout and Daly have put forward the Protection of Children's Health from Tobacco Smoke Bill 2012, drawing on their unique and professional expertise and receiving critical attention from the appropriate Ministers. If passed - and I hope it will be passed - it will save lives. Senator Power's Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill 2012, raised a prime social issue of our time and engaged a range of sectors of civil society in our public deliberations. Although defeated, the Bill made a significant contribution towards equality for lesbian and gay people. Senator Bacik's introduction of an immense work on the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011, ensured its historical passage and it will make a very significant contribution to the participation of women in politics and will consequently increase the vibrancy and health of our democracy. There are many other examples but I hope that these few in these past number of months make the point that our legislative function, particularly with regard to the generation of new law, is alive and well.
In spite of this, should Seanad Éireann be abolished and if the Government is intent on putting this question to the people - the Leader has just indicated that intention - surely there should be some substantial thought given to how this would impact on the Dáil's powers and the Constitution. Senator Quinn has referred to the 75 separate amendments that would have to be made or the deletion of entire articles if the Seanad were abolished. Should that substantive thought not be given prior to putting it to the people? That would be responsible governance. Senator Quinn and I would want to call on the Government to publish a White Paper on how it would abolish the Seanad and the impact of that, if it is intent on going with this route.
Our document reminds us that all the 11 reports examining the Seanad since 1937 never called for abolition; they all called for reform. However, the difficulty with these previous reports is there was no follow-up, no implementation. In part, that is because perhaps these documents focused on proposing constitutional change and big schemes for constitutional change have seldom been implemented. Our document emphasises implementation by focusing on implementation of political reform through legislation. It can be implemented within months if need be. We have already moved on this process.
We held a meeting with former and current Members last Friday. We will continue to consult with party leaders, group leaders, nominating bodies, other civil society organisations. We have already begun the task of drafting the Seanad reform Bill 2013 and we have had offers of assistance on a voluntary basis from an expert group. We invite all Members of the Seanad to participate actively in the consultation process. We are listening carefully to their views and we need those views even during the drafting process and the benefit of their expertise in order to put forward the strongest possible Seanad reform Bill that could enjoy the widest possible support in both Houses of the Oireachtas. We hope to publish a general scheme for the Bill before the end of the year and a draft Bill which we will invite all Senators to sign early in 2013.
We hope to initiate the Bill in this House shortly thereafter.
It is important to emphasise what can be achieved by way of legislation. It is possible to make the Seanad more democratic and representative of the knowledge and expertise our citizens hold. We can, for example, dramatically expand the electorate entitled to vote in Seanad elections in accordance with the one person-one vote system, as suggested in our paper. It is a sobering thought that the electorate for the vocational panels in 2011 was 1,092. We can change how candidates are nominated to stand for the panels by initiating a dramatic expansion of the nominating bodies. I only discovered the full remit of the administrative panel - incorporating public administration and social services, including voluntary and social activities - when I consulted the Constitution in researching this paper. That panel includes only 14 nominating bodies. Given the growth in expertise of the voluntary and community sector over the years, the potential involvement of these organisations and additional nominating bodies could allow non-mainstream voices to become part of Seanad Éireann. Participation by marginalised communities in our formal political structures is a goal that could be achieved by way of Seanad reform. What we are talking about is a reorganisation of the organising principle of representativeness. We could, for instance, transform the university panel by entitling all third level graduates to vote, thereby rendering it less elitist. We could allow for residents of Northern Ireland or the Irish abroad to vote for some or all of these seats. As other speakers suggested, the Seanad could be given enhanced functions in terms of oversight of European legislation, an issue the Leader is pursuing.
The precise format of the Seanad reform Bill 2013 will, as Senator Quinn observed, very much depend on the outcome of the consultation process. We are calling on the Taoiseach to put aside the proposal to abolish the Seanad and instead allow time for a Seanad reform proposal that would incorporate changes in terms of how this House is elected. We further request that all Senators and Deputies be given a free vote on the reform Bill.
Before I cut to the chase, to borrow the Leader's phrase, I thank Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn for their excellent work and effort in drawing up their proposal for Seanad reform. It will prove a useful document for the furtherance of this important debate. However, I am obliged to reiterate the position I have made clear, namely, that I do not believe we should be having this debate in House time. Instead, I suggest, it should be held outside the House. Senator Quinn referred to the disillusionment among the public with politics, the political system and politicians. We have all experienced that to a greater or lesser extent. However, setting that consideration aside, I have a clear view that it is not the business of the House to be discussing this issue.
I am entitled to my view in this regard. However, in the spirit of the debate, I will offer a suggestion for Members' consideration. If each Senator, with the assistance of Senators Zappone and Quinn and the document they have prepared, were to host a debate on this issue in the area in which they live, we would immediately have 60 forums in which members of the public could engage in this important debate. To reiterate, it is my view that the House should not be debating the subject in this time slot.
I thank Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn for bringing this proposal before the House. I also thank the Leader, the Cathaoirleach and the Leas-Chathaoirleach for their contributions. Although I have no direct experience of anything that went before, this Seanad, which contains 42 new Members, has proved its worth in the past 18 months. This country was not bankrupted by Members of the Seanad or the Dáil, but by bankers, bureaucrats and builders - the sectors of our society whose representatives were in Government Buildings four years ago this past weekend. If we abolish the Seanad, those representatives will be the happiest people in the world because there will be one less forum for scrutinising and imposing some checks and balances on their activities. We cannot let the wider society down by abolishing one of the democratic institutions of the State when it had nothing to do with the bankrupting of the country and the obligation to seek the support of the EU-IMF-ECB troika.
Grattan's Parliament was the last parliamentary forum to be abolished in this city, a decision which led to decades of misery following the transfer of legislative power to Westminster. It took 122 years to restore a national parliament to this country and even then, the six north-eastern counties were omitted. That was a major disaster. We should not shut down any parliamentary institution lightly. In his book The Irish Free State and its Senate, Donal O'Sullivan sets out the origins of this House. On 16 November 1921, he tells us, Arthur Griffith, acting on behalf of the President of the first Dáil, Éamon de Valera, met in London with several persons associated with Unionist interests in the South: Lord Middleton; the provost of Trinity College, Dr. John Henry Bernard; and Mr. Andrew Jameson. After this meeting, Mr. Griffith wrote to Mr. de Valera to tell him that the men had made a strong case for a Senate in any new democratic dispensation in Ireland. Mr. Griffith communicated to them his support for a second Chamber, he said in his letter, and indicated his view that his colleagues would be of the same mind. He indicated, moreover, that he had undertaken to consult these gentlemen before proceeding to erect the machinery of state and that they were satisfied with this commitment.
Today, when one enters this great building, one sees a portrait of Arthur Griffith on one side and Éamon de Valera on the other. These two statesmen established a second Chamber in order to ensure fair treatment of minorities. This House stands supreme in that regard. Even after partition, minorities in the State were treated well in institutions such as the Seanad, something which was not replicated on the other side of the Border. That tradition of inclusivity continues to this day. I received a card the other day from the president of the Bann Rowing Club in Coleraine thanking me for conveying my good wishes to its participants in the recent Olympic Games, even though they opted to row for Great Britain. This House still has standing in terms of the goals of Arthur Griffith and Éamon de Valera to integrate minorities into the political structures of the State. It is an extremely valuable role and one we should cherish. As Senators Zappone and Quinn set out in their admirable document, this House was shaped by a need to counter the strong hold of the Executive over the Legislature in the Irish system. Perhaps a complementary reform that is required when reviewing the working of the Seanad is to relax the Whip system in both Houses.
The question we must consider is whether this House continues to fulfil its historical role. My answer to that question is "Absolutely." When Committee Stage of the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill 2008 is taken in the Chamber tomorrow, there will be 34 amendments to discuss, 20 of which have been tabled by the Minister arising from the quality of the debate on Second Stage. Several Ministers have likewise amended legislation on the basis of issues raised by Senators in the course of debate, most of them observing that the debate in this House was superior to that in the Dáil. We have a major role in seeking to rescue this country by way of the checks and balances we provide in the legislative and parliamentary process. The fiscal responsibility legislation was introduced in this House, as were ground-breaking provisions on, for example, family planning and the abolition of corporal punishment in schools. Seminal legislation was initiated here by Senator David Norris, the former Senator and President of Ireland Mary Robinson, and former Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington. We have lived up to the role we were asked to perform. We should not throw away the great talents that are here, which are so badly needed if the Dáil is to continue in its present way. This House has historically included among its Members some of the best legal intelligence in the country, as represented, for example, by Alexis FitzGerald, who made important contributions to legislation. The Seanad's contribution to parliamentary endeavours in this country has been acknowledged by a series of Ministers over the years, including Patrick Hogan, a former Minister for Agriculture, and, in more recent times, a former Tánaiste, Michael McDowell.
Another former Senator, Dr. Maurice Hayes, made a witty observation recently when he compared the Seanad to a junior football team that has last year's seniors on the way down and next year's minors on the way up. What a crop of minors we have had, however. Liam Cosgrave, as Taoiseach, appointed the current President, Michael D. Higgins, to this House. Former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald began his career here, as did Ministers of State Deputies Brian Hayes and Alex White and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. It is a good training ground. I do not know, however, whether there are too many on the way back from the senior team. It is good to have a parliamentary forum that is not adversarial, as we try not to be, but which instead facilitates Members in raising points that would not be raised in the Dáil. There are people in this House who would not be elected to the Dáil but still wish to contribute to the better governance of the country. Such commitment is needed now more than ever.
An important focus for this House must be to tackle bureaucracies which are immune to scrutiny. In that context, we have a job to do tomorrow to persuade the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to bring more of them under the scrutiny of the Ombudsman. We also must seek to tackle lobbyists and pressure groups. As we know, ¤64 billion was taken out of this country in one evening.
It was a major coup by bankers and we still have not got to the bottom of it. I hope we will do so when we assert the dominance of Parliament over those who inflict such punishment on the people.
I also worry about the growth of other bureaucracies. An bord snip noted that senior management in the Civil Service was growing four times more rapidly than the Civil Service as a whole and was protecting all of its allowances. We must represent the people against this type of abuse of power.
I have no doubt that, on reflection, we will present to the Taoiseach a reformed Seanad. I hope we will be able to persuade him that the referendum should not proceed on the basis that we have reformed ourselves and earned the respect of the people. With so much to do, a referendum could be a distraction. Parliament must assert itself over the groups which have destroyed the country. I have no doubt this House has a great future.
I disagree with Senator Susan O'Keeffe in that the Seanad is an especially appropriate forum in which to debate radical Seanad reform. According to voices in the press today, this debate will involve Senators discussing themselves and their jobs, but that is not the case. We are discussing the State and the country, the Seanad and the system of checks and balances. Perhaps none of the Senators present will return to any new Seanad.
I welcome this debate on radical Seanad reform and commend Senators Feargal Quinn, Katherine Zappone and others on the publication of their consultation document. The debate on the future of the Seanad has been ongoing for many years. Of the 11 reports published on the issue, none has been implemented. Perhaps if action had been taken on foot of some of them, we would have an improved and reformed Seanad. I applaud all of the Senators who contributed to the reports in question. The document before us proposes a range of measures to transform the Seanad without the need for constitutional change.
It is time to give people an opportunity to vote on the Seanad. People must be informed and given a voice. Debates such as this will inform people about the Seanad. If one were to ask any member of the public what the Seanad does, one would be given a blank stare. The most recent and extensive report published on the issue of Seanad reform was produced by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in 2003. None of the 11 reports on Seanad reform advocated abolition of the House. Instead, they all advocated reform and the report before us proposes reform through legislation. I do not agree with that proposal because the debate has moved beyond that point. I advocate instead holding what is known as a "preferendum" rather than a referendum. People should be given three choices, namely, abolition, reform and one other option.
A fundamental problem with the Seanad in its current guise is the electoral system and representation, which do not extend to wider society and are correctly described in the consultation paper as being over-politicised. The House was not highly politicised when it was established, but the position changed under President de Valera. The Seanad was abolished previously because Members of the Lower House did not like it. We are back in the position that obtained in 1937.
The Seanad was established for a worthy reason, namely, to ensure legislation was critically examined. We must ask ourselves whether the House is fulfilling that role. Critical analysis is sometimes stymied by the Whip system. My party Whip is a good person who works the system. For this reason, I propose changing the system rather than the person. The Government has advocated change and this document also proposes changes. When the Seanad was founded, its emphasis on providing a voice for civic society enabled it to offer opportunities for building bridges to citizens. It was supposed to develop into a political platform in which citizens representing different sections of society would be given a voice and an opportunity to demand from the Government answers to difficult questions. I am not certain the Seanad demands answers to difficult questions today because it did not develop as envisaged. For this reason, I commend the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, for pursuing change by inviting citizens to come before us. I also commend the Independent Senators who advocate giving citizens a voice in the Chamber. While the citizens present in the Visitors Gallery may not speak today, perhaps they will be able to do so if they vote for a reformed Seanad.
The cost of the Seanad is frequently raised in the debate on the future of the House. The consultation document suggests it costs ¤10 million per annum. Senator Paul Bradford noted that Government advisers cost as much as the House. How can one compare a cost of ¤4.7 million for advisers and ¤4.2 million for Senators? We should allow people an opportunity to get value for money in a democratically elected Seanad.
I note that the first commission appointed to make recommendations on the Seanad proposed quotas for women and those competent in Irish. The commission members were enlightened and well ahead of their time because the Government is only now getting around to introducing quotas for women.
Senators have noted that the Constitution makes 75 references to the Seanad. Eminent barristers will be able to circumvent this issue by rewriting the Constitution after a referendum or preferendum has been held.
One of the contributors to the report before us was the former Minister and Attorney General, Mr. Michael McDowell. From memory, I believe he described the Seanad as a crèche for failed politicians. He was, however, man enough to change his mind when he saw what the Seanad did.
He found out it was neither a retirement home not a crèche. As Attorney General and subsequently a Minister, he was part of the political system and soon changed his mind.
We should provide people with information and allow them to make up their minds in a referendum. This discussion forms part of an informed debate on the Seanad. We have heard a great deal about what role the Seanad could play in dealing with European issues. The House has not exercised certain powers provided for under the Lisbon treaty. We should avail of these powers, especially given that the treaty was of such importance it had to be put to the people twice. Why should we discard what was provided for under the treaty?
I welcome my colleague, Councillor Ger Fogarty, to the Visitors Gallery. He contributed to this debate by examining ways of having the Diaspora represented in the House.
Seanad reform is a broad topic. While the scale of the financial crisis has been widely discussed, the Seanad could play a role in addressing the issue of the national democratic deficit. The scrutiny of legislation by the Houses is nothing short of appalling. Our democratic system failed in the period preceding the financial crisis. The volume of legislation not scrutinised by the Dáil, the Seanad and committees is extraordinary. Dr. Brian Hunt carried out a study of Oireachtas scrutiny of legislation which found that 98% of laws were passed without scrutiny by the Dáil or the Seanad. In 2009 alone, 1,291 EU regulations automatically became law in Ireland and the rest of the European Union. In addition, 164 EU directives became law by the stroke of a ministerial pen and without debate in the Dáil, the Seanad or any committee.
Up to 594 statutory instruments became law without scrutiny by this House or the Dáil, while in 2009 only 47 Acts were debated in both Houses. Up to 98% of the laws made were not debated in these Houses, which means we have a structural problem. A reformed Seanad could play a constructive role in correcting this national democratic deficit. My colleagues spoke about the scrutiny of EU legislation as provided under the Lisbon treaty. In the first two years since the treaty was passed 139 directives were proposed, with 428 submissions made by EU member state parliaments. Of the 428, Ireland made only one submission which was ruled out of order. Our structures are nothing short of deficient. We have a serious national democratic deficit. A reformed and properly structured Houses of the Oireachtas could rebalance this. The power has been in the hands of too few for too long, not with those whom the people elect to represent them. It is time for the national democratic deficit to be corrected and democracy returned to the people.
As well as Senator Katherine Zappone?s proposals, we need to examine how we look at representing those in the North of Ireland and the Irish overseas. There are 70 million people around the world who claim Irish heritage ? 40 million in America, 5 million in Canada and 8 million in the United Kingdom. We must examine how we can represent them, with those in the North of Ireland, in order that they can have an input into legislation and policy and how Ireland develops. We must reach out to the Irish overseas who want to play a part in the country?s development.
I thank Senator Mark Daly for sharing time with me.
The proposal to abolish the Seanad has its origins in a speech made by the Taoiseach, the leader of Fine Gael, at his party?s presidential dinner on 17 October 2009. I will never forget the shock and awe of his Seanad colleagues when they were taken by surprise by this announcement. It was fascinating that not one of them knew he was going to make it. The announcement sounded great, particularly as it was claimed it would save ¤25 million, and most of his Seanad colleagues rolled over to concur with him, but some did not. While I do not like throwing bouquets too much at the Opposition, I thank Senator Maurice Cummins for showing leadership in an innovative way.
There have been many reviews of the Seanad and all-party committee reports, the most recent of which on Seanad reform dates from 2004 under the chairmanship of Mrs. Mary O?Rourke. In March 2009, when I spoke on the issue of Seanad reform, the only change I advocated as being capable of early implementation was the extension of the franchise under the university panels as permitted by a constitutional amendment passed 30 years ago. The Seventh Amendment of the Constitution (Election of Members of Seanad Éireann by Institutions of Higher Education) Act 1979 proposed election to the Seanad by universities and other higher institutes of education and was passed by 552,000 people in a referendum.
This is important because we are talking about the Acting Chairman?s position, too. I had the pleasure of being here when Mr. Michael McDowell was justice Minister. He changed his mind about abolishing the Seanad when he attended the House in which he was excellent. We sat here enthralled listening to his eloquence. Former Senator and now Deputy Joanna Tuffy and Senator Jim Walsh had a robust discourse with Mr. McDowell when he had legislation in this House and he was impressed by the quality of the debate. He has said that if the Seanad was abolished, it would mutilate the Constitution, as 73 separate amendments and the deletion of entire articles would be required, reduce the effectiveness of the Oireachtas, sweep away significantly important safeguards in EU and Irish matters and not save much money. I am happy that I am value for money for taxpayers.
It is very difficult to be elected to Seanad Éireann. I would not have received a nomination if I did not have a track record in business. I was proposed by the Irish Exporters Association to represent it on the Industrial and Commercial Panel.
Perhaps we might start by reforming Senator Mary White.
Earlier my colleague, Senator Susan O?Keeffe, made some interesting remarks about the appropriateness of discussing the future of the Seanad in Seanad time. It was an interesting point, one with which I might agree if I thought this was an exercise in navel gazing. I have read the document and it seems to be a genuine and honest attempt to stimulate some proper debate about the future of the House. It is to be welcomed and the Senators who published it need to be congratulated. If we were not to discuss the future of the Seanad, we would allow the terms of the debate to be dictated by people with no interest in the House or who have a particular agenda to pursue.
As Senator Paul Bradford said, political reform must move beyond the abolition of this House. Unless we reform the culture of our politics, I do not believe any reform of our structures will be different. As politicians, we all have to take personal responsibility for all our personal utterances and political acts in this regard. If a proposal to abolish the Dáil were to be put to the people tomorrow, it would have the same chance of being passed. There is a level of cynicism about politicians. As politicians, we have not always covered ourselves in glory over the years.
Perhaps we need to look at ourselves before we start criticising our critics. Perhaps we could be genuine and generous enough to say that our critics might well have a point.
There is much wrong with the House. The matter of its election is probably the one that we hear most about. Of course, a restricted electorate in the manner of which we have is something that needs to be looked at and the franchise needs to be widened.
The lack of a clearly defined role for this House is probably where the real problem lies. Nobody seems to be terribly sure how this House is differentiated from the other House and what its role is.
Senator Keane pointed to the major flaw and problem in the working of this House, namely, the party Whip system. There are times here - we must be honest - when we follow the party Whip against matters in which we believe. I refer not only to myself and my colleagues on this side of the House, but to those on the other side of the House. We find ourselves arguing a point the opposite of which we believe and it certainly needs to be looked at. That is not to say that any one of us here is dishonest in his or her arguments. It is the system that is in place and must be worked. We must decide among ourselves whether we want to remain within the party Whip where we could achieve some things or put ourselves outside of that where, perhaps, as party politicians, we might not be able to achieve anything. That is the balance we must achieve. The party Whip system is what is wrong.
It has been said that this House is a talking shop. Senator Bradford mentioned that as well. Talking shops are sometimes good. When I look around at some of my colleagues - I will not mention anyone in particular - I see that there are public academics in this House. As to whether they are wasting their time, maybe it is a talking shop for myself and maybe I am the waffler, God knows I have often been accused of it. There are many here who put a great deal of genuine hard work into their contributions and take the job seriously. I wonder, if this is merely a talking shop, and a needless one at that, would 60 people spend so much time trying as hard as they possibly can.
Some of the jobs that could be assigned to a reformed Seanad are interesting. On the scrutiny of EU legislation, it is beyond argument that such is required. There is also an argument about two matters - scrutiny of legislation and oversight of legislation. I would see both of those matters as being very different. Perhaps the oversight of legislation is where the confusion arises in that modern legislation is proposed by politicians, it is looked at in the other House, it is looked at in committee and by the time legislation, particularly that initiated in the Dáil, arrives at this House, it is well and truly looked at. If we were to look at this to find structural flaws in legislation, which is what I would think is the oversight of legislation, we would probably not find it. Maybe there is a need to review how we do that.
The scrutiny of legislation is something quite different. In scrutinising legislation we try to ascertain here with the sponsoring Minister whether the legislation he or she brings before the House gives expression to the intention of the Minister. It is an important function. The other House does not do it. The other House breaks down on partisan lines. Here there is a real opportunity to bring the Minister in in a non-confrontational way - God knows, it does not always happen. We should be looking to do this and to try to tease out with the Minister whether the intent matches the words written in the legislation. That is an important function.
There are other functions as well. I mentioned the role of public academics. The country is not over-endowed with academics but the Seanad is a good platform for such persons.
If we were to take a look at medium to long-term policy in this House in a meaningful way, I wonder whether the real difficulties that we face would have arisen if former Seanaid were doing that job. I am not saying they were remiss in not doing it. I will mention one Senator, although it is not correct to do so. If a person such as Senator Barrett, a highly respected academic in the field of economics and finance, were here, would he be able to do something that I, without the expertise that he has built up, would not be able to do, namely, hold Ministers to account in a real and meaningful manner? I apologise to Senator Barrett for singling him out but he would take the point.
We had a debate in the House before the summer recess dealing with rare diseases. Rare diseases, by their nature, affect very few, yet the Visitors Gallery was full of such people and their families. It was a platform. The Seanad gave a platform where there is no other platform available for those whose voices are seldom heard. That is a good example of where the Seanad does valuable work.
Like other Senators, I could talk all day. I know I will not be in the next Seanad. It is a cynical view to say that all of this discussion about the Seanad is self-serving. Like I said, I will not be in the next Seanad and, if there is such a Seanad, most Senators here will not be. It is ungenerous at least to accuse us of being self-serving. We will be discussing this on a considerable number of occasions again and I will have much more to say about it. I thank the authors of the document for giving us the opportunity to do so.
I am looking for a demotion to the Lower House.
I commend all of the Senators who were part of formulating this important document that will act as a conduit for debate on the future of the Seanad. I thank all of those former Senators and individuals who took the time to be part of that consultation process. It is an important piece of work that should be supported. I do not agree with everything in the document. My party does not agree with everything that is in it but it is certainly a positive and constructive template for discussion and debate.
The Leader spoke about the empty seats in the Seanad. If we are honest, the empty seats in the Dáil are also an issue.
-----one of the matters on which they comment is the fact that the Dáil, when important debates are taking place, is often empty, and that is not an issue that is peculiar to the Seanad.
We must look at a number of matters in looking at the future of the Seanad. There have been many position papers put forward in the past by individuals, political parties and organisations. Many consultation processes took place - one here under the stewardship of then Leader of the Seanad, Mary O'Rourke. I took part in one of those representing Sinn Féin when I was a city councillor. The establishment and various different political parties in power never implemented any of those proposals and that is why we see those same parties who were in government in the past simply going for the abolition option when they never looked at implementing any of the proposals put forward, both by Senators and individuals, to make the Seanad more relevant.
There are a number of critical issues if we want to succeed in having a second Chamber. The first is it should be smaller. Sixty Members is too many. I would favour something like 32 Senators, one for each county in Ireland. Perhaps more Senators could represent the Irish Diaspora, but 60 is too many.
The Seanad must be relevant which means it must have a clear purpose. We should not make any apologies for having a role in shaping legislation. That is important. We need to offer checks and balances against the Dáil.
Part of the problem, which also is not peculiar to the Seanad, is our system of governance where the Executive essentially controls legislation. Many will argue that one can table amendments and those amendments are not accepted, but how many Opposition amendments in the Dáil are accepted? It is not any different in the Dáil. It is exactly the same.
We have similar debates to those in the Dáil. Often it is said that the quality of debate can be better in the Seanad. The problem is not necessarily the lack of power the Seanad has in terms of legislation. The problem is that the Executive has far too much power and if one looks at other models in Europe and across the world, that is not the case.
If the Seanad is to have any relevance, people must have an affinity, have ownership and be able to vote for those who sit in these Chambers. Meaning no disrespect to anybody who has been appointed, I do not like any system where people are appointed to positions where they can make decisions. There are excellent Senators who were appointed, but that should have no place in any reformed Seanad. I also do not believe that Senators should be elected through the university panels. They should be elected by those across the State on the basis of one person, one vote, through panels, or a list system.
Talking shops in and of themselves are not a good thing and I would be very critical of, for example, the health forums. They are a good example of a talking shop where politicians do not have the power to hold decision makers in the health service to account. We have powers in this House, particularly with regard to scrutinising legislation but sometimes it is also important to create space for debate. We have had a lot of good debates in this House, where Ministers were not here to discuss a particular motion but were here to tease out issues which are important. It does not always have to be about amendments and legislation. We can have as much legislation as we want - some argue that we have too much - but it is an important part of any democracy that we create space to have proper informed debate, where statements can be made, people can offer views and from that process, legislation can flow. We should not make any apologies for that being part of what this House does.
It will be up to the people to decide on the future of the Seanad and a referendum should go ahead. I do not like the fact that there are only two options, namely, "Yes" or "No". That is a mistake. Many position papers, policy documents, ideas and suggestions on the Seanad have been put forward in the past, including the one we are discussing today. We have a constitutional convention which is examining the future of the Constitution and the fact that the Seanad is not being discussed in that forum is absolutely nonsensical. Imagine if members of the convention had the opportunity to discuss all of this. The fact that this referendum is happening because of the capriciousness, or stubbornness, of the Taoiseach is wrong. The constitutional convention would have been the best forum to tease this out and then have a referendum. Obviously, the Government did not go with that option and we will have a referendum. My party will not be supporting any referendum which seeks the abolition of the Seanad. We will fight for a reformed, democratic Seanad that is relevant and that can act as a check and balance against the Dáil. Despite the fact that it may be unpopular, it is the right thing to do because we need to make sure that in the current economic downturn, one of the institutions of this State, one of the arms of the Oireachtas, is not simply severed at the whim of one politician or a group of politicians. That is not political reform and those who believe it is are kidding themselves. That strong argument will be made by my party during the course of any referendum campaign.
I welcome this debate and thank Senators Quinn and Zappone and others who were involved for their hospitality last Friday. I was delighted to go along, as a newer and younger Member, and meet so many former Senators who are still so interested in the Seanad as an institution and to hear their words of wisdom.
There is no doubt that the Seanad is at a pivotal time. It can either become a more relevant institution by proposing new ideas, representing other voices and showing why Ireland needs a second Chamber, or it can go into the referendum facing a near certain fate. In short, it can either reform or die. The suggestions in the document we are discussing are extremely useful and it puts the debate on the agenda.
I wish to focus on a number of problems with the Seanad in its current form, one of which is the whip system. There is nothing wrong with the person who acts as Whip but the system itself does not make any sense. If one goes back to why the Seanad was created, the idea was that it would be a checks and balance system for the Lower House. The one fundamental change we could make would be to abolish the whip system. That would radically reform the entire body politic. As others have said, the electoral system for this House is also a serious weakness.
The cost argument is a crude one. I know we are in very difficult times and are having to make cuts in areas like disability services, but Mr. Michael McDowell gave some very useful examples of cost comparisons that can be made and Senator Bradford has already mentioned the cost of advisors. There are all sorts of things that we spend money on in this state and the Seanad is a really easy target. I am sure there are plenty of people who would be prepared to be Senators and only accept expenses if it came down to the cost. The cost argument is quite weak although because it is populist, it is quite effective.
In terms of the things that are wrong, the body politic itself has damaged the Seanad. As Senator Keane pointed out, it was always seen as a crèche or a retirement home and the belief was that Senators were only here because they really wanted to be somewhere else. The entire body politic is at fault. Even Senator Cullinane, whom I respect, has said that he does not intend to be here after the next election but in the Lower House. That type of thinking is, unfortunately, why the Seanad is where it is today. Less respect has been shown to it as an institution because Members would rather be elsewhere, for reasons that others have alluded to, chiefly because the power rests in the Lower House.
When thinking about Seanad reform, we must frame it in context. We are absolutely certain that it will face a referendum. Senator Keane has alluded to a preferendum but I understand, although I am open to correction, that a preferendum is not currently possible under the Constitution. Therefore, it must be either a "Yes" or "No" option. There is no possibility of a preferendum, which is unfortunate, because that would show us what people think on the matter. To even introduce the notion of anything else is a red herring. There will be no reform option in the referendum. As such, we need to frame the issue of reform as something that will be promised in the referendum and introduced either before or immediately thereafter. This reframing of context needs to happen very soon which is why this discussion and the document before us are very useful.
Seanad reform is necessary, especially regarding the electoral system. As colleagues have said, under a reformed electoral system, it is unlikely that many of us here today would be sitting in this Chamber, but that is okay. As Senator Gilroy said, I do not expect to be in a reformed Seanad. It has been suggested that the very fact that we are here, speaking for our jobs, is cynical. Perhaps some people are here only in an effort to save their own position but the vast majority of us see the value of this Chamber.
I wish to cite one instance that highlights how effective the Seanad could have been in the past. In 2008, a discussion took place on the Credit Institutions (Financial Support) Act. The then Senator Frances Fitzgerald said "...it is not possible, unfortunately, to amend this legislation... in the Seanad and we are merely debating and giving our point of view on it here today." That line of thinking is so familiar to me and it still seems to be the case. Senator Fitzgerald went on to say "We consider a question and answer session on this matter to be very important...", but such a session never came in the desired format. This was unfortunate and many would now reflect that the Seanad could have had a vital role in questioning and scrutinising that Act. During the subsequent statements session, many prescient comments relating to the cost of the scheme and the number of Government members on the board were made. I cannot help but wonder now whether, if we had had a reformed Seanad then, with more powers, teeth and responsibility, we could have arrived at a different outcome on this matter and many other important issues.
I welcome this debate and compliment the authors of the document, which is very useful. I do not agree with all of it and some of it is vague.
The best part is the last, which is very clear, direct and specific on the issue of costs and nails the lie that there would be significant savings to the Exchequer. This information comes from an independent source, namely, the Clerk of the Dáil, Mr. Kieran Coughlan. We now know that the estimate of ¤150 million is grossly inflated, but even if it was accurate, it would be a drop in the ocean compared to the nonsense of bailing out the banks. I was one of the voices in this House who spoke against the bailout and gave the reasons and figures behind my argument. I was right, but what we said was not reported. I recall several dramatic occasions in this House, including one morning at 3 a.m. when former Senator Joe O?Toole and I managed to have inserted significant amendments into the legislation on NAMA to make it accountable to the people through the Oireachtas, but there was no coverage. That is a tragedy.
It is not all one way because there are also faults on this side. If this is a debating Chamber, we need an audience, for which we require the co-operation of the media. I do not wish to trash or attack the media, but in a democracy we need coverage. There must be an end to the pap and nonsense about empty benches. Intelligent Irish taxpayers would know they were being cheated if this place was full throughout the entire session because we would not be doing our other work. Everybody knows we have television monitors, but it is a cheap and easy shot. It is stupid. I spent this morning at the annual conference of the International Bar Association, at which I addressed practitioners of law as a legislator. I was able to speak about some of our achievements which were of interest to members of the association. When I returned to Leinster House, I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. So what if my seat was empty, except when I spoke on the children?s right referendum? I often work between 16 and 18 hours a day. Would I really be working if I was sitting in the Chamber? I do not think so. Even somebody of limited intelligence would be able to see that. Therefore, let us nail that lie.
I have an affection for this place. It is a beautiful environment and this august Chamber represents what the country can do. It can give us hope. The magnificent 18th century ceiling is the handiwork of Michael Stapleton, but when I first came here, the Chamber was closed because the central section had started to collapse. During tours people would remark about the great talent and wonderful work on exhibit and lament that crafts people could no longer do similar work. They can, however. The ceiling was replaced within the last 20 years by young Irish crafts people, which gives me hope. We can use the Seanad to give hope to young people.
There were occasions in this House when we did not agree. Social progress would have been seriously inhibited in this country without the existence of Seanad Éireann. When the HIV pandemic was starting 20 years ago, the Dáil would not touch the matter with a barge pole, but we held a magnificent debate on it after a briefing given to us in Buswell?s Hotel by a priest and a doctor. They were unimpeachable people. All the silliness was drained from the subject and we had a debate of which we could be proud. I spoke about civil partnership legislation during my address to the International Bar Association. That legislation was initiated in this House. It would not have been introduced as rapidly or as well without the debates we started ten years ago. I was proud to be a Member of this House on the day the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabiting Couples Bill 2012 was passed. I would not have had a chance of getting elected to anything in this country 25 years ago, other than Seanad Éireann. Now I might have a chance of being elected to something. That diversity is important, as we need to provide a range of voices.
The amputation of one arm of democracy would be a dangerous step. I do not impugn anybody?s motives, but the coalition has a full house in the county councils, the Seanad, the Dáil and the Presidency. The President is a man of extraordinary brilliance and independence of mind and fulfils his role wonderfully, but he came through the party system. Every single lever of power is dominated by the party system, but dissenting voices can be heard in this Chamber in which one can hear debates on issues of significance. The electoral process is flawed. Everybody in this House was properly elected under the Constitution drafted by Mr. de Valera who made the mistake of abolishing the Seanad in 1936 and had to restore it one year later. Let us not waste that time. We need to consider reform, but we must be careful about being too populist. For the past 25 years I have argued that the university Senators? process has worked reasonably well, partly because of the process whereby the nominating body confers on the ordinary membership the right to vote. Some wonderful groups act as nominating bodies, but they lack the power to vote. That needs to be examined, but we also need to ensure the voting body is not so large that it becomes unmanageable and impossible.
We are all serious about Seanad reform. However, we were never serious about it in the past. Time after time I sat on committees which made recommendations that received all-party agreement - I have tabled some of these proposals, perhaps mischievously ? but they were voted down by the incumbent Government. That is a shame, but we have woken up and smelled the coffee. We can do a good job of introducing real reform to an essential part of our democracy.
I commend the Leader for arranging this debate so speedily and thank Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, with Mr. Michael McDowell, Mr. Noel Whelan and former Senator Joe O'Toole, for preparing this document. I am not sure about the timeliness of this debate, as it may be somewhat premature. However, that opinion may not be shared. I do not agree with everything contained in the report, but I welcome it as a serious effort. The debate may be premature because the country is facing difficulties and we will be taking over the Presidency of the European Union during the first half of next year. Perhaps this debate would be better held in one year's time, but nonetheless I welcome public discussion on the matter. I do not want to agree with some contributors who spoke earlier, but there are people in society who are more important than us. Rightly or wrongly, we are seen as having a vested interest and, to be frank, we do. I do not know of a single Senator or of many in the other House who would vote in favour of abolition of the Seanad in a secret ballot.
I welcome what has happened in the Seanad by way of the public consultation committee, question and answer sessions with Ministers and the other means through which we are trying to give communities a say. We have backed the Leader in the Committee on Procedure and Privileges on the scrutiny of European affairs. The volume of European legislation and directives being transposed into Irish law is considerable and we have to deal with the issues arising in the short-term without duplication of efforts or encroaching on the work of other Oireachtas committees. However, there is still plenty to be done. We have often raised the question of scrutinising senior public servants and appointments to State boards. The Seanad, like a certain other famous institution in another country, could do an admirable job in that regard.
Checks and balances are important, as are second opinions.
Across the floor is the distinguished consultant who, I am sure, would concur on the need to obtain a second opinion, which is needed in all walks of life and the provision of which has been one of the values of the Seanad which, as we would all agree, is a more reflective and less partisan Chamber and, on balance, has been more objective. On the legislation it has to deal with, it has performed its function very well. I think of the Leas-Chathaoirlech and all the efforts he has made, as well as those of all other Members. I admire the work done by all Members in dealing with legislation. This Seanad has seen improvements. The Leader has had more Bills initiated in this House and continues to work in that regard with the support of all Members. In regard to the constitutional requirement on the scrutinising of legislation, the Seanad has performed well, as we saw today and yesterday in the debate on the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012.
The eminent senior counsel, former Attorney General and Minister, Mr. Michael McDowell, has been referred to by others. I admired his input in this House and conversion in regard to its role. He had some famous jousts with many Members, not least Senator Maurice Cummins who was our spokesman on justice when in opposition. He spent many hours in the House arguing with him which, perhaps, helped to change his mind. Abolition of itself, as Mr. McDowell has said, would leave the Constitution a mutilated wreck. He has outlined that it would require 75 amendments to the Constitution and the deletion of entire articles, many of which contain some very important safeguards. Would the public like to see these safeguards being swept away?
These are important matters to be referred to in the debate. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach is well aware, given his legal background, the President may only be impeached by both Houses; the same applies to a judge. The Comptroller and Auditor General who is accountable to the Dáil, through the Committee of Public Accounts, cannot be removed without the say-so of this House. Article 29 provides for the prior approval of the Seanad for EU proposals for enhanced co-operation and the opting out by Ireland from EU measures on freedom, security and justice issues. The House has to be involved in dealing with these issues. Likewise, the Government's capacity to retain the requirement for unanimity on European Union matters requires the prior approval of the Seanad. These are all vitally important checks and balances.
Other than what I have said, I am not taking a position. I am not sure if any Member would vote for abolition. I am sure there will be more time for debate, as these are early days. I commend the efforts of our two colleagues and those with whom they collaborated in compiling this document. I look forward to listening to the public debate that will take place on the issue.
Tá an-áthas orm go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ag tarlú. Tá an-áthas orm freisin go bhfuil an cháipéis seo os ár gcomhair agus molaim na daoine a bhí i mbun na hoibre chun na cáipéise seo a thabhairt dúinn. Táim lánchinnte go gcabhróidh sí leis an díospóireacht ginearálta.
I welcome the document presented and compliment those responsible for it who, in their own right, are noted for their reforming and campaigning zeal. They have done not only the Seanad but also the nation a service by endeavouring to correct the deficit in the debate. There is a deficit because of the manner in which the bombshell was dropped in the middle of an election campaign, at a time when there was anger. I have no doubt that if the question of the abolition of the Dáil had been raised in the middle of that campaign, the response would have been the same. What is happening is reminiscent of the Republican Party convention in America. The film star Clint Eastwood was extolling the virtues of a prospective Republican candidate for the presidential election and continued to speak to an empty chair as if President Obama was sitting in it. I am not Clint Eastwood, but there is an empty chair in this Chamber today.
That would be real democracy in action. In recent years much lip service has been paid to the issue of reform. This document is not a knee-jerk reaction. Anybody who has read it from cover to cover will agree that its authors and the consultants have undertaken an indepth analysis of the issues involved. Does a House of Parliament and its possible abolition not deserve analysis and to have the facts put into the public domain? When the Clerk of the Dáil appeared before an Oireachtas committee, he made it clear that the cost of the Seanad was ¤10 million. Some would say it costs only ¤7 million. So far as the public is concerned, in the ether there are figures such as ¤20 million and ¤150 million floating around. That is not the way to conduct a debate, as one is not being fair to the people because one is not giving them the information they need with which to make a decision. I would regard it as an exceptionally serious decision to abolish the House which is noted for its forensic examination of every piece of legislation. It is noted for the minimal level of partisanship and the lack of personality politics as witnessed day in and day out in the other House. Does the public know that almost 30% of legislation is initiated in this House? If it does not, the question arises is this because we are not effective as legislators or that the media have not given us the opportunity to let the public know precisely what happens in the House.
Returning to the empty chair, we are speaking to ourselves. The saddest point is that subsequent to the people's response in the referendum we might all realise that we had something in place that we could have moulded and reformed. For as long as I have been a Member, including during the peace process, we have kept using a megaphone to speak to people in Northern Ireland. We have an opportunity to bring them into the House. On any report on which I have the opportunity to make a contribution I will make that point. I could list ten issues that cause consternation arising from European Union legislation, the bog issue being one. There is also the requirement that one must register one's hens, that one must change one's kitchen if one wants to make scones and sell them in shops. All of these requirements arise from EU directives. This House could have played a role in that regard. We will have one opportunity to leave party politics to one side and, on behalf of the nation, not just those living on the island of Ireland but the 70 million people of Irish extraction who want to become part of the electoral process, provide for representation. I do not see that happening, however, except through providing for representation for them in the Seanad.
This is an historic debate and I express my thanks to Senators Zappone and Quinn and the other Senators who have taken a constructive approach to it. I still hope that if there is a referendum that the next section is included in order to give people the opportunity that they are entitled to and not to answer a simple "Yes" or "No" question. People are discerning so one should not underestimate their intelligence. One must include reform as an option. It is only then that we will be truly democratic and truly endeavouring to reflect the wishes of the people. I still hope - perhaps I am wrong - that it will happen and that the Cathaoirleach's chair will not always be empty in the future.
I must declare an interest. When I ran for what has been my one and I suspect only election for Seanad Éireann last year I stated near the beginning of my campaign leaflet that one of my agenda items was the reform or abolition of the currently undemocratic Seanad. That is why I welcome the debate and, unlike Senator Paul Coghlan, I do not think it is premature. The prematurity is, if one wishes to hear a second opinion from this side of the House-----
The prematurity is predicated on the assumption that we are having a debate because of an imminent referendum that could lead to its abolition. That is the wrong way to look at it. The debate is not premature but post-mature and overdue. We have had a ten-month pregnancy. The discussion should have taken place on many occasions and now that it is, we are left vulnerable to the accusation of discussing reform when it is too late and know that we are on the way out. It is a reform that would be somewhat akin to somebody in the criminal justice system examining his soul and heart and then deciding to reform his evil ways and promising to be better in the future. That is after he had been tried, convicted, found guilty, sentenced to death, had his last meal and was walking to the execution chamber. Contrition is a bit late at that stage. We need to reform the whole process of government.
Earlier it was said that neither the Seanad nor the Dáil is responsible for the mess that we are in but I disagree. We are citizens who must now live with the consequences of the greatest failure of democracy and administrative political oversight in the history of the State. The bankers and builders behaved wrongly and unethically but rationally. A system was in place whereby bankers and builders could make short-term profits by exploiting an irregularity environment that allowed them to do it and they did what made sense to them at the time. The real failure was in the process of government. We had regulators who were supposed to be expert enough to ensure that we had the right rules and regulations in place. We should have had politicians in place who were expert enough to provide the democratic oversight over the way the society and its economy was being run.
While the Seanad was asleep at the tiller the approximate cause for the failure of the country was the Government and the Dáil. I am not being party specific in my accusation. If there had been a change in party personnel it may well have happened just as badly. Why? We had an inexpert Government with technically inexpert Ministers who were locked in a perpetually dysfunctional relationship with permanent bureaucratic civil servants. It was too easy for people to run rings around them. We had a Dáil that was composed of fine people and good public representatives who were primarily focused on issues that related to their constituencies. I am afraid, and I will not use any of the clichés that have been trotted out, that all too often the Seanad seemed to be like a fantasy football equivalent of Dáil Éireann where Senators talked about imaginary constituencies and fantasy Dáil encounters.
We need to reform the entire process of government. We need a system that allows us to have highly technical, competent and democratically answerable people in the great ministries of State. I have made the following example before and I shall make it again. When President Obama realised that one of the great existential issues facing our species is energy policy he appointed a Nobel prize winning physicist as his Secretary of Energy. We cannot do that. The pool that we have to draw from is of people whose principal skillset has been negotiating a constituency organisation and getting near the top of the ballot paper in their local constituency in the Dáil election.
We have had a Seanad that could have behaved not better but differently. I would love us to see fundamental constitutional reform in this country. I would love us to have an Executive where a Taoiseach could appoint the best people to his or her ministries. I would love us to have a powerful Lower House focused on national and not parochial issues. I would also love us to have a second House or Seanad that provided a regional link between people and the central processes of government but one completely and exclusively based on democratic franchise.
This is all a fantasy because it is not what we are going to get. One of two things will happen. We will have a referendum to abolish the Seanad or we will not. The only matter that will determine that - with no disrespect to the Taoiseach - is a political calculation where an amount of political capital will or will not be carefully spent in the years running up to the next general election by having a referendum which may or may not be won. I truly believe that. If we have the referendum it will not be a "preferendum". It will not be a referendum based on the refined document thoughtfully put together by the kind of coalition which could never have occurred in Dáil Éireann but in this House. We will have a "Yes" or "No" to abolish the Seanad type of referendum. That is not the fantasy but the reality. Sadly, if we are confronted with that choice, and no other choice, I will find myself hard pressed to defend the retention of the current Seanad. I mean no disrespect to the honest efforts of many Senators who come here and behave well in the national interest. As currently constituted a "Yes" or "No" referendum is hard to defend.
I shall finish on one last point on cost that was alluded to. When the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, sat in the House he told us that one of the reasons for abolishing the Seanad was to free up money for the committee system in Leinster House. It was not to free up money for cancer drugs, special needs assistants, teachers, nurses or gardaí. It was just going to move money from one administrative slot to another and that does not constitute a cost saving.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for this rather unexpected opportunity.
Like everybody else I commend our colleagues, both inside and outside the House, for compiling the report, particularly Senators Zappone and Quinn. I am concerned that a group of Senators presenting a case for the retention of the Seanad would not necessarily play well with the general public. I would like to see a wider cohort of people in civil society. I am praying that a bunch of former attorneys general will come together at short notice as they did on a previous occasion to scupper a Government proposed referendum by putting forward a cogent argument. We already have one former Attorney General in our group and I would like to see more of civil society engaging. That is my main concern.
It has been pointed out that we cannot have options in a proposed referendum and that will make it exceptionally difficult. The public are not necessarily apathetic towards the House but they have no empathy for it. They do not understand it. They do not get any information on how it functions. Media coverage of it - Senator Norris has detailed it rather well - is usually negative. If one cannot empathise with something or understand it then one does not care what happens to it. Politicians are viewed with a somewhat jaundiced eye at present. One only has to witness the unfortunate scenes that took place near the home town of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government last weekend. It brought home to people the low estimation that the general public reserve for politicians. If a referendum is proposed in the current climate of austerity and economic deprivation, and presented as a cost-saving measure with no consequence for society or democracy, then I am fearful of the outcome.
Having said that there is a case to be made. One saving grace is that if and when the referendum is put before the people, there will be a necessity for a referendum commission that is mandated by law to ensure that people are given both sides of the argument. It will be an independently-based argument to justify the retention of the Seanad. All is not lost. It goes without saying that we all favour reform. We are cluttered with-----
The Senator will have three minutes remaining when we resume. Before we conclude, I know the game may be up for the Seanad, but before we went into injury time, we had 27 minutes of overplay from people who did not respect the six-minute slot. That time would have allowed another four speakers to contribute. We are in injury time in more ways than one, but I appreciate the Leader has agreed to roll over the debate until next week in order that everybody who wants to speak on the issue will have an opportunity.