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Seanad Referendum (Continued)

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 809 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan] Will the Taoiseach consider rerunning the referendum on Dáil powers? I was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts for eight or nine years and I know the Taoiseach has been a member of many Oireachtas committees. Clearly, the lack of those key powers was a fundamental obstruction to Deputies in doing our jobs. I ask the Taoiseach to look at that again. A small elite group of people, led by the former leader of the Progressive Democrats and Minister, Mr. Michael McDowell, Mr. Noel Whelan, a senior Fianna Fáil activist, and others, did their damnedest to defeat the attempt to give the Dáil much more significant powers. They look like they are lining up again to take on what I believe is the right policy of fundamental reform of the Dáil and abolition of the Seanad.

The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny The Government will not run an information campaign. Clearly, we need to abide by the Supreme Court rulings in respect of a previous referendum and the Government will comply with that fully and completely. However, the parties of Government will run a campaign in respect of information for the public about the abolition of the Seanad. The referendum commission is now working on the basis of the provision of information about the Seanad and about the issues relating to its abolition or to its not being abolished. It will be properly resourced and in that sense it will do its work completely independently of Government.

The question of Dáil reform is a matter for Government and for the Oireachtas. I have been doing some work on a number of issues in regard to Dáil reform and I would like to talk to the party leaders and their Whips about that. It is in everybody's interest that we make decisions about a more effective running of this House to use the time more effectively to provide opportunities for people to get involved in legislation in a way that has started with the Friday sittings and the production of Private Members' Bills and so on. On an average week of 24 hours' legislative work here, approximately 11 hours goes to the detail of legislation. We have to make arrangements for people who want to raise priority issues, Topical Issues, Priority Questions and Leaders' Questions. We need to take a serious look at how we focus on the operation of the House here to make it more effective and more energetic. I know the Ceann Comhairle has had a number of ideas over many years. I am certainly not one to say that we should not change the way that we run the business of the House. Over the course of this month I hope to have the opportunity to sit down with other leaders and present our own set of proposals that might make the running of the place more effective.

As Deputy Broughan knows, having been a Deputy for a long time, we have had many proposals over the past two and a half decades, some of which worked well for a short while and some of which did not. It is very hard to put in place processes that allow for new Dáileanna and new representatives when they are elected. However, I hope we can improve somewhat on where we are now.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I asked the Taoiseach a number of questions on the referendum to abolish the Seanad. I believe he answered two of them but did not answer the other two and I ask him to look at that again. I asked if the date had been decided and obviously he has said that no date is yet decided. Question No. 8 asked the Taoiseach if his Department has a special unit in place to prepare for the referendum to abolish Seanad Éireann and if he will make a statement on the matter. I believe he said he had one person in a unit, which is fair enough. Question No. 9 asked the Taoiseach if he will circulate his Department's memorandums and minutes of meetings held regarding the forthcoming Seanad referendum and if he will make a statement on the matter. There was no response in the answer the Taoiseach gave. That is a legitimate question of which I gave due notice. It was tabled some time ago and it is not good enough to have no reference to it in the answer.

Question No. 10 asked the Taoiseach if his Department officials have given him any assessment they have made on the proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann and if he will make a statement on the matter. I do not believe the Taoiseach referred to that either. Does such an assessment by the officials exist? Some months ago the Taoiseach indicated to me that enormous preparatory work was being done on this issue. He declined to share that work with me and other Members of the House. I asked him to do it and he just smiled and ignored my question.

The Taoiseach has said he is going to have a chat with us about Dáil reform at the end of the month. He had his chance to have real engagement on these issues with other Members of the House and he chose not to take it. He simply chooses to ignore Opposition politicians on this proposal. While that is his entitlement, he should not come in here now and say he is going to have a chat about how the House will change its ways when he is the main architect of running the House into the ground and leaving us with a Dáil that is more unaccountable now than it ever was. This proposal that will ultimately go before the people will essentially give extraordinary powers to the Government, which has a huge majority over all areas of public policy. What is required is radical reform of the electoral politics of the Dáil itself and not just the Seanad. Having just one system will reduce scrutiny of legislation and will lead to an increased concentration of power in the hands of a few as opposed to having a broader spectrum of opinion.

On the date for a referendum, the referendum commission was scathing of the Government's performance over the Oireachtas inquiries referendum on which it claimed that the time allotted to the commission was "grossly inadequate" to use its term. We know the debacle in which the Government ended up in the children's rights referendum which is still in the courts because of the mishandling of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, when the Government went off and unnecessarily circulated its own propaganda on the referendum and did not allow the referendum commission to do it on its own as it is the independent body.

In that context, the recommendation is that a minimum of three months would be provided for the commission to inform the public on the referendum proposal. The Taoiseach has said that no date has been provided. It would make sense that the Taoiseach should indicate as early as possible - there should be no major mystery to this - the date of the referendum. Furthermore, I ask the Taoiseach that from now he gives a minimum of five months. There is no hurry here. We have until the end of this Dáil term because the Taoiseach has said repeatedly that if the public votes for its abolition, the Seanad will not fall immediately but will continue until the next general election in, I believe, 2016, so there is no need to rush this through the House. Politically, August is a dead month in terms of the public engaging with the issues - not all issues, obviously, but in terms of the conduct of a referendum.

We need a meaningful response to the referendum commission's scathing criticisms of the Government's handling of previous referendums. Given that there are 40 changes to the Constitution consequent on the abolition of the Seanad, we need to give the public enough time to digest the impact of the change and to have sufficient public debate. There is no time imperative that demands that the Government rams this through for its own political agenda.

The Taoiseach said that the abolition of the Seanad would save €20 million. This has been refuted by the Clerk of the Dáil. He has confirmed that gross savings would be less than €10 million a year. If we add on the real savings after tax, it would be only €6 million to €7 million in savings, which represents less than 1% of the cost of Dublin City Council. We need less of this propaganda and more accurate statements from the Taoiseach about what the abolition of the Seanad would entail in terms of costs and so forth. How much time is the Taoiseach prepared to give to the referendum commission in advance of polling date?

The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny In respect of the information available in the Department, what we are talking about here is a clear commitment of both parties, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, to put a referendum to the people to abolish the Seanad. When I was in the Seanad last week talking about the Bill, Members asked me why this was not referred to the Constitutional Convention. The Constitutional Convention is a very important entity.


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