Wednesday, 3 July 2013
An Bille um an Dara Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Deireadh a Chur le Seanad Éireann) 2013: An Dara Céim (Atógáil) - Thirty-second Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
Atógadh an Díospóireacht ar leasú a 1: Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:To delete all words after ''That'' and substitute the following: "the Bill be read a second time on 17 September, 2013, for the following reasons: (i) to request the Constitutional Convention to consider the constitutional role of the Seanad and to allow time for such consideration; (ii) to facilitate a consultation process with the Nominating Bodies and the Nominating Universities who have for more than 75 years fulfilled the constitutional role for Seanad General Elections as required by Article 18 of Bunreacht na hÉireann; (iii) to allow other interested parties to make submissions; and (iv) to have the views arising from these consultations and discussions available to the people as they prepare to vote in the Referendum." - (Senator Feargal Quinn).
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brian Hayes, to the House.
It is probably unusual as Leas-Chathaoirleach to welcome a Minister to the House for the debate we are having. That is how the business is ordered. Senator Eamonn Coghlan had finished speaking and now I call on Senator Mac Conghail.
The Minister of State is welcome back to the House. This is more like my old life as a runner. When I ran the Penn relays I was always the anchor man on the team and that is how it was last week, I was the anchor man but today I am the lead-off man.
It is a great honour for me and my family that I was nominated by the Taoiseach to the Seanad and I referred to the fact that most of the people I met in my new role in the Seanad over the past two years or so did not know how many Senators there are, how the Members of the Seanad were elected or the real function of the Seanad. Now they are being asked literally at the stroke of a pen to vote either "Yes", to retain the Seanad or "No", to abolish it or vice versa, whatever way it will be put, and I think that is a bit unfair. I did, however, allude to the fact that I support this Bill and I support the fact that the Government wants to deliver the biggest reform in politics and public service in the history of the State but I am not sure that abolishing the Seanad is the way to go to reduce the number of politicians in government.
If the people do decide to keep the Seanad, does the Government have a plan B in place to reform either the Seanad or the Dáil?
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, agus fearaim fáilte romhat chuig an Seanad a Aire Stáit áit go bhfuil aithne mhaith agat air, do shean Teach. It has been a great honour and a privilege for me, as director of the Abbey Theatre, to have been nominated by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to Seanad Éireann. It has been an enormous privilege and a responsibility. Every day that I attend the Chamber I am aware of the historical connection and the constitutional obligation of my role in a constituent part of the Oireachtas. The fact also that I was nominated by An Taoiseach has given the Abbey Theatre and the arts community an endorsement, a recognition and a part to play in our parliamentary democracy. My role as a Senator has been to give voice to debates on legislation and topical issues from the point of view of my experience and my position as theatre person and an activist within the arts community. In other words, when I felt competent to speak or to vote on an issue, I did so, within the context of my background and vocational experience.
I have no particular mandate as such; I was not elected nor have I contested any election to any position within the Oireachtas. I do strongly believe, however, that the arts community should be represented in an upper chamber. This has rarely been achieved with the existing so-called cultural panel as a part of the Senate's obtuse election system. There are exceptions and my esteemed colleague, Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, is one and of course among my predecessors, W.B. Yeats, Oliver St. John Gogarty, the late Éamon de Buitléir and Brian Friel, to name but a few.
Whatever about the technical specifics of the bicameral model with regards to constituencies and elections, if we advocate a two-tier parliamentary democracy, then the idea is that they both together should broadly reflect Irish civil society. In other words, the Upper and Lower Houses should not duplicate or look alike and should between both of them, and the Office of the Presidency, encourage a greater relationship of trust, connectedness and inclusivity between our parliamentary democracy and our fellow citizens. An electorate of fewer than 1,000 people electing 43 Senators is not that. My personal and philosophical challenge is that I do believe in bicameralism but not in the Seanad, and in the particular way it is constituted. To quote Professor Michael Laver "once the subject is put on the table it is hard to construct a principled argument in favour of retaining Seanad Éireann in its current form". That is what has been asked of us in voting on the 32nd amendment of the Constitution, abolition or retention.
I graduated from Trinity College, as did the Minister of State, with a degree in political science and, therefore, I have had the privilege of being able to cast my vote in the Trinity constituency of Seanad Éireann. During the Second Stage debate on the 32nd amendment of the Constitution Bill there has been a discussion about the benefits of a bicameral system. In other words, is it necessary to have a second chamber in our parliamentary democracy or is it just an old-fashioned nineteenth century mode of empowering the elite of the nation? I am a member of an elite class, whether I like it or not, a nominated Senator and a vote in Seanad Éireann as a Trinity graduate.
There is no universal suffrage for the election to the Seanad, a voting right which the overwhelming majority of our Republic is denied. The mode of election is anachronistic and byzantine. The constitutional and emotional connection between citizens of this Republic and the Seanad is limited, non-existent or at best peripheral. What this amendment to the Constitution proposes, for the first time, is to provide everyone who is eligible to vote an opportunity to offer an opinion on the Seanad. This is the closest they will have got to a connection to Seanad Éireann.
We have been asked in this Chamber to support or oppose this Bill as a way of endorsing the political reform agenda of the Government. It is a conundrum that I am grappling with because we are not voting in a vacuum and we are asked to take other proposals, such as reform of the Dáil and committees on trust or on the nod. I do not see any reform of the other two constituent parts of the Houses of the Oireachtas in this Bill. When I consider political reform, I do not think of saving money; I do not think of too many politicians; I do not think of Friday sittings. When I consider strengthening our parliamentary democracy, I think of the two objectives, namely, trust and participation. The Taoiseach described the abolition of the Seanad as modernising the political system. I respectfully disagree with him. Modernising our political system is about increasing the level of trust between our citizens and our system of democracy.
It is about changing the political culture of our Republic.
Modernising our political system is about a deeper engagement between our fellow citizens and the Oireachtas, other than just voting every four to five years. Modernising our political system is about enabling a greater accountability and transparency at local and national level. I agree with an Taoiseach that the Seanad does not work and, in truth, probably never has. In fact, in a bizarre way an Taoiseach has clearly contributed to the wider debate about the nature of our parliamentary democracy by proposing the abolition of the Seanad.
What concerns me, however, is that if the Seanad is abolished, what is left? If the Seanad is abolished in October, the Government's intention is to strengthen the Dáil through better working procedures, more committees with better organised and greater scrutiny of legislation. We are being asked to abolish the Seanad in a referendum on the basis of some procedural changes that will not be enshrined in the Constitution. The crux of the argument is what Professor David Farrell describes as “the serious power imbalance between legislature and government”.
What the Government is proposing is so much change and yet so little reform. If we decide to abolish the Seanad, can we trust the Government to give more power to the 158 Deputies of the next Dáil, decentralise power from the Cabinet and provide adequate space and time to legislate? I am not sure whether abolishing the Seanad achieves that. Reducing the number of politicians would be more a populist than a reforming move. I would not be in favour of reducing the number of Deputies if effective local and parliamentary reform were in place. Comparative analysis indicates that, as it stands, the Dáil is just about the right size for our population. According to the influential cube root rule set out by political scientists Taagepera and Shugart, with a population of 4.59 million, our Dáil should have 166 Deputies, not the 158 proposed for the next election.
In my two years as a Senator, I have noticed and come to recognise some traits and observations which I would like to comment on. I am doing this in light of the debate on reform and the fact that there are two Seanad reform Bills on the Order Paper, one of which was introduced by my colleague Senator Zappone. There is no doubt that every individual Senator whom I have come to know and work with in this Chamber has reform at heart and cares deeply about the future of the Upper House. There is always talk of reform and how to do our business better, no more so than from the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins. I congratulate him on his eloquent and elegant defence of the Seanad during this debate. However, the elephant in the reform room is not the Seanad nor the Dáil but the Cabinet. The Government controls the agenda of the Dáil and the Seanad. The Seanad gets choked and starved of legislative business and is dependent on the goodwill of certain Ministers to show up in this Chamber. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, has expressed that goodwill constantly and consistently. The Leader has toiled hard for the Seanad to remain relevant not only to the public but to his Government. The Seanad is under pressure to sit as many days as possible to justify its existence and our salaries. That is a dysfunctional, negative and ultimately soul-destroying motivation.
Collectively, it is impossible to reform the Seanad. I can imagine a reformed Upper House, sitting five days a month to do its business, debating important and topical issues, scrutinising, debating and amending legislation. An Upper Chamber does not need any more power but needs clarity, diversity, less power of political groupings, no Whip and fewer sitting days. I would also curtail the theatrics of the Order of Business.
I have witnessed and participated in excellent debates in the House. I am not questioning quality, just quantity. In the report on Seanad reform issued by the Seanad Éireann Committee on Procedure and Privileges in 2004, one single sentence stands out in lights: "It has no distinctive role in the Irish political system". This is what Senators collectively accepted. What we have in our democracy is an increasingly disenchanted and disenfranchised citizenry with no power, connection or participation at local government level. On the other side, there is a highly centralised, presidential-style government which is not de factoaccountable to the Dáil. In a backwater the Seanad has languished for 90 years.
Surely an Taoiseach and the Government must approach political reform holistically so that we can improve the political culture of our Republic. There is no joined-up strategic thinking. There are four roads being taken by the Government in devising its disconnected political reform plan. As the saying goes, when asking for directions in south Kerry, “Well, if you want to get there, I wouldn't be starting from here.” Elements of Oireachtas reform such as the President's term of office and electoral reform are being deliberated by the Constitutional Convention. That is one road. Another road is local government reform, which is driven by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, but this will not include real powers for revenue-raising or spending. A third road is Dáil reform, one that has not yet been built or delivered on in any meaningful way. This was alluded to by Deputy Charlie Flanagan, no less, chairperson of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party. The final byroad we are asked to venture down is Seanad abolition by way of constitutional amendment and this Bill. This is some Ordnance Survey map of political reform with no compass, no map and no idea. It is incoherent and confusing. I have no idea where we will finally end up.
The potential worth of the Seanad will only be at its highest the minute a Dáil with only 158 Deputies and no actual Dáil reform comes into existence. That is the challenge facing me today. There has been no appetite for Seanad reform from the only institution that can effect change - namely, successive Governments. So many reports, so little change. The major and possibly only current function of the Seanad is that it allows legislation time to breathe, to cool a little, as George Washington said of the role of an Upper House. Maybe the proposals put forward by an Taoiseach with regard to the reform of the committees would achieve this. My worry is whether this will actually happen. Yesterday, the Taoiseach promised a more serious look at reforming the Lower House. However, it has not been achieved yet.
I will not stand in the way of an Taoiseach's decision to put this amendment of the Constitution to the people. However, political reform is about increasing trust in our political institutions and encouraging greater participation in our parliamentary democracy that reflects and represents the pluralistic society of the Republic. This piecemeal, stuttering, incoherent political reform agenda does not invite confidence. My personal challenge is whether the abolition of the Seanad is the right question to be asking.
I recall when the Minister of State sat on this side of the House. He was particularly successful in holding the Government to account in those days and always researched his contributions exceptionally well. For those of us on the other side of the House, we always felt what he had to say was worthwhile, meaningful and responsible, and ensured that what we were doing for the citizens was right.
When I first decided to go forward for Seanad election, I believed I was doing so as a public service. I was not aware at the time that there was a salary or that it was as good as it was. At that time, it was not about salary; I just wanted to give public service. I felt the same of most of the other Senators I have met.
There are perceptions, contrived or otherwise, about the Seanad’s role that exist outside this House. The idea of abolishing the Seanad came right in the middle of an emotional general election campaign. It was dropped like a bombshell with no preparation or consultation. For anyone wanting to get rid of Seanad Éireann, the climate was right at that time to do so. The climate was also right for getting rid of Dáil Éireann. The people were angry and had every reason to be. The issues being raised during the general election campaign concerned every individual. There was fear in the land, fear for the future. People were suicidal at the way things were developing. Nothing really has changed. Those fears are still out there, by the way, with people feeling hurt, let down and not properly represented. The mood was that the people must be given a sacrificial offering from the political system. Seanad Éireann was selected to be just that. I do not believe any greater thought was given to the proposal. Unfortunately, we have not had a focused and constructive debate with a White Paper or Green Paper on the proposal.
I do not believe the abolition of a House of Parliament in the manner suggested at that time would have satisfied the people in the long term. Eventually, they would have seen it for what it was, and realised that Seanad Éireann was being treated as the sacrificial lamb.
Unfortunately, the approach taken at the time condemned the debate to cul-de-sac status. It is as simple as that. The debate has really been all over the place since then. I will give some examples. Incidentally, I have great admiration for the Taoiseach. He knows that I think he is genuine and sincere. I have to say that some of the arguments that were initially put forward, precisely because we did not have a focused debate, ensured this debate would be fragmented and inconclusive. At that time, we were asking people to vote on something without giving them all the background information on it. It is absolutely unreal to say this House did not stop the breakdown of the Celtic tiger.
What was happening in Dáil Éireann at exactly the same time? Why pick Seanad Éireann as an example when referring to institutions that failed to do their jobs? In fact, we did our job. On several occasions, I spoke from the Government benches on various issues in a way that would have seemed anti-Government. I adopted an independent line on many economic issues at that time. We need to be fair when it comes to the economy. I am no economist, but I know one basic concept when it comes to the economy. The economy is like a turning wheel. What is at the top does not stay there and what is at the bottom does not stay there. During the Celtic tiger years, the man in the street, the man in the pub and the woman in the street could tell it could not last. All of that was already out there. We tried to represent that in our contributions here.
Having brought that into the equation, the Taoiseach went on to suggest that we failed to reform this House when we do not have the authority or the right to do so. We participated in a reform process. I was very central to it on behalf of Fianna Fáil. Even now, I feel the paper we drew up at that time was worthwhile. It was radical in many ways. We were not just looking at where we were at that time. We were looking at what the potential was. I will mention one of the examples of that potential that we cited. We tend to forget the dreadful days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. During that period, many contributions on the Troubles were made in this House on the Order of Business every single morning.
Following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, when there was some light at the end of the tunnel, the Seanad had an opportunity to help to copperfasten what had been achieved. At that time, there was an opportunity for representatives from the Northern Ireland Assembly to come and address this House. In fairness, that would never happen with Dáil Éireann. We did not avail of that opportunity, but it is still there. I am sad because I feel we have taken our eye off the ball when it comes to Northern Ireland. There are still serious sectarian and other issues under the surface in the North of Ireland. We do not want to go back to the dark days. The only hope of dialogue we had involved this House and the Assembly in the North of Ireland.
How many people on the street are talking about the hundreds of directives that are coming from Europe? I know we have committees, but they are not being examined, in fairness. They are being accepted willy-nilly. We end up wondering where the change came from and what directive brought it about. This House is ideally placed to deal with those directives. As Senator Mac Conghail said, there are people in this House - professionals and others - who have huge expertise, experience and common sense. It is better to have people who have come through an electoral system than some kind of toothless think-tank of people, put together by the Government, who will do exactly what the Civil Service tells them to do. That is not the case here. We have people with expertise.
I cannot think of any better people to deal with all the directives from Europe than the Members of this House who have backgrounds in the arts, business and industry and who understand they are accountable to their own electorates. That continues to be the mandate that is required for democracy. It does not stand up to examination to suggest in some way that getting rid of the Seanad will make a major contribution to reform. It is quite clear that we have been lacking accountability in the past. In the past, there was a chance for accountability in this House. We were not just rubber-stamping legislation that came from the Dáil. A third of all legislation was initiated here. One of the most major pieces of legislation in the history of the State, the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000, was initiated in Seanad Éireann.
Why is the perception at odds with the reality? I think there are a number of reasons for that. Ministers in this Government, the last Government and every Government - I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, is different - do not really like the idea of coming in, sitting in the ministerial chair and being rigorously asked to account in minute detail for their handling of certain issues. That is one of the reasons there is a view out there that life could be made easier by getting rid of the Seanad. It does not fit in with what the public is being told, however, because what is being proposed involves the removal of accountability. I still believe this House has done an exceptionally good job with regard to accountability.
I would like to mention a second reason for the widespread perception which is at odds with the reality. There is nobody from the media in the Press Gallery at the moment. They are never there. They will come in if they think there is going to be a row or a fight. They have a holier-than-thou attitude. I ask them to leave aside the sensationalist issues and sit in this House - perhaps for the next four weeks - while we go through legislation and deal with the issues of the day. It is very easy to give a caricature of what a Senator is or to poke fun, but it might not be real or based on fact.
It seems we are prepared to sacrifice a House of Parliament rather than look at how we might improve it. An opportunity is being lost. Constitutional change is required if we are to do any meaningful and worthwhile reform. A single question - "to be or not to be" - will be asked in the referendum. It is as simple as that. We could easily have gone the whole hog while still giving the people their say. That is what we want to do. We are not trying to deny the people their say. We could have given them their say on the question of "to be or not to be" while going a step further and also asking them whether they would be happier about the Seanad if A, B and C were done to change the way it works.
It is a sad time for democracy. It is a sad time for the people because they have not been served well by the manner in which this has been handled. This referendum will not give a conclusive answer. It will leave a vacuum. I have not seen any plan B. The Taoiseach spoke about a kind of plan B - a second House that would not be elected, almost - but that seems to have been sidelined. I suggest it has been sidelined because it was not thought out. Similarly, his argument about the cost of the Seanad was not thought out. It was sidelined after we were told by officials that it was not costed. Those examples suggest the arguments we were given were not correct.
We find ourselves in this position because of a precipitative move that was made in the middle of a general election campaign. It is now up to the people. Our only hope at this stage is that the people will stop, reflect and think. They need to decide whether they are being well served, whether they are being given an offer that is worthwhile, whether the Seanad is being blamed for something it should not be blamed for and whether an opportunity to develop the Seanad in a meaningful and proper way is being missed.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, who I know to be a fair-minded man who takes an interest in debate in this House. Even at this late stage, I ask him to hear us out in a meaningful way and to convey our observations and concerns to Cabinet. It is not too late for a change of tack.
I admit that the Seanad is a stacked deck. It is a creature of the Government of the day. As constituted, it may not be fit for purpose. Not one Member or anyone else to whom I have spoken as part of the general discourse on the issue wishes to retain the Seanad as it is. The Seanad is over 90 years old. Any organisation which has been in existence that long is overdue for reform. All we are seeking is an opportunity for that to be considered. Senator Ó Murchú is correct to say that this policy was a whim and a flight of fancy in the heat of battle during a general election. It was not thought through. I suggest that not only was there no plan B, there was no plan A. No one knew what the game plan was at all. That is abundantly clear from the reasons which have been set out to promote the idea that the Seanad requires outright abolition. They ring hollow and are threadbare.
When the Taoiseach was here last week, I formed the view that his own heart was no longer in the idea. I am an admirer of the Taoiseach who is an honest and honourable man. I appeal to him, therefore, at this late stage to step back and provide us with the opportunity to have a referendum in due course. When he spoke to the House last week, he engaged in a pedestrian amble through the sections of the Bill. It was not convincing and he did not speak with any great conviction. I make these comments as an observation not a criticism. I do not think there is anyone at the Cabinet table who continues to believe this is a good idea which should be followed through at this juncture.
If people are genuinely interested in reform, why do they not bring forward reform ideas? The Government has it within its power to reform the Seanad. No one else has the power. In terms of a plan A or plan B, is the Government going to ignore the will of the people if they decide to oppose the referendum and to vote for the retention of the Seanad? Are we to believe the Government will ignore that decision and not then proceed to reform the Seanad? How absurd would that be? Perhaps, we will have a second Seanad referendum to get the Government the result it wants.
I direct the attention of the Minister of State to an opportunity Governments have had for 30 years. The proposal is the 32nd proposal to amend the Constitution. It is a monstrous one which will vandalise and dismantle many articles. The seventh amendment to the Constitution in 1979 authorised the Government to extend the franchise within the Seanad election process to universities across the country. Not one Government since 1979 has seen fit to abide by the will of the people and to follow through on the mandate and instruction the people gave them in the referendum result. What is the purpose or point in having a referendum if the result is to be ignored?
It is not right that the Government continues to ignore the vacancy in the Seanad. The seat must be filled if there is to be any respect for the democratic process. Over the last 20 years, a range of politicians have gone on non-stop about the diaspora. Perhaps, the Taoiseach would like to take the opportunity to fill the vacant seat in the Seanad with a representative of the emigrant community - someone who has experienced having to emigrate? There are 300,000 citizens who have been forced to emigrate in the last five years alone. Would it not be a good idea to fill the vacancy with someone who could speak on their behalf or represent their perspective? There continue to be over 400,000 unemployed people in the country. Would it not be an option for the Taoiseach to nominate an unemployed person or representative of the interests, perspectives and life experiences of the unemployed? Would that not be a worthy perspective to embed in the Seanad to be taken into account in the legislative process. There will be an Oireachtas banking inquiry, which I support. It is not before time. Perhaps, there is an opportunity to fill the vacant Seanad seat with a person with judicial or legal expertise to head up the inquiry in an independent fashion on behalf of the Oireachtas.
There are all sorts of options and opportunities for reform which the Government could grasp if it was so minded. I do not believe it is. The Government has bought into this idea on a knee-jerk basis and is now stuck with it. The Government does not know how to get out of it. As Senator Ó Murchú said, one need only look at the reasons which have been set out. The Government had two years to formulate the Bill yet its proposal is for a hasty referendum in the autumn. I ask the Minister of State to set out the date of the referendum. Senators and the public are entitled to know. Are we going to return in September to be given three weeks' notice? Are we to be ambushed? It would be poor judgment and a poor thing to do. There is no benefit or purpose in this proposal. The Government should adopt Senator Quinn's reasoned amendment and adjourn the process to allow for further debate and consideration in September. The referendum could duly take place next year in tandem with local and European elections and be discussed in the round as part of a reform package. Such an approach would have a number of benefits. It would lead to further consultation and public discourse and save the Government the €20 million price of a costly autumn referendum. Even if the proposal is carried, the Seanad will continue to sit until the next general election. There is no benefit, therefore, to front-loading an autumn referendum.
On the issue of costs, I record for the purposes of accuracy that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission confirmed in its annual report that the direct cost of the Seanad is €8.8 million. While that is a great deal of money, it is not the €20 million or €30 million figure which was unfairly bandied about by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste when they set this process in motion. The Seanad has been unfairly characterised as elitist. It is easy to use that word and to fail to follow up with what one means by it. Is it a reference to the chandeliers in the Chamber? Perhaps, if we changed them to florescent lights and got gaudy curtains as opposed to the nice drapes, people would feel more comfortable.
Would it be less elite?
I was elected to the Seanad from the dole queue. I come from 1266 St. Evin's Park in Monasterevin, which is a local authority housing estate. Everyone has his or her own story. The Seanad has a great diversity of representation, which is one of its riches. It represents and reflects a broad cross-section of Irish life, interests, perspectives, vocations, values and expertise. The Taoiseach has tried to rubbish what he has referred to as a 1930s vocational values system. There is nothing wrong with that. We do not need less expertise. I learn here from Members who contribute according to their life experience and expertise.
As Senator Mac Conghaile pointed out, rather than contributing to everything, perhaps Members would be better contributing only on their areas of expertise.
It is not true that the Seanad is not elected and has no mandate. For 30 years as a journalist, I covered council meetings. It has become fashionable to disparage the role of councillors but they are the building blocks of our democratic process and model. They are judged harshly by neighbours and peers in their communities, towns, villages and townlands. They must get over 1,000 votes in their communities. In turn, they have a mandate to elect a certain number of Senate seats. I see that as a mandate by proxy. The idea that people mushroom up and find themselves in the Seanad is not true. The same applies to the university panels. People must go before their peers for judgment. The idea the Seanad is elite is wrong.
The Taoiseach has taken no account of the 110 nominating bodies who take part in the process of putting forward people to contest the Seanad elections. This includes bodies like the IFA, IBEC, Chambers Ireland, trade unions and the Irish Exporters Association. Are we to take it that they are elitist? Has anyone consulted them about this process? I implore the Minister of State to take back to Government the need to put back the referendum. Why the indecent haste?
I would not like to have it on my political CV that I was part of the Government that marks and celebrates the centenary of 1916 by dismantling a key component of our democracy by abolishing the Seanad. That is how it will be marked in 2016. It is a short-sighted move and needs to be considered. It needs to go back to the Constitutional Convention. I implore the Minister of State to put a stop to this. We need more accountability, more transparency, more expertise and more discourse, not less.
In equal measure, I agree and disagree with what the previous Senator said. I also agree with a huge amount of what was said by earlier speakers. It is ironic that the debate is happening in this way, with every Senator being given ten minutes, with equality of speaking time and with everyone having the opportunity to speak. There is no rush and we will work our way through Second Stage and move onto Committee Stage with no guillotine and with sufficient debate. That should apply to every item of legislation but it is not the case. The reality is that 56% of legislation introduced by this Government was guillotined. Can someone in government explain to me if we have eight fewer Deputies and no Senators, how in God's name we will improve the situation?
The Taoiseach says we will have an added layer of scrutiny of legislation in the Dáil once the Seanad is abolished. How is that possible if the Dáil, as it is, is incapable of properly scrutinising legislation given that 56% legislation has been guillotined? That does not make sense. It feeds into what the previous Senators were saying. The Taoiseach bounced us all into this issue. He made the announcement in the heat of an election campaign but unfortunately he was not big enough to say that he made a mistake and that we need to take a step back and examine it in more detail.
There is merit in people putting forward the view that the Seanad should be abolished. I always held the view that the Seanad, as it is, should be abolished. I disagree with the previous Senator because I believed the Seanad, as it is, is undemocratic and elitist because the vast majority of citizens outside the Chamber cannot vote for people in the Chamber. As long as that is the case, people will not have an affinity or a close relationship with the Seanad. The starting point must be universal franchise. While I want the Seanad as it is to be abolished, the option of reform should be put to the people. We should have properly explored all options. Many ideas have been floated by all parties. I attended the Seanad Chamber in 2003, when I was a member of Waterford City Council, as part of a delegation from my party, with Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and Conor Murphy, MP, who was then in the Northern Ireland Assembly. At the time, Mary O'Rourke was the Leader of the House and was seeking presentations from all parties and outside groups. I took part in that discussion.
There have been several attempts to reform the Seanad. The Taoiseach made reference to this when delivering his speech on Second Stage on the Bill. He referred to successive Governments having failed to reform the Seanad. He is as responsible as anyone else for this. Simply to say that the political establishment has failed to reform the Seanad and, because of that, we should press the nuclear button and go for abolition is wrong and ill thought out.
The Taoiseach was given any number of opportunities to do the right thing. He set up the Constitutional Convention and my party supported him on that. I am a member of the Constitutional Convention and I have enjoyed all contributions. The reality is that the remit of the Constitutional Convention was very narrow. There have been very good debates on good issues but they should have been given the opportunity to have a profound look at real electoral and political reform. The only reform it was allowed to look at was the narrow issue of Dáil electoral reform. Surprise, surprise, the vast majority came back to say that the current system is working well. It is no surprise to anyone because the least contentious of any of the issues in respect of electoral and political reform was the PR-STV system in the State, which most parties support. They think it is a good system and do not want to fix it if it is not broke. It was no surprise that over 90% of the members of the convention suggested no change. They should have been asked to examine wider electoral reform and political reform.
This brings me to one of the reasons I do not support the abolition of the Seanad without the option of reform being put to the people. The first option should have been whether people want a reformed Seanad and to have that discussion at the Constitutional Convention, allowing the convention to discuss the issue and examine whether there is a need for a second Chamber. If they decide there is, the Government can come back with proposals and put them to the people. Unfortunately, that was not done.
Where is the Government at the moment in terms of its political reform agenda? The Government has flunked because it has been all about abolition and reduction. It started with local government. The previous Senator spoke about the importance of local government. I was a councillor and I will testify to the fact that councillors are the building blocks. They do a difficult job but it is also worthwhile and adds value to our democracy. The problem is that local government is very weak and, like the Seanad, the one thing it needs most is more power. Central Government has consistently refused to give local government more powers. Every previous Government has refused to properly reform local government, the same as they have refused to properly reform the Seanad. It is not the fault of councillors or local government or the people who work in local government; it is the fault of the system. We are not arguing that we need to abolish local government because of that. To reform it, we need to give local government the power it needs. The problem with the Government's approach is that it is about reducing numbers. I challenged the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, asking him to explain the new powers given to local government since he came into office. He has merged local authorities, abolished some councils and is reducing the number of councillors. I asked him to show us the colour of his money in respect of real reform and the new powers granted to local government. The reality is that there is none and he has been unable to show any real powers given to local government.
In this state we have a weak system of local government and a national Parliament with two Houses which are dysfunctional and need to be reformed. The Dáil needs to be reformed as much as the Seanad. The Minister is fortunate to be in office, but the vast majority of backbench Deputies, Government and Opposition, do not have the powers they should because all power is in the hands of the Cabinet. That is an unfortunate reality of our political system. It is often argued that perhaps four or five Ministers run the country. That is not democratic or healthy and not the way to do business.
The Government's solution is to reduce the number of Deputies and abolish the Seanad, with no consideration given to rebalancing power between central and local government and transfer powers from the Executive to the Legislature. We have Mickey Mouse cosmetic solutions, including sitting four days each week which is great for mná na hÉireann living in counties Donegal, Waterford, Kerry and Wexford. Few women's groups would be in favour of this and the implications it would have for enticing women into politics. The problem is the Government parties are not thinking through any of these proposals. They are rushing into cosmetic Dáil reform because they have not properly thought through the consequences of Seanad reform.
The Taoiseach made a comparison with other countries of similar size which have single chambers. What he has failed to point out is that every country with a unicameral parliament has a much stronger local government system. Some have presidents with executive powers, while in others there is a separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. The Taoiseach, therefore, did not compare like with like. He was comparing apples with oranges. The Minister cannot argue in favour of a single chamber in a country with such a centralised system of governance where all power lies in the hands of the Cabinet and the Dáil and local government are as weak as they are. If so, he should explain where the checks and balances will be because I cannot see them. If the Seanad is abolished, there will be fewer Deputies and a weak system of local government. I oppose the Bill for the reasons I have outlined.
I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important legislation. A ten minute slot is in no way sufficient to make the substantial arguments I need to present on this subject, but I hope I will have an opportunity on Committee Stage and during the referendum campaign to expand on my views.
I welcome the legislation because it fulfils a commitment given by both the Government and Fine Gael. I believe in parties keeping their promises. It is welcome that we will vote in a referendum, but I will not simply oppose the referendum on polling day because between now and then I will do everything possible to encourage people to vote "No" because I believe in democracy and, as I have said in the House on many occasions, that this proposal was never about political reform. I saw it previously and see it now as a cynical political exercise to win Dáil seats and not to change politics. I would be the first to say politics needs urgent reform at national and local level, but scrapping a House of the Oireachtas and demolishing one third of the Oireachtas is not real reform or brave politics; it is simplistic populism which the people will see through.
The Minister served in this House. I have served in it for many years and had the fortunate experience of serving in the other House. We can both compare and contrast the debates that take place in both Houses. I have often described the Dáil, as I did when I served in it, as a Punch and Judy show. Governments say "Yes" and the Opposition says "No". It has always been the case. This House, historically, has engaged in the great debates on legal, social, cultural and historical matters which led to societal change. I was privileged to serve in it when Professor John A. Murphy made mind-changing speeches about Ireland, Northern Ireland and the future of the island. I was honoured to serve with Mrs. Mary Robinson who some years previous to my membership had taken the courageous decision in this House, which she could not have done in the Lower House, to bring forward legislation on abortion and contraception as part of the social agenda. I am privileged that one of my colleagues, Senator DAaid Norris, used this House to pursue the rights of gay people on this island, which could not have happened in the Dáil. None of these advances could have happened without the Seanad.
We are debating a proposal that is bad politics. We often speak about flawed politics. When the Opposition tables a motion, the Government states it is flawed and vice versa. This is truly bad, cynical politics and I will stand over that statement. Unfortunately, I missed the Taoiseach's contribution to the debate last week. It was his second visit to the House. He suggested - I agreed with him at the time - when he was Leader of the Opposition that the Taoiseach of this land should attend the Seanad once a month. That was part of the radical, effective and real politics document put forward by the Taoiseach, the Minister and Fine Gael in early 2009. We proposed a new Seanad with significant new powers and a directly elected membership which would truly represent modern Ireland. It would not have been a mini-Dáil or a semi-Dáil but a new Seanad. I fully agreed with this, as did every member of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party who endorsed that document. I was present at the MacGill Summer School when the Taoiseach expanded on these views and referred to how we could play such a significant role in the turnaround of the economy. His views in spring and summer 2009 were correct, but something happened politically. Days before a famous Fine Gael dinner in October or November 2009, there was a transformation in political thinking within the party and I am not sure who was responsible. I know some of them work as well paid advisers in Government Buildings earning twice and three times the salary of Members of this House. Some might call that good politics or thinking politics, but I believe it is nothing but cynical politics.
The public will eventually make the decision as to whether the Seanad should be abolished and we must make the case for our existence and I do not mean for our individual seats. A new Seanad will have to have a new electoral system and it will probably not involve the majority of current Members, myself included. However, this is not about saving our seats; it is about saving an institution that has served the country well. No one can name a country that has been better served politically by reducing democracy or which has been better served by giving more power to government.
Some people talk about the cost of the Seanad. A figure of €20 million plucked from the air is presented, but the direct cost is €6 million. We are promised that the Dáil will suddenly become much more active. If the Dáil is to be more active, sit more often and have more committees, that will cost money. However, there will not be Dáil reform. The only reform of the current Dáil is the fraudulent Friday, whereby the House sits one Friday each month. No questions can be asked; no vote can be called and the Dáil generally adjourns at 12.30 p.m., with all of the Members going home.
That is Dáil reform under the current Administration. Of course, we are promised there will be an expanded agenda of Dáil reform, but I would not wait for that. Politics need to be reformed, the Dáil and Seanad need reform, the electoral system and local government need reform. The Seanad electoral system is a mystery to most people on this island and while I will not say it is exclusive it is certainly not an inclusive system of electing people to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Dáil's electoral system can also be quite mysterious. On the last occasion that I put my name before the people in a Dáil election I got 9,000 first preference votes but did not win a seat, while on the same day a candidate in another constituency won a seat after getting just 900 first preference votes. The Dáil, therefore, can be a mysterious political place and proportional representation can be a mysterious system too.
The Minister knows that this country needs new politics that are substantial and thinking, not sloganeering, simplistic, catch-all politics. Traditionally, in this House we do not generally refer to what is happening in the other House. When I first became a Member of this House, the then Cathaoirleach, former Senator Treas Honan, would jump out of the Chair if one mentioned the other House. However, let us call a spade a spade. There is a substantive debate taking place in the other House at present and, in a sense, it shows the need for the calm and reassuring debates that take place in this House, where Members are not afraid to speak, where they present their opinions in all their complexity and are listened to with respect. My question to the people of Ireland who will vote in this referendum is, do they really feel that the other House should be given all the power, for example, to remove a President? Do they feel that the Members of Dáil Éireann should alone decide whether, for example, President Michael D. Higgins should be removed from office? Do they believe that the other House alone should have the power to remove judges from office? I do not believe so. This House is about checks and balances, and Irish politics and the Irish public need checks and balances.
The Chair is going to call on me to conclude although I have a great deal more to say. Ireland needs new, substantial politics, new Government structures, a new Dáil, new Seanad and new local government. The Minister of State was with me some years ago when the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party was given an excellent presentation by a Mr. Molloy, who spoke about the structures of Government that need to be changed and about the drive and ambition we could have for this country. We must think bigger than simply saying that our problems will go away if the Seanad is abolished. The Seanad has not been perfect but it was not solely responsible for the grievous state in which this Government found the country. Members of the Dáil, Ministers and the Opposition, in terms of their excess and silence, were surely equally guilty.
In conclusion, I am proud to have been a Member of the Oireachtas. I am proud to have been a Deputy and very proud to have been a Senator. Perhaps the new electoral and political system which I believe must be put in place will mean that my time here will conclude, but I believe this House is worth saving. We need a space and place where people can speak freely and call a spade a spade, not the double speak that is often the only debate in the other House.
I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few points on this issue. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes. One wonders what he did wrong to be sent here for this debate because I know he does not agree with the abolition of the Seanad.
We have had this debate many times. First, may I say how pleased I am to see so many members of the media here to listen to us. I suppose it is testament to much of the reasoning behind the wish to abolish part of the Oireachtas. People have spoken about the various thirds but if we were abolishing the Presidency or the Dáil, the Press Gallery would be full. I do not wish to be over political but I will certainly criticise the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach, because he wants this House to be abolished, is manipulating a scenario that will ensure no other outcome.
He has a very willing partner in that cause in the media. As I have said to other Members for years, one had to be either gay, a former president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, or a Sunday Independent journalist to get coverage in this House. Otherwise, one did not get coverage in "Oireachtas Report". Of course that is for the alcoholic insomniacs, as Deputy Pat Rabbitte once called them, who stay up until the middle of the night to watch that programme. Other than that, despite the efforts of Jimmy Walsh, there was no coverage of this House or its work. What the media like to do is cover the Marc MacSharry intemperate outburst or the colourful language of Senator Terry Leyden on whatever issue, and such scenarios are replicated time and again.
They do not want to talk about the family home Bill, the FGM Bill which Senator Bacik tabled and the countless Private Members' Bills all of us have had a hand in over the years, myself included. They just want to cover what they choose.
I had a row with a journalist on air, which probably did me no good considering the coverage which followed for a few days afterwards, a few weeks ago. I asked him if he knew how many Private Members' Bills were passed by the Seanad and he said he did not. I told him he should inform himself. He came on to RTE as a paid commentator in addition to his salary as a journalist to tell people authoritatively what he thinks should happen to the Seanad when he has not taken the time to educate himself about what goes on here. That is the truth.
They do not know what is going on here. They say if we were doing stuff that was more useful and interesting to the public maybe they would cover it, but that is just a cover for people being too lazy to cover it, not wanting to cover it and hiding from the fact they do not by saying it is not worthy of coverage. That has been replicated over the 11 years I have been here. I am sure the father of the House, Senator Norris, and others can say that was always the case.
It is the fault of all taoisigh that the Seanad was never reformed. In the commentary I hear on the airwaves, the one group of people who have nothing to do with it are Senators. I have known no Senator who is not an avid enthusiast not just of reform but radical reform. Those of us who are here long enough to remember the Mary O'Rourke report all provided submissions to it. Some of our issues were taken on board and others were not. We may have refined our views further since the report was published.
It was Fianna Fáil policy to reform the Seanad in its 2007 manifesto. As we know, the wheels came off the economy and so on and things moved on from there. In October 2009, as Senator Bradford said, in a rush of blood to the head on the way into the Fine Gael president's dinner and to the shock of the then Fine Gael leader in the House, now Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, the now Taoiseach said he would abolish the Seanad.
As I have said many times, I can fully understand people in politics playing the ball. I can even understand people playing the man from time to time. How a leader with the experience of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, wants to go about digging up the pitch makes no sense to me. I think of the Iranians wanting to get rid of the Shah without thinking what would replace him. I think of the Enabling Act in Berlin and things like that.
Real leadership is having the courage to take on vested interests and reform. It is not about abolishing things. It was a purely populist move which naturally captured the public's imagination at the time. There is, rightly, a level of apathy from people towards all politics at the moment. People will vote to abolish the Seanad, and we will spend 50 years trying to replace it and will not be able to get agreement on something to replace it.
In terms of more general reform of the entire system, it is not a criticism of this Government or an absolution of previous Governments, but what we have is a functional dictatorship which is called a democracy. The Taoiseach of the day decides on policy, advised by senior civil servants, political advisers and so on. A core group in Cabinet has the balance of power and influence and the Whip does the rest. There is very little, other than tokenism at parliamentary party meetings and some amendments here and there, that gets through the system.
As a result, the people are completely detached from the political process. They have no sense of ownership of the policy platform of the day because they do not feed into it. What radical policy difference was implemented by each of the six last Administrations? The reality is there is probably not much at all. A permanent Government is in place all the time.
I would love to see a scenario where the Cabinet would be elected and then step out. As in the American system they would have to sell their policies to the Parliament of the day. Both Houses are mere tools of the Cabinet of the day and the three or four people who decide what will happen. Love or hate the Taoiseach, his view is that the House should be abolished. The reality is that the full energy of Government will push that agenda. The Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, is the director of elections.
The matter is being taken seriously because the Government wants to abolish the Seanad. There is no information on what will replace it. There has been loose talk about a committee which will have experts on it. Who will they be? Will it lend itself to cronyism no matter who is in government? It is not a question of Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or any other party. Much could be done with the vehicle that is Seanad Éireann. All of us are in favour of reform.
There is one thing I find offensive when I hear commentary. We rightly hear praise of Gordon Wilson, Maurice Hayes, Senator David Norris and Senator Zappone. I find it offensive that because I happen to be from a political party that in some way my contribution is compromised. I am on the industrial and commercial panel. I was a CEO in the Chambers of Commerce movement in which I was involved for years. I have started businesses which have gone bust, I have been unemployed and I have been employed. I have taken the vocational interest to which I am elected very seriously. I do not think anybody would be as qualified as me to be in it.
The theory of vocational sectoral interests being represented here is sound. Of course we should be directly elected by the people; that is something with which none of us disagrees. As I said, it is a question of the political will from the top four people who run the whole show. It happens to be the Taoiseach at the moment; it was Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern and countless others over the years. Unless that will is there will be can be no reform. If it was up to us the Seanad would have been reformed already.
I pay tribute to the current Leader. Even though in the heat of debate we often clash, during my 11 years here he has been the best Leader. I know his hands are tied behind his back at a higher level within his political party. He has done great things to enhance the role of the Seanad and is always very well organised when he comes to the House. He often has the answers prepared for questions we did not know we were about to ask.
It is a very sad day that it has come to this. To be truly remembered, if that were the wish of the Taoiseach, would be to have the courage to reform the Houses and make them a true instrument of the people. Sadly, I believe the people, as things are currently constructed within our political system, do not have any sense of ownership of the policy platform of the day. Unless that changes there will always be a certain level of apathy.
The Taoiseach should be careful for what he wishes. The people, sadly, will vote to abolish the Seanad. There will be a vacuum. One need only look at the number of amendments tabled over the course of the past year to see that. There are empty seats in the Gallery. Nobody wants to cover that and are only waiting for the next intemperate outburst from Marc MacSharry, Senator Leyden, Senator Norris or whoever.
It does an injustice to the Irish people to allow them to abolish one third of the instrument of the State without truly informing them what has gone on within the Houses. With the noble exception of Jimmy Walsh who recently retired, this House has only ever had token coverage. I do not mean to be overcritical of any journalist or media organisation, but it happens to be an absolute fact. As a result, there is no Referendum Commission or campaign which can accurately capture the amount of contribution the House has made to Irish society since its foundation. That is a very sad situation.
Sadly, nobody wants to hear from Senators in this debate because they will say we are being subjective and want to keep our jobs. That may be the case. Nevertheless, I hope some people want to keep the Seanad. Open It, Don't Close It, Democracy Matters and those who have tabled Private Members' Bills on Seanad reform all have the best possible intentions. If the House is to be saved it will require civil society taking a stand and not former senior Ministers, however good they are, like Michael McDowell, saying they want to keep the House but want it reformed.
I was stunned the other day when Senator Sean Barrett revealed how much had been spent on legal advice in drawing up this Bill. Between that and the cost of holding the referendum, we are looking at a bill of some €23 million to ask the people whether the Seanad should be abolished. I will speak more about that in due course. Suffice to say, it seems an extraordinarily expensive exercise in these difficult times. We are all agreed that to retain the Upper House in its present form is not acceptable. The referendum the Government proposes, however, is not giving people a fair choice. We are asking a nation of 4.6 million people, a considerable portion of whom have never attended a Seanad debate, could not say where the Chamber is located and have no idea what they are voting for, to say either "Yes" or "No" to the question of whether it should be abolished outright. It is one thing to ask people which meat they would prefer, beef or horse, as most citizens are very sure which of those two flavours they prefer. From conversations I have had with people around the country, however, it seems clear that citizens are not altogether informed and furnished with the facts in regard to what the Government is proposing. As such, they are not in a position to reach a decision that is in their own best interests and which best safeguards the future of their country, its future generations and its Constitution.
There are never any journalists here to report on what we are saying, but I very deliberately chose the horsemeat versus beef analogy in the context of the brilliant Bill being presented to the House later today by Senator Feargal Quinn, which deals with food provenance. The food industry in this country endured a series of disastrous events at the end of last year and earlier this year. One of the great successes of our economy, as we work towards Food Harvest 2020, very nearly came toppling down. Senator Quinn has come up with an excellent proposal which would allow us to lead the way on this issue in Europe and restore trust and transparency for the consumer. Yet again it is the Seanad that is to the fore when it comes to legislative innovation. The financial argument for the abolition of the Upper House has gone out the window, as we have discovered. The Government's alternative plan for ensuring legislation is given the time and scrutiny it needs, a function which should be performed by the Seanad, will be a costly exercise with no appreciable savings. That is the word from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, who is surely the person who would know. We are talking about a major constitutional change to the way in which our country has been governed for the past 91 years.
It is interesting to recall that the abolition of the first Senate in 1936 was a reaction to what was perceived as the unacceptable reach of its powers, which allowed Senators to obstruct constitutional reforms favoured by the Government of the day. The new Seanad created by Éamon de Valera - the gelded version - is the body we are left with today, a House which is badly in need of reform if it is to make a valuable contribution to Irish democracy. A more prudent, intellectual and sophisticated Government would see the public appetite for political reform as a remarkable opportunity to embrace the cream of the reform proposals that have been presented by Members of this House and others. Indeed, some very insightful and visionary reforms were proposed by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, when he was a Senator. I salute him for listening to us yesterday and today, but the reality is that he is a poacher turned gamekeeper. I long to look into his head and discover what he is really thinking. He was passionate about reform of this House in his time here. Like Senator Paul Bradford and others, he has had experience of both Houses. I would love to know his real thoughts on the subject. In the extraordinarily challenging times in which we now live, where life seems to move at the speed of light, it is more important than ever that our Government seek to build a new process for leading and governing this country. There is an opportunity to set out new standards for the business of restoring a modern, fit-for-purpose, efficient and healthy nation that is the envy of all other democracies for many years to come.
If I thought that Irish democracy would somehow be improved by abolishing rather than reforming the Seanad, I would be swayed by the Government's proposal. I have heard nothing, however, to convince me it will, nor have I read any research which supports the case. In fact, I fear that the reformation of the Oireachtas envisaged by this Government will merely further concentrate power in the hands of a Dáil elite and exclude other voices or opinions in Parliament. When preparing for debates in this House, I am often dismayed and have low motivation when I consider that any such effort is essentially pointless as a consequence of the Whip system. Too often we see politicians voting against what they believe in because the powers that be tell them they must do so. Even when the 31 Government Senators have strong opinions or special interests and wisdom on a subject matter, it simply does not matter as they are obliged to vote as directed by the Whip. As a non-political person entering the Oireachtas for the first time, I was very demotivated when I discovered the tightness of the grip of the Government Whip on Senators and Deputies in what I thought was a democratic institution. This is one of the greatest problems we face in this Chamber - namely, that the rigid Whip system does not allow for independent thought. I appreciate the need for the Whip in some cases, but it should not be applied as rigidly as it is in the Seanad, particularly on social or moral issues. We will see the problems that causes next week.
The Government, in advancing its argument to abolish the Chamber, has pointed to several European countries and their parliamentary and political systems. I encourage it to consider whether we might also embrace the practice in those countries as it applies to the Whip system. Three areas in which a dedicated function for the Seanad would greatly enhance its relevance and bring it closer to the general public are scrutiny of European Union legislation, examination of public appointments and the holding of inquiries. More importantly, these are three functions in which the Oireachtas currently falls way short in its duty to the Irish people. That is particularly evident in respect of EU legislation, which is often not debated at all in the Oireachtas before it becomes law. Rubber-stamping of those proposals happens every week in the committees. There is serious cause for concern that a failure to subject EU laws to intensive examination could have an impact on the welfare of Irish people and the safeguarding of our beautiful country. The Seanad has clear potential to step up to the plate in this regard and fill the void. Such a role makes perfect sense in a context in which the Lisbon treaty strengthens the ability of the Oireachtas to scrutinise proposed EU legislation and assess its impact on the everyday lives of Irish citizens. Perhaps I am being very optimistic, but I remain convinced that the Seanad will ultimately be reformed rather than abolished. I agree with much of what Senator Marc MacSharry had to say, but I am very hopeful that the Irish public might surprise him. I certainly hope it does.
We must, in any case, have a plan B. It is just as well the Minister of State has all those reform proposals stored in his head. An issue that concerns me greatly is the additional workload that will be placed on committees under the Taoiseach's plan for Oireachtas reform in the event that the Seanad is indeed abolished. The current committee system does not work and, like the Upper House, is much in need of reform. Attendance at committee meetings can be quite poor and participation is sometimes hit and miss. My own experience as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine is that members often make an excellent contribution. In general, however, meetings are often shy of members and would be very shy indeed in the absence of Senators. This low attendance culture could not be allowed to continue if the Seanad were no more. I seek assurance from the Government that Deputies will be gently forced to attend committee meetings and actively participate if the Seanad is no longer part of the political system. The Government might consider scheduling committee meetings at times when the Dáil is not sitting. Holding them at 8 a.m., for example, would allow full engagement by members before beginning the parliamentary business of the day at 10.30 a.m. Consideration should also be given to a 48-week year. Senator David Cullinane mentioned that mná na hÉireann have to get home, but a 48-week year should become the norm for both Dáil and Seanad, if the latter is retained.
The decision to hold the referendum in late September or early October should be revisited. As other Members suggested, it would surely be economically prudent to have it at the same time as the local and European elections. As a realist, I recognise that the ink is more or less dry on that particular decision and it will not be changed. At the very least, however, I hope the Government will commit to holding the vote at the weekend so that schools are not obliged to close. This would afford the greatest possible number of people the opportunity to cast their vote and would not require working families to fork out for additional child care. I have to commend the Government on its strategy and foresight in timing the referendum so that people who are feeling pre-budget discontent will have a nice opportunity to vent their frustration by abolishing at least one of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It might well seem an attractive option in the face of a prolonged banking crisis, mortgage arrears, unemployment, emigration and the frustration and misery that so many citizens continue to experience in these very difficult times.
The expensive referendum offered to the nation is antidemocratic and belittles all of us. I believe in democracy and I believe in Ireland and its future, but most of all, I want to know for certain that we will work together to protect democracy and the rights of our citizens and our country. We are planning to carve out one-third of our Oireachtas and we are doing it in a very haphazard, rushed manner. I support Senator Feargal Quinn's amendment because we need to slow down on this. There is more debate to happen and I would like to ensure we inform our citizens before they go to the polls.
This is a very difficult Bill to deal with for all of us, for the Government, the Opposition and Independents. As the Leader, Senator Cummins, stated here last week, the Taoiseach pointed out in his statement to the House that countless reports on Seanad reform are gathering dust or have been consigned to the scrap heap by successive governments.
As has been mentioned, hundreds of amendments to legislation have been initiated in this House by the current Seanad. Many of these amendments have been accepted by the Lower House, which is testimony to the contribution made by Members of this Seanad to the legislative process. Some ten different reforms in the Seanad have been completed over the years, but several governments have not felt it important or worthwhile to reform this House. The Taoiseach himself sat around the Cabinet table in the past and obviously did not promote the implementation of any of the proposed reforms. However, he is now leading the charge for the total abolition of the Seanad.
Committees, outsiders and unelected individuals will have all the answers, but I am not so sure that is right. I do not believe it is. There appears to be expertise from all walks of life, from people who are unelected and who have no responsibility to the people of Ireland, friends of the Taoiseach of the day. In time to come, this proposal will lead to a dictatorship in this country. I honestly believe this. How sure can we be that outside experts have all the answers on reform? The Taoiseach has stated that he intends to strengthen the existing committee system. From my experience of this system to date, people hop in and out of the committees. While they may sign in, many of them do not contribute to the committees. If the current committee system is an example of what we will have, I fear for the future.
A cost benefit analysis of the establishment of a strengthened committee system should be completed in advance of the referendum. Before they have their say, the people of Ireland should be made aware of the anticipated cost of these committees. We do not know how many committees will be set up, what they will cost or whether they will cost more than the Seanad. The issue of Seanad costs has been mentioned by many Senators. The costs mentioned vary from €3.9 million to €100 million. The Taoiseach has stated that the likely saving will be from €20 million to €50 million. If he had said from €20 million to €25 million, the figures might seem valid, but he said from €20 million to €50 million.
There are varied opinions on the cost of the Seanad. Some of the figures mentioned are €3.9 million, €4.1 million, €6 million, €7 million and €8 million. I have done my own cost benefit analysis and I believe that if a Senator is earning €65,000 a year and he is taking home €35,000, the cost to the State is only €35,000, not €65,000. I see the saving to be made as something in the order of €6 million to €7 million. I have looked at this in some detail. If the Seanad is abolished, nobody working in the House will lose his or her job, apart from the 60 Senators. I hope that none of the staff or experts working here lose theirs. Realistically, the Seanad costs €7 million per annum, but to make allowances I will say it costs €10 million. It does not cost that, but that is a more realistic figure than the figure suggested by the Taoiseach, which was between €20 million and €50 million.
If it is the case that the Seanad costs €10 million gross and we have 1.7 million taxpayers paying tax, and if we divide the €10 million by 1.7 million, we end up dividing 100 by 17, making the cost of the Seanad €6 per taxpayer per annum. I ask myself whether that is value for money. Based on my experience here for just over two years and on the contributions made-----
Of course there are. If we divided the figure by the population of the country, it would be even cheaper, not even the cost of a newspaper per day.
I have put the question on the cost. I admire the expertise here from all walks of life, including those from humble beginnings like mine, and of professional people including lawyers, teachers, economists and doctors. We have expertise here. I defy the new committee to have the equivalent of the people here who contribute to the running of this country. This is not and should not be a question of economics. I want to see the Taoiseach state publicly in the media what he hopes to save. I do not mind if he provides a gross figure, but I would like him to quantify the saving.
Like Senator Bradford, this reminds me of applying for a job in my early days. The question one never wanted to be asked was the one stating there were 54 other people looking for the job and asking you to explain why it should be given to you. I am not going to campaign on this issue. I am going to vote "No" and I am going to advocate to anybody I meet that they vote "No" because of the concern I have that any committee under the Cabinet will do whatever the Cabinet wants it to do. That is what we will find in the future. We are unanimous in our opinion on this proposal. The Minister of State agrees with us. He himself performed very effectively in the Seanad and I admire him for that. We agree that we need to reform the Seanad so we can continue to ensure citizens are protected from legislation that might have a negative effect on their daily lives.
My own experience began as a councillor.
This was my third time to go for the Seanad as I had previously tried in 1997. Fourteen years later I decided to play a part in the history of this country. What galls me is that I have entertained people from different panels and different walks of life who have come to my home in Carlingford and to my office. They have cried at my kitchen table, saying why they needed my vote and what it would mean to them, to their families and to the country. I do not include the Minister of State but some of them cried at my kitchen table and these are now some of the greatest advocates for the abolition of the House to which they wanted to go. It is very difficult to listen to them, those who said, "Brennan, you have got to give it to me."
I hope the Cathaoirleach will not be too hard on me as this is an important debate. While I welcome the Minister of State to the House there have been many occasions lately when I have had major concerns about the direction this Government has taken. While this may not be the most important issue before these Houses in these days, it is an extremely important issue. The fact that we are in this place at this time in this particular way discussing this particular proposal reflects very badly on the Taoiseach.
This current proposal originates in a speech delivered by the Taoiseach at a Fine Gael president's dinner in 2009. The announcement that he was going to propose the abolition of the Seanad by way of a referendum - the only way to propose the abolition of the Seanad - took the commentariat by surprise and took people in his own party by surprise. This was not least because nine months earlier in the NewERA policy document he had committed himself to a reformed Seanad as part of a broader package of political reform. However, he has stuck doggedly to his idea since then, as he does stick doggedly to ideas, no matter how bad or dangerous some of them are. Notwithstanding the Labour Party's commitment in its election manifesto to place the issue before the Constitutional Convention, the programme for Government committed the Government to a referendum to abolish the Seanad. This is an Enda Kenny production, first and last.
When one considers the substance behind the proposal, one realises that it is a very shallow little proposal indeed. When the Taoiseach announced the referendum Bill he gave a number of reasons for getting rid of the Seanad. He said the Seanad had failed the people by not doing anything to stop the unattainable policies of the Celtic tiger. How farcical that was. What did he and his party do? He has been in the Dáil since 1975. The Fine Gael election manifesto of 2007 shows that the party was seeking lower taxes and more spending. It was brazen indeed to go offering that as a reason for abolishing the Seanad.
The Taoiseach said the Seanad was a relic of British rule. Again, that was farcical. The Senate of 1922 was elected, unlike the House of Lords. It was got rid of in 1935, as we all know, because de Valera thought it was not fit for purpose or perhaps it was too enthusiastic about its purpose. The same people who decided that and who ruled with one Chamber for a short period, decided to bring the second Chamber back. We have been down this road before. The Taoiseach also attempted - rather disingenuously in my view - to tie up the abolition of the Seanad with the question of Dáil reform, as part of a wider package of political reform. It is a case of live horse and get grass. It is a case of, "If you abolish the Seanad, I will reform the Dáil's processes." The Taoiseach said there will be an extra Stage at the start of Bills at which the heads of Bills would be considered by a committee, with experts brought in and a stronger Committee Stage to consider Bills in detail. All of that is farcical, to use that word again, because the issue of Dáil reform is separate from that of Seanad reform. The Taoiseach could amend the Standing Orders of the Dáil in the morning and Irish people are entitled to a stronger, more effective Dáil, a more effective process of legislative scrutiny, regardless of what they decide about the Seanad. In fact, they are entitled to Dáil reform and they are still entitled to have their Seanad.
Rather than changing the Dáil first and showing how it could work, the Taoiseach is asking us to take all of this on faith; pay up our money up-front and we might get delivery of political reform some time in the future. It seems to me it is difficult to give credit to such protestations of a desire to reform things politically when one looks at what happened to the promise to cut the membership of the Dáil by 20 seats. When the relevant boundary commission report was published we were told that it was no longer possible because in order to stay within the constitutional requirement, one would need to have at least one Deputy for every 30,000 people and no more than one Deputy for every 20,000. That is the current constitutional position. We were told we can only cut eight seats because otherwise a constitutional referendum would be required. However, we are having a constitutional amendment to abolish the Seanad. Where is the sincerity and the credibility? Why should we trust anything the Government tells us when even the Chief Whip has admitted that the current Government has not been great on Dáil reform to date.
Other people have spoken about the different foreign comparators which the Taoiseach has invoked to suggest that countries of our size can function well with one Chamber. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and New Zealand have all been mentioned. However, these are all false comparators because the Nordic countries have a highly decentralised form of government and the majority of issues affecting citizens in their daily lives are dealt with at local level. Denmark, for example, has one House of Parliament but five regional authorities and about 90 municipal authorities, dealing with roads, sanitation, schooling and so on. Denmark also has a system of local referenda so that the citizens in a particular area can decide on a particular issue in their locality. By comparison, in Ireland this Government is abolishing town councils, where local authorities deal with far fewer issues and where power is generally held by the county manager and not by the locally elected representatives. There is far more democracy in these Scandinavian countries than in Ireland. It is also a red herring to invoke New Zealand because its Upper House was a straight copy of the British House of Lords, membership was by appointment for life, it was completely undemocratic and the House did nothing. It only commented on about 8% of the legislation that came before it. That is the reason it was abolished in 1953.
I recall another important difference between the role of the legislature in some parts of Scandinavia and the role of the Legislature in Ireland. The constitution of Finland expressly provides that it is the responsibility of an individual legislator to act at all times in accordance with his or her conscience and for the common good. How I wish that conscience was the key decider on how Deputies and Senators vote in these days and particularly on the abortion legislation, a life and death issue.
Surely, we have a better chance of having a searching debate by having two Houses. This was evident during the civil partnership legislation. It does not matter what side of the issue one is on because we have, time and again, recalled the contributions in the Seanad, particularly on various social issues, which were the kind of contributions not heard in the Dáil because most people there were adhering too closely to the party line. It is fair to say that the university Senators and the Taoiseach's nominees have often brought a depth and a scope to debates, particularly on social issues, that has not been heard in the Dáil. That is not praising ourselves; it is a function of how we came to be here. I refer to the civil partnership legislation.
Amendments were introduced to protect freedom of conscience, for example, to allow people running businesses to act according to their particular perspective on the meaning and purpose of marriage. This did not happen in the Dáil where that debate was guillotined. The overwhelming power of Government was invoked but at least there was an attempt to ventilate issues and give expression to the sincerely held views of many thousands of decent people in the country who did not hear their views expressed in the Dáil on that occasion.
The same may well happen with the current abortion debate. Thank God for the 24 people - and counting - who are voting with their consciences on this issue. There is a better chance of a closer debate in the Seanad, where I believe issues will be ventilated thoroughly in a way that might not happen to the extent it should in the Dáil.
By no means am I tarring all those who voted the other way with that brush, but certainly some of them deserve to be so tarred.
To reiterate, that is an important feature of life in Finland. It is one we should contrast with the upcoming vote on the Seanad where quite a few will vote for the Seanad referendum legislation even though they do not believe the Seanad should be abolished. I include the Labour Party Chief Whip, Deputy Emmet Stagg, as one such example who has stated he does not agree the Seanad should be abolished but will vote for the legislation nonetheless.
The consequences are bad for democracy. The ability to consider issues properly and fully depends on our having a second Chamber. Each time the Government has proposed or accepted an amendment to a Bill in this Chamber, it has made an argument against its own proposal. Legislation that has started in the Dáil and continued into the Seanad has frequently been amended. Admittedly, these are almost always Government-sponsored amendments but in itself that illustrates the value of the second Chamber and the second scrutiny of legislation. What would happen if there were only one House? It would all happen far too quickly; legislation would not be considered in the same way. The reality is that when there is a Government with a strong majority, as we have now, it is very tempting for it to drive its agenda forward ruthlessly and not to answer the hard questions, as we are seeing these days. That will be more likely to happen in the event that we opt for a unicameral system.
If it were the case that the Seanad provided no value the Government would never propose any changes here because those changes would already have been made in the Dáil. If the Seanad is abolished, the Dáil will be the only place where legislation will be considered. In addition, the operation by the Government of the guillotine on Bills shows that adequate time is not being given to discussion of legislation in the Dáil. This very Bill was guillotined disgracefully in that Chamber. How can the Government argue that people would be better served by the Dáil when it did not allow its own Deputies the opportunity to comment in full on the legislation for a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad?
On a related point, the Government stated that the recent committee hearings on the abortion Bill showed the value of a committee. Regardless of one's view of that legislation, Senators and Deputies were allowed only three minutes to ventilate their questions at each individual session. It was nothing like the scrutiny that would be granted to committees in other countries to consider legislation. We simply do not have a track record of serious committee scrutiny in this country.
All of this shows the value of a properly functioning second Chamber, in addition to the Dáil, which can consider and discuss legislation. This allows the Government an additional period to reflect on legislation and propose changes in the Seanad. It is also ironic-----
-----that the Government is talking about legislating to give effect to the Constitution by asking the people to abolish the Seanad, without first giving effect to the will of the people as expressed in the 1979 referendum, when they voted to broaden the franchise in elections to the Seanad and on the university panel. Legislation was never brought forward to give effect to the will of the people, as expressed. Here the Government is going to the end of the process without ever giving the Seanad a chance to function well-----
I agree. I am nearly there, and am not repeating myself, as the Cathaoirleach will have noticed. I reiterate that we live in a democracy where the Constitution vests the sole and exclusive law-making authority of the State in the President and the two Houses of the Oireachtas. Yet in this democracy, the vast majority of citizens alive today have never been entitled to vote in elections for the second Chamber. In an era when people across the world are protesting in an attempt to open their democracies and their democratic practices, why are we seeking to reduce our democratic institutions without ever giving our people the opportunity to vote in this way?
If it is for grounds of cost we could talk about abolishing both Houses, or abolishing our democracy altogether. We could cut salaries or change the expenses regime. I would totally support whatever measures are necessary in order to make our entire system leaner.
I am almost there. The Government should remember, however, that the salaries of Senators cost in the region of €4 million, roughly the same, very little more, than the cost of the unelected ministerial advisors whose names will be unfamiliar to most members of the public and about whose role the public knows nothing.
Rather than ask the vast majority of Irish people a question that denies them the possibility of ever considering reform, we should amend this proposal. I recall the words of George Washington, who is said to have told Thomas Jefferson that the framers of the American Senate designed it to cool legislation, just as a saucer cools hot tea. Madison talked about the Senate as a necessary fence against the fickleness and passion that are intended to influence attitudes of the general public and members of the House of Representatives. We should be no less ambitious for Seanad Éireann. I ask colleagues, particularly those on the Government side, not to vote this legislation through.
We should insist on an amended referendum proposal that allows people to vote for a reformed Seanad which would include franchise for everybody in electing the Seanad, as well as a more clearly defined function for this House.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, to the Chamber. This issue is difficult for most Senators to speak about. Some former Members, among whom I do not include the Minister of State, have stated blatantly on the radio and in the media that the Seanad is rotten. That is a disservice to democracy in this country and to all politicians. Even the smallest town council in the country is respected by citizens, whether it represents 500 or 20,000 people. The public generally have regard for it because of its powers, no matter how little work it carries out.
For a former Senator to describe this House as useless and rotten is a slur on the previous generations who served here. I do not include the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, in this. Such attitudes play to those who say that all politicians deserve to be sacked. The public deserve a serious debate instead of a populist one.
I have previously quoted from the book Lustrum, a novel about ancient Rome during the period when Cicero served as consul. The book described Cicero's response to a tedious law restricting the right of senators to claim expenses for unofficial trips to the provinces. The law was described as the sort of self-interested legislation that attracts every elected bore in politics. Cicero lined up an entire bench of such bores and promised them they could speak for as long as they wished. That was 2,500 years ago but nothing much has changed. Election campaigns in ancient Rome usually lasted four weeks but one election campaign mentioned in the book continued for eight weeks and resulted an amazing amount of money being spent. Patricians set up a war chest to fund each other. Roman politics was corrupt but the idea that its senate should be abolished due to financial irregularities was knocked on the head. In regard to the cost of this Seanad, even if its abolition resulted in the highest estimated savings of €10 million per annum, it would take 300 years to repay the €3 billion provided to bail out Quinn Insurance. Democracy cannot be measured in financial terms.
I never got a clear reason for the proposed abolition of the Seanad. Some have argued on the basis of financial reasons-----
I have no problem with the holding of a referendum as promised in the programme for Government, but a considerable number of people are cynical about politics. If a referendum was held on abolishing all tiers of Government, at least 25% of voters would vote "Yes" because the politics we are trying to promote is being destroyed from within. I will abide by the people's decision, however, whatever it may be.
Senator Cullinane interrupted my speech and has now left the Chamber. He suggested that the Government has not introduced reform and he is opposed to the abolition of town and county councils. I hate to point out the obvious but the number of county councils in Northern Ireland has been cut from 26 to 11. Sinn Féin and the DUP wanted to reduce the number further to seven, with the intention that one side of the River Bann would be controlled by Sinn Féin and the other by the DUP, with Belfast up for grabs. Sinn Féin's policy across the Border calls for the restructuring of local government. I do not accept the Senator's argument that the Government is destroying councils. I was a town councillor for 17 years. They play a particular beneficial role.
The new district councils will give more power to representatives in areas like Letterkenny, which is an urban and rural mix. Councillors will come from both areas. Until now I always felt that the town council was pulling against the county council and vice versa, so that is a positive thing.
The first speech I made in the Seanad contained a request that we go around the country and have a Senate in Kerry, Donegal, Galway and Cork, so that the public might recognise that the Senate does a lot of legislative work. The record is there but it is not emphasised in the press and people do not hear about the work that is done in here. I do not know if we can still take a few sections of the Seanad out of this building and let the people in the regions decide on the benefits of the Seanad. It would be a good idea to raise its profile because as soon as the referendum takes place and if the result is to abolish it, then there is no going back. In ten or 15 years, the next generation might say that it was a hasty move by this Government to get rid of an arm of democracy that we might need.
I was in Bucharest last week at the conference against human trafficking. I spoke to a Dutch MP who told me that their Senate, which does not meet as often as our own, is very important to the Dutch people and that the Senate is always there to take on the Government in certain types of legislation. The role of the Seanad should not just be to rubber stamp legislation, but to make sure that TDs in the Dáil would pass legislation mindful of the fact that the Senate next door may have a different view. The public could reflect that view through the Senators because at the moment they feel that everything is being pushed through without a second opinion. As Senator O'Brien said, what the Minister is saying probably does not reflect what he is thinking about the abolition of the Senate. He is smiling at me now.
Senator Mullen ate into my time, so I wish the best of luck to whoever comes after Senator Moran. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence.
I have said it locally on radio that I have no problem with a referendum being put to the people, who will ultimately decide. If they decide to abolish it, then so be it. However, there should be an honest debate because the debate that has taken place until now has been populist. The novel Lustrum shows how people in ancient Rome viewed the Senate. There were many layers of government in ancient Rome, and not just one Parliament. People valued the work of two or three different layers of government.
I met a farmer one day when I was cutting the grass and he told me he hoped we were not going to get rid of the Seanad because we all need a second opinion, even if we are just digging the spuds. He saw it simply that we need more advice in these hard times. Perhaps the man digging the spuds has a better view of democracy than many other informed people.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. Along with many of my colleagues in both Houses, I have serious issues with this Bill. The waters have been muddied considerably by some of the facts and figures thrown about by those pushing forward this amendment to the Constitution. It has been said that the abolition of the Seanad would save €20 million, but this has been shown not to be the case. The Houses of the Oireachtas have made it clear that a proper cost-benefit analysis has not been carried out. It has been argued that considerable Dáil reform has taken place. I would argue that the word "considerable" means something different to me than it does to some of those who claim it. It has been said that the Seanad did nothing to stop the excesses of the Celtic tiger. If we are to start pointing fingers, I would start by pointing them straight back at the Cabinet that was here at the time and the Members of Dáil Éireann who presided over that period.
I believe that a referendum is the way to go to decide the future of the Seanad. I have no problem with that, but why is reform not part of the option? Why are we putting an incomplete referendum to the people? Why is the call of the people outside of these gates not being listened to in this instance? It is unfortunate that the Taoiseach is not here for all of this debate on the future of our democracy. In my view, we have already been written off by some and pushed aside. I would like to relay to the people involved in this debate, including the Taoiseach, the important work being carried out inside and outside the Chamber. We have properly debated legislation in this Chamber, unlike the system in the Dáil of merely reading out statements to be put on the record. My Opposition colleagues in this Chamber have brought forward important amendments that have greatly enhanced legislation, for example during the debate on the recent Taxi Regulation Bill 2012. As Senator O'Brien pointed out last week, 529 amendments have been made in this House. I am delighted that I have some amendments accepted. If that is not what is democracy is about, then I do not know what is.
Outside the Chamber we have met and lobbied on behalf of campaigns and causes that we believe are just and important. We hold clinics and we connect with people every day. We make it our business to represent the people of Ireland. To call us rotten or useless or any other number of negative comments, as has been done by people who are now TDs but were glad to take a Senator's salary when they were in here, is both ignorant and populist.
I will support having a referendum as it is important to put such issues to the people. I will accept and respect whatever the people of Ireland choose, but I cannot support what is being done at the moment. The Taoiseach has decided to bring forward legislation that will forever change the landscape of Irish politics, without providing concrete answers on what will replace it. There has been talk of groups of experts, strengthened committees and so on. Frankly, one does not propose to abolish one thing without strong proposals for its replacement. The Taoiseach did not address that issue last week.
We could be looking at a very similar but smaller structure to Seanad Éireann with this so-called expert group appointed to the Cabinet, but is this really the answer?
Reference was made last week to Scandinavian countries, New Zealand and other countries with a unicameral system. We live in Ireland; we do not live in these countries. We have to promote our democracy that is suitable for the Irish people. I do not represent the people of Norway or New Zealand. I represent the people of Ireland and I do not believe that what works for them should automatically be applied to us. We are unique, we are ourselves, so let us show our strength.
We need this double system. I taught for over 20 years in a school. The last thing I would say to my class every evening was to check their homework and get it checked. If we do not have the fail safe system of scrutinising the legislation, as has been proven several times in debates in here over the last two years, then we have a problem.
I would like to start by quoting Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," which we remember from our school days, such is the sense of foreboding I have this evening when speaking on this issue:
We will be in a very dark place once this Seanad is abolished. It is appropriate, in the evening that is in it, to say that.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Up to 15 Members of the previous Seanad, primarily from Fine Gael and the Labour Party, were elected to the Lower House. Some former Senators seemed to have forgotten their political crèche when voting for the Bill in the Lower House.
Reform of the Seanad is essential and I support the efforts made by Senator Feargal Quinn and others in their proposed reform Bill. While I have my views and proposals, united we might have some chance of saving this important institution. I was tasked by my party leader some 18 months ago to examine the issue of Seanad reform and produce a report on it. I found in favour of reform rather than abolition.
Some of the reforms proposed included putting greater emphasis in Seanad business on the Northern Ireland peace process and extending membership to people from Northern Ireland representing various communities there. This would enhance cross-Border interaction in areas such as health, education, fisheries and tourism. The Chamber could properly be used as a platform for discussing European legislation and directives. Up to 75% of all our laws emanate from the European Union, yet there is little or no debate on them. Existing scrutiny is more in ghost form rather than reality, which is a significant loss. Senior public appointments could also be scrutinised in the Seanad. The former Leader of the Opposition in the 23rd Seanad, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Future Seanad Leaders should by right be a member of the Cabinet, too. That would show respect to the Seanad and give it an extra dimension.
The failure of Seanad reform is not entirely the Government’s fault as the previous two Governments also neglected the Seanad. Reforms have essentially been put on the slow burner for the past 40 years. Groups representing ethnic minorities and people with disabilities should be represented in the Seanad as a matter of right. The Diaspora should be represented in the Seanad as a matter of right, too. There is a tradition of emigration from Ireland going back 200 years, which needs to be recognised in the membership of the Seanad. I come from a family of 11, eight of whom emigrated. I lived in London for some time and five of my family still live abroad, but they have a great affinity for Ireland. There should be some link with them through having a representative of the Diaspora in the Seanad as such a seat would not be available in the Lower House.
This House is often referred to as being elitist. When I was compiling my report, I wrote to every Fianna Fáil and some Independent councillors to ask for their views on the abolition of the Seanad. I was disappointed with the responses, but those whom I met did not have a problem with maintaining the Seanad, albeit reformed. All of them, bar one, had no problem with this, even if reform meant they would lose their franchise in electing Members.
I also proposed that elections to both the Dáil and the Seanad would be held at the same time in order that one would run for one House or the other. I explored the notion of having a list system, as used in other jurisdictions. However, we are now facing a referendum in which we will have the simple choice of saying “Yes” or “No”. The media are very indifferent to the future of the Seanad. If anything, they are against us. The public is cynical and angry because of the economic decline, the bursting of the property bubble and the bank bailout. It is not unreasonable to expect it to give the Seanad a kick in the backside. If there were to be a vote on the abolition of the Dáil, a substantial number of people would vote in favour of this, too.
If the referendum is passed in October, we will be in the unusual situation where 60 Members, both elected and appointed, will be seeing out the last couple of years of the Government like a dead man walking. I challenge those on the Government side of the House who have expressed deep concern about the way the referendum is being conducted, with no choice being given to the people for reform, to vote against the Bill. It would not be the end of the world for them, as the House will be abolished anyway and that will mark the end of many political careers. What would they have to lose - they are facing the guillotine - if they were to state they did not accept the Government’s proposal?
It is disingenuous of Members to shed crocodile tears about the future of the Seanad when, like a herd of sheep, they will be pushed into the pen by the sheepdog when it comes to voting on the legislation. I have lost the Whip here before on a rural Ireland issue which was close to my heart and came close to losing it a second time, but I am a better person for having done so. I was expelled from the Fianna Fáil Party, but I was asked to rejoin two months before the last general election. If I had not rejoined, I might have been re-elected to the Dáil as an Independent. However, a leopard never changes its spots. I am old-fashioned and slow to change, but I am still happy to be back here.
This is my job and livelihood. Although I am a qualified solicitor, I have not actively practised for some time. I will be very sorry if the Seanad goes. A greater effort should be made to ensure we retain it. When I visited Queensland, Australia, I spoke to some senior politicians from different parties who expressed great regret that their Upper House in the state’s parliament had been abolished back in the 1920s. Surveys there have shown many people want to have the Upper House restored.
If we also look at this historically, one of the principal advocates of an Upper House was the late Michael Collins. Many forget that he was an advocate and a protagonist for the Upper House.
Research has shown that. The Taoiseach and some on the other side should reflect seriously on his wishes because in a few weeks' time no doubt there will be a huge crowd at Béal na Blath, which is close to my constituency.
The Taoiseach and the Government will probably succeed in this Bill, but I will conclude on this point. We have now a situation of a diminution of democracy. In the area I represent in the west of Cork, we have lost four county councillors and three town councils with nine members each, which is 31 in all. If I go, there will be 32 public representatives gone from a peripheral area west of Clonakilty where there are islands and very remote regions. We are developing a dangerous situation in this country, namely, the setting up of a politburo of four or five persons within the Cabinet who are running the show and calling the shots. Abolish the Seanad and there will be one less leg of democracy left. Eventually, this country and politicians will regret going down this road. I ask those in whose remit it is on that side of the House to call a halt and vote with their heart for a change. They have nothing to lose.