On behalf of my party I wish to formally move the second stage of the Seanad Reform Bill 2014. This Bill has at its core the objective of making our political system more democratic and more accountable. Unfortunately this has been a week when it has been shown yet again how badly we need real reform.
The Commissioner of An Garda Siochána was pushed aside following series of deeply suspicious events. Each element of this story has emerged drip by drip and there is not a person anywhere who believes that everything is now out in public.
Even the government’s most craven supporters now concede that we are facing a profound crisis which touches on one of our most important institutions. In the face of this we have for months seen a strategy of attacking opponents, false claims left on the record, a reluctance to investigate serious allegations and an absolute refusal to accept even the most basic principles of democratic accountability.
This week the Minister for Justice went into hiding. Instead of taking responsibility he limited himself to a couple of carefully scripted appearances in this chamber. For only the second time in our history the head of our police force resigned – and did so following an approach by a senior official at the request of the Taoiseach. By any definition this is a major public issue – yet the minister did not do a single interview. He hid from public sight entirely on Monday and Tuesday.
Worst of all we as members of the Oireachtas but not members of government had no powers to force him to be address this fundamental issue. We have met for four days this week and the questions we have been allowed to ask about the departure of the Garda Commissioner were limited to two sessions of Leader’s Questions with the Taoiseach falling back on his now traditional approach of doing everything possible not to answer the questions.
If ever there was proof that we have one of the weakest parliaments in the democratic world it has been seen this week. And let us not forget that the only reason much of what has happened emerged is that the only committees not chaired by the government asserted their independence like the PAC.
In 2011 the Irish people demanded real reform of their political system. What’s more they were promised real reform of their political system by every party now represented in Dáil Éireann. Once the election was over the new government announced that it was determined to push ahead with what it termed a ‘Democratic Revolution’.
Last year’s referendum on the abolition of the Seanad was intended by the government as its major political change. It deployed empty populist rhetoric to claim that the Seanad is an elitist, undemocratic, idle and wasteful irrelevance. At the time the referendum proposal was published it enjoyed the support of 80% of the public.
Fine Gael had the most cynical poster campaign ever held for a referendum. It actually debased politics.
When the Fianna Fáil took its stand against the government and the opinion polls our basic argument was that the government was actually proposing to make our system worse – to hand even more power to a dominant executive and to use the referendum as a way of claiming, rather than delivering, reform. This argument, also advanced by the main non-party No campaign, won the referendum.
No party or individual who expressed an opinion during the referendum called for the status quo to be maintained. The choice was abolition or reform and reform won.
It has become standard practice during Dáil debates on political reform for government members to talk at length about all of the wonderful reforms they have delivered. This has included the Chief Whip announcing in 2011 that the government had begun handing back power to the Oireachtas.
Please don’t waste our time today with this nonsense Minister. The Oireachtas meets for longer and has renamed some of its activities – but it decides less and less. Ministers routinely treat the House with distain. They are accepting fewer opposition amendments and proposals than ever. The guillotining of bills has reached historic highs. Basic courtesies to the opposition, such as proper consultations before European referendums, have been abandoned. On the odd occasion, such as this Tuesday, when we receive a briefing on a matter of major public importance, we learn more from the media than from the government.
When we come here on days like today, we are allowed to propose bills but they are equally not allowed to become law. As we saw with my party’s recent legislation to protect IBRC mortgage holders, the government sometimes even pretends to support the legislation, but then lets it die quietly on the order paper.
No one believes you when you say you have reformed the Dáil and the more you claim it the more absurd you look.
On the evening when his personal initiative was defeated, the Taoiseach said that he was a democrat and acknowledged the people’s decision. Since then he and his government have done exactly nothing to acknowledge the people’s decision. What they are proposing is to leave the Seanad intact with the slight exception of changing the franchise for the university seats – a measure clearly intended as some form of petty revenge against the successful advocacy of the existing university senators.
The government’s position is that it believes that the Seanad is undemocratic but it is proposing to do nothing to reform it. If no action is taken in the next year the earliest a more democratic Seanad could be elected is at the end of the next Dáil – possibly seven years from now.
This isn’t acceptable. The right thing to do – the thing which would show a commitment to genuine democratic reform – would be to hold consultations with the opposition and agree a new referendum proposal to reform the election and powers of the Seanad as well as reforms to Dáil Éireann. There is no reason why such discussions should take more than a month or two.
Government has rejected this and has said that Seanad reform is not a priority and that it will not allow a new referendum on the Seanad to be held.
Given this, the only option to us is to try and find other ways of promoting the reform the people voted for.
While the text of Bunreacht na hÉireann places significant limits on what can be done, we still have great flexibility to enact reform legislation. Most fundamentally we have the ability to introduce a universal democratic franchise in the election of most Senators. A proposal to do this is the core of the Bill before the House today.
The existing Seanad panels can be opened up to universal suffrage through primary legislation. The idea of a primarily directly-elected second chamber is a common one in the democratic world.
It does lead to extra opportunities for conflict and tension within parliament – and this would be a very good thing indeed. What many see as the dysfunction of the United States Congress is more a reflection of their federal system and complete separation of powers between parliament and executive than an argument against second chambers.
We do not need a second chamber which duplicates all of the powers of Dáil Éireann – it is reasonable to have one chamber possess the final word in most disputes. This is provided for in Bunreacht na hÉireann and will not change.
What we absolutely do need is a more diverse parliament which has greater opportunity to challenge government, review legislation and oversee the wider public service.
While debates over the last three years in this House has been full of people stating with absolute certainty that all errors in the past were the responsibility of government – the fact is that the first time our national parliament discussed the financial system was when it was in the process of imploding.
A more democratic, diverse and responsive Seanad could play a vital role in improving the obvious failures of the Oireachtas.
A significant point in this Bill is that it is proposed that the franchise would extend to all citizens – including those not resident in the state. My party will be supporting the proposal to extend the franchise for the election of the President when it comes before the House. Extending it for Seanad elections is possible without a referendum due to the broader wording of Bunreacht na hÉireann concerning the Seanad franchise.
We believe that this extension of the franchise outside of the 26 counties is reasonable given the fact that the Dáil will retain the final word on all matters as well as the only word on taxation and expenditure. There would be a serious issue requiring much deeper debate if it were proposed to give some people the power to dictate policies to which they would not be subject. This does not arise in the context of the Seanad and its existing powers.
The Bill proposes to extend the franchise on the higher education panel to graduates of all recognised universities and colleges. There was once a significant argument for these seats in ensuring diversity in a young state. This argument no longer applies, and in the context of a constitutional reform of the Seanad there would be no justification for retaining dedicated seats for higher education graduates.
A further section of the Bill provides general principles concerning the manner in which the Taoiseach’s nominees would be identified. These obviously could not be binding but they do make the point that in a reformed Seanad the objective of filling representational gaps should be a concern of the Taoiseach’s.
A regular occurrence during these Friday sessions is that government ministers read out a list of technical issues which their officials believe are to be found in the Bill. Often they are entirely right that there are technical flaws.
I accept that there are items in this Bill which require detailed scrutiny and amendment before they could be enacted. That is why we have Committee and Report Stages built into the legislative process. The Second Stage is supposed to be about the core principle of the bill and the core principle of this bill is that we should open up the franchise for electing the Seanad.
There are many specific points within the Bill that I would very much welcome a detailed discussion of during a Committee Stage. There are different ways of approaching practical issues of constructing the electorate for the panels, administering a postal vote and requiring diversity of representation.
This principle was supported by the government at great length and expense last year. Both Fine Gael and Labour said that they view to current method of electing Senators to be completely unacceptable.
The Bill we are introducing today addresses the most important element of reform which is possible immediately – which is to open up the Seanad to all citizens. By adopting this Bill we could immediately end the elitism which the government and Sinn Féin were so concerned with during the referendum. We could make our entire parliament representative of the direct will of the people.
We do not have available to us the level of support staff which the government can use for legislation, but we have shown quite clearly that it is possible to significantly open-up the Seanad even if the government continues to refuse to hold a referendum on real reform.
Through a full debate at different stages there are obviously many issues to be addressed and refined in this Bill, but the core point stands – the people demanded reform last year and we have both the duty and ability to deliver it.
To fail to act, to do the minimum possible and move on to other issues, would be an act of political arrogance which would reinforce the growing public disillusionment with the failure to reform Irish politics.
We have seen this parliament become ever more marginal to vital debates. There have been many small changes but taken together they have reinforced the idea of a dominant executive controlling everything of significance.
The only way to address this and to begin to rebuild a parliament worthy of public support is to listen to the demand for substantive reform. Listening to their decision last year and reforming the Seanad is an essential first step. We need a new referendum on full reform, but we cannot wait seven years before there is a reformed Seanad. We should pass this bill and ensure that the next time we elect a Seanad it reflects the will of the Irish people.