Seanad Reform: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Seanad Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Senator Jim Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh Zoom on Jim Walsh] The elephant in the room is Dáil reform, which is much more urgent than Seanad reform. That said, I fully support Seanad reform, which is urgently required. I put it to the Government Chief Whip that the Government has systematically broken its programme for Government pledge not to guillotine the debates Bills. The debates on a total of 63% of Bills have been guillotined to date. The ramming through of the Bill relating to Irish Water just before Christmas in a single day in the Lower House has led to an overstaffed conglomerate that is a profligate entity with total disregard for the hard-pressed taxpayer. The Government failed to implement its programme for Government commitment to allow for two weeks between Stages of Bills. Ministers only respond to little more than half the number of Topical Issues raised, which is evidence of disregard for the House. The Government continues to engage in cronyism in appointments made to State boards and ignores the public process. The recent raft of measures, without any consultation, will in reality disempower the Opposition.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I ask the Senator to conclude.

Senator Jim Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh Zoom on Jim Walsh The Government has become intoxicated by its own spin, of which this truncated debate is an example.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I must call the next speaker, Senator Michael D’Arcy.

Senator Jim Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh Zoom on Jim Walsh I understand we are finishing at 5 p.m. today - Wednesday - because the Minister will not make himself available after that time. That is unacceptable.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke The Senator is way over time.

Senator Jim Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh Zoom on Jim Walsh It is an example of why we must move from the rigid control by Government of these Houses.

Senator Michael D'Arcy: Information on Michael D'Arcy Zoom on Michael D'Arcy In listening to the debate I am reminded of the saying that if one were going somewhere they should not start from here. I am somewhat of that view in terms of Seanad reform. If the opportunity arose we would not start from here. It is a pity previous Governments did not take the opportunity to reform the House. I agree with some of what has been proposed by Senator Katherine Zappone and others supporting the motion. I agree that people should be elected by the public. That said, the university panels are good and provide good people. I would not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  I welcome the Taoiseach's statement on the night of the referendum defeat that he was prepared to move on the 1979 referendum straightaway. That was a positive step in the right direction. We must make a decision on what we can do now. The Taoiseach clearly said the Government would not hold another referendum. Therefore, we can only operate on the basis of passing legislation to alter this House. The task force is a good idea. Anyone who has ideas, be they Senators, other Members of the Oireachtas or members of the public, should bring them forward. That should happen straightaway.

  I have an idea that could be introduced straightaway to provide universal suffrage, but it would mean the Taoiseach would have to give up something that is very important to him and future Taoisigh, namely, the prerogative of choosing the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees. They should be chosen by election. Legislation could be passed in this and the other House to allow for 11 people to be elected by means of an electoral process. They should be elected in 11 single-seat constituencies throughout the country. Those who are elected would become the Taoiseach’s nominees. That would not be easy to do, as it is radical, but it would be legitimate reform and could be considered. In conjunction with the 1979 referendum we would move towards the immediate reform of one third of the House. We must be realistic. The vocational panels would require a Seanad referendum to be properly reformed. I do not have a solution to the provision of universal suffrage. I do not envisage a system whereby anyone could put themselves forward for the Administrative Panel, for example, or the Agriculture Panel. That will not happen. This is a time when voter turnout for referendums is 35%. People will not register for a vote on a particular panel.

  We are also restricted somewhat due to legacy issues. The Seanad was constituted in 1937. It was a time of economic war. The Second World War and the Cold War had not yet started, but it has since come and gone. We should leave aside any of the views that are stuck in the past relating to when we were constituted in 1937. We should look to the future – 2037 – and how we can be relevant at that time.

Senator Mary Ann O'Brien: Information on Mary Ann O'Brien Zoom on Mary Ann O'Brien I wish to share my time with Senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy Eames.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator Mary Ann O'Brien: Information on Mary Ann O'Brien Zoom on Mary Ann O'Brien I support my colleagues, Senators Katherine Zappone, John Crown and Feargal Quinn. I am a Taoiseach’s nominee, but I have no problem with what Senator Michael D’Arcy suggested. One of the things that has affected me is getting to know my colleagues in the Seanad. As has been pointed out, this is another light week in the Seanad. We are closing early this evening. There is not a lot of legislation for us to scrutinise this week. One thing I do know about my fellow Senators is that we are here to serve all Irish citizens. We all know the evolutionary process that is needed just to survive in business in today’s world. The Irish population has never been more disillusioned or dissatisfied with us politicians. Could we, please, come together and take some radical steps within the Constitution to reform ourselves in order that we can be an example to the citizens who vote to keep us here? As Senator Katherine Zappone said, if we do not get something done before the end of the term it will be another seven years before anything can happen.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Information on Fidelma Healy Eames Zoom on Fidelma Healy Eames I thank Senator Mary Ann O’Brien. I am delighted to be a signatory to the motion. I thank Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn for leading on the matter. We are talking about Seanad reform again. We await the response of the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, because a roadmap needs to be laid out today on how serious, rigorous reform of the Seanad will take place. We could not have received a better mandate from the people. We got a mandate to retain and reform the Seanad. I wish to see the principle of one person, one vote being upheld. While I accept that the Taoiseach has given a commitment to implement the terms of the 1979 referendum, we must be careful that we do not create another new elite, something Government Senators accused the Seanad of being in the previous election, by just giving the franchise to university graduates. Let us not perpetuate another new elite.

  My second point is simple. I do not want to see party politics in the Seanad. We could have a simple vote to decide issues. The Seanad could become the thinking House and the place for policy formulation for the Dáil.

Senator Paul Bradford: Information on Paul Bradford Zoom on Paul Bradford I thank Senator Katherine Zappone and the other Senators who have driven this matter to the top of the political agenda. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State. However, we all know in advance that the response of the Government will be a continuation of Government policy towards the Seanad, which is one of deep and utter cynicism. Fortunately, the people thought differently.

  It is interesting to debate the motion, but it will be much more interesting to debate the motion in late May or early June in the aftermath of the local and European elections, because it is only at that stage that politicians will universally accept that the winds of change are blowing through the political system and that the same is simply not good enough.

  I would welcome an extension of the university panel system, but the debate would have to be about allowing every single citizen of the State to vote in Seanad elections. I am disappointed to hear Government Members say that is not possible and that no further referendums will take place. It is not necessary to hold a referendum to extend the franchise universally.

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