With the Taoiseach and most people in this country I fully appreciate the need to reform our political system so that we can give full expression to our democracy. I do not subscribe to the view that ours is the worst political system but neither is it the best that it can be and when it was really put to the test no one can deny that it massively failed the people in neither preventing nor even anticipating the economic bust that has visited such hardship on all of our people. It is that failure that has underpinned the consensus around the need for reform of our politics and probably for radical change. What is not so clear, though, is how that should happen and what form it should take.
That is my sole reservation about an early decision on the abolition of the Seanad without a much wider debate about our politics. It might be that the abolition of the Seanad is part of what is required to make our system more robust but currently, without knowing what might replace it or what other reforms might come in tandem with abolition it is not clear to me how politics, our political process or the national welfare will be improved by the abolition of the Seanad. The danger I see is that in the absence of the Seanad with all its flaws – it has many – and with a weakened or reduced Dáil at the same time as retaining the strong Executive, we will have less democracy, accountability and less potential to deliver for our people. I see that as a real danger. We have a large Government majority currently and that may be a feature of Governments in the future and the potential for scrutiny of Government action is already seriously diminished. Our system is characterised by a strong executive arm regardless of whether there is a majority. I understand the need for that but the strength and power must be tempered and balanced by a system that holds the Government to account and does so in a transparent and effective way. If reform is our aim I do not see how a smaller Dáil and no Seanad can achieve that.
I do not dispute the need for reform but before we throw out the baby with the bathwater the question must be asked about what political system we want and what is required to achieve it. The Taoiseach has said he intends to strengthen the committee system, which is a good thing, but there must be a debate about what that means. I am a long time in the House and I have seen change to the committee system.
However, the most recent change to the committee system has removed the Committee Stage of the debate on a Bill from this Chamber. This part of the debate, which most people will agree to be the most crucial, has been relegated instead to a basement in the adjoining building out of the public eye. Moreover, the power to table amendments is confined just to the handful of committee members. I believe this constitutes a diminution of democracy and not a reform. While I believe it was introduced as a reform, it is neither an enhancement nor a reform of our politics.
I understand the Taoiseach mentioned there would be 12 members in the new committees that it is proposed to establish. However, given there is a tradition in this House that Government Members do not submit amendments, it really means the power to submit amendments would be confined to approximately five Members of the entire Dáil and I wonder about that. The proposal for pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny by the committee is a very good one. However, the downside - and there always is a downside - is that having a small handful of Deputies checking on themselves is not always the best way to scrutinise something. Even when one is proofreading something, unless one sees the mistake the first time one will not see it the second or third times. Consequently, that problem of scrutiny with a mere 12 members arises again, as having a small, limited pool of expertise and limited experience will be damaging, particularly when the Bill is complex or technical or both. My fear is the committees will be strengthened at the expense of the Dáil Chamber itself.
I refer to one advantage and indeed the original reasoning behind the vocational or sectoral nominations to the Seanad was to tap into a range of specific skills and expertise that might not be produced through the random election process to the Dáil. I absolutely agree this vocational system no longer reflects the range of vocations or sectors and I do not believe it is relevant today. It certainly does not reflect the academia of today. However, the principle of bringing in other expertise is a good one and were that to be lost now, one must consider how it is to be replaced. It could be done through a reformed Seanad or perhaps it could be achieved by moving the Seanad or the Dáil or both to a list system, in which people with a particular range of experiences could be selected onto those lists.
Incidentally, I agree the current electorate for the Seanad for both the sectoral and university panels is ludicrously out of date and undemocratic and any reformed Seanad, were the public to decide it should be kept, should be based on a completely different system. On the other hand, it should not be one that replicates precisely elections to the Dáil because if we are to achieve the necessary oversight and an alternative source of scrutiny, it will be necessary to move from sole reliance on the party system.
Moreover, no discussion of a new politics can take place without real consideration of the multi-seat constituencies and consideration given to the possibility of changing that either to single-seat constituencies or to a list system or to both. I acknowledge this would be a much harder bullet to bite than the abolition of the Seanad but no one can deny that Ireland's electoral system and the multi-seat constituency in particular has a detrimental effect on its governance.
The point has been made that other countries - and the smaller Nordic countries specifically were mentioned - only have a unicameral system, and that is absolutely true. However, I have done a fair amount of study in the past on Denmark's political system in particular and its governance is almost entirely locally based. They operate a rigid system of subsidiarity and have various levels of local government in which no service is provided at a level above that absolutely necessary to deliver it. The result is that Denmark's national parliament has a limited role in the governance of the country. It is confined purely to national issues, such as national taxation, obviously, national and international transport routes and foreign affairs. Even were we to reform our local government system, we are light years from such a system and in fact are moving in the other direction towards bigger local authorities rather than smaller ones. I welcome the reforms that are taking place at local level and note one such reform mentioned is the ability to vary the property tax by 15%, which then is collected and dispensed by national government. I do not consider that to be a revolutionary change. In Denmark, local taxes, determined and collected locally, provide health, education and policing services, as well as all those other services we regard as being local services. Consequently, I am not completely convinced that comparing the Nordic countries, because they have a unicameral system, with the proposed system for Ireland is entirely valid.
However, Ireland must reshape its political system. This must be done in a coherent way by establishing at the outset what it is we wish to achieve and by identifying all the elements of our system that require change. I believe we need change beyond simply cutting out the Seanad but I have worries about using a piecemeal method of change. For instance, we are introducing gender quotas, about which much has been said. It is another measure I do not entirely support but the idea behind it is to increase female participation, which I do support. However, the sitting arrangements are working against encouraging female participation. In fact, they work against men participating as well, as the practice simply is anti-family. Practices such as sitting until midnight, short notice sittings and cancelling breaks all make it extremely difficult for parents to plan childminding and to organise their lives. Consequently, if one really seeks to have more women in this House, one must consider the organisation of the Dáil in its entirety.
The Whips already have spoken about the need to plan legislation in order that it allows for measured scrutiny, an end to guillotines and certainly an end to situations in which amendments to the Bill as presented on Second Stage must be submitted before the Second Stage debate has even been held. As I noted, our politics must be reformed and I acknowledge there is a perceived need and a temptation - probably too much of a temptation in difficult times - to streamline everything, even our democracy. However, abolishing the Seanad is a fairly dramatic and far-reaching move on which to embark without a clear and coherent overall vision of how scrutiny can be ensured and how the democratic deficit will be compensated for. Consequently, while I certainly am not wedded to the concept of a Seanad, certainly not as it operates at present, I urge caution until we know where we are going. Ultimately, the people will decide and it is worth remembering the public voted in a referendum in 1979 to extend the university panels but no legislative effect ever was given to that vote. There is a certain irony in going back to consult the people again to abolish it completely, having failed to implement the previous decision.
I welcome the opportunity this Bill gives to provide the people with the chance to decide in the first instance. Primarily, it gives us an opportunity to have a broad-ranging debate on our political process, which is long overdue.