That Seanad Éireann welcomes the commitment in the programme for Government, that this Government is to determine the extent of cross party agreement on the recommendations of the Report on Seanad Reform to advance proposals for implementation, which previously had all party agreement, and work collectively to ensure that as many of these agreed changes can be achieved during the lifetime of this Seanad.
I am grateful to the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Seán Power, for his help in opening the debate. However, I am somewhat disappointed, given the enthusiasm expressed, that there are not more Members in the Chamber. It is possible, however, that as the debate progresses many more will make contributions. The motion was tabled in an attempt to have all Senators engage with the issue which has been talked about, not only in terms of this the 23rd Seanad but probably since its establishment in 1937. It is an unwanted statistic that 11 reports have been produced on Seanad reform, none of the recommendations of which has been implemented, outside of a referenda in 1979 to allow the university constituencies to be reconstituted. That is not a record that reflects well on either the political process or the willingness or ability of the House to change with changing circumstances.
When the Seanad was established in 1937, on foot of Bunreacht na hÉireann, it was a sister parliament of Dáil Éireann which, at the time, had 138 members. In the interim the population has increased by more than a third and the number of seats in the Dáil has been increased to 166. On those grounds alone there is a need to look at the Seanad, who it represents and how it represents them. For the most part, the Seanad can take great pride in its role as a revising chamber. The argument that has been made by some in the political process as to the need for a second chamber has been fairly well rebutted. In most democracies there is a second revising chamber and it exists for a reason.
In the history of the Seanad there have been many instances where its existence was more than justified by the role it played with particular pieces of legislation and in the role played by Members in leading debates that were important in Irish society at the time. We can take that as anon sequitur. That debate is not going to happen. There is a need for the Seanad and it needs to make itself as vital and as important to the people as it can. That 11 reports have been produced, without any action having been taken on them, is a matter we need to confront as a chamber. The most recent report carries the strongest degree of political consensus among all political parties and it offers the opportunity of achieving real progress in a short time.
The motion reflects the reality of what is included in the programme for Government about which some Members might express disappointment but it is written with a specific purpose in mind. The programme for Government promises to determine the extent of cross party agreement on the recommendations of the report on Seanad reform and to advance proposals for implementation. It was written in that way because of the recognition that elections followed the publication of that report. There is a new Dáil and Seanad and, with the participation of my party, a new-looking Government for which reform is very much a priority. On those grounds, we need to assess whether the consensus still exists. I would like to believe it does and that there is a hunger among most in this Chamber and the political process in general to achieve change in Seanad processes. What we can do is put in place a timetable to allow this to take place.
As a Member of Dáil Éireann in the previous Parliament, I sat with Senator O'Toole and other Senators on the informal group that was meant to implement the findings of the last report on Seanad reform. I must admit both disappointment and failure with regard to the working of that group, which was not entered into in the proper spirit. It was there to approach change from a minimal base and the very real agreement that existed in the report was largely ignored.
There is now an opportunity to reinforce the agreement that existed at that time and the 23rd Seanad is the perfect vehicle for doing so. It has 35 new Members, 25 of whom are in the Oireachtas for the first time and ten of whom were previously Members of the Dáil. On that basis, we can take ownership of a process that will make Seanad Éireann an even more respected political institution.
One of the changes which is necessary in terms of public identification with the importance and value of the Seanad concerns the element of public election. I stand over this as a personal achievement to be attained. Unless members of the public can identify individually with this institution, we are very much in a black hole with regard to our political legitimacy.
Political chambers throughout the world are elected by a variety of methods. The Australian Senate, which was elected last week on the same day as its House of Representatives, in what was a very successful election for the Australian Green Party, was elected by public vote. The German second chamber, the Bundesrat, is reconfigured during the lifetime of a government according to results in regional parliamentary elections. As a result, it is not directly but indirectly elected by the people, depending on whom they elect.
There is a mixture of three forms of selection and election to this House. The majority of Members are elected by people who themselves are elected, which is a sound principle. The report needs to examine whether the 1,000 people who comprise that electorate make up a representative enough sample. For example, town councillors, who are also elected, are not part of that electorate. Questions also arise as to whether the value of each councillor's vote is equal in that the population proportion for each councillor may be far greater or lesser depending on what part of the country is involved.
There are questions with regard to the panel system which, although it was introduced on the initiation of Seanad Éireann in 1937, plays a particular role in the Ireland of 2007. It is interesting that we are talking about a system that is now 70 years old. The panel system was meant to be a reflection of the corporatist approach to politics which was very much in vogue in the 1930s and was practised particularly in Portugal. We should be grateful we did not go fully down the road of Dr. Salazar and his like. While that was the model in vogue at that time, we need to ask whether the vocations which are meant to be promoted through the panels are those which express public life in Ireland today and whether the weight given to them is the correct one. Do labour and agriculture have twice the value of culture and education? Why is particular weight given to the administrative panel or the industrial and commercial panel?
The last report addressed this issue in a way that made more sense. Instead of putting the Clerk of the Seanad through some type of mental torture before every Seanad election in determining whether the candidates comply with the vocational heading under which they are seeking election, why not have an open election among people who themselves are elected and get rid of the fiction of the vocational panels?
Members of the House might find it more difficult to accept the recommendations in regard to the call for a degree of public election, which would mean a reduction in the number of seats available. There is talk of reducing the number of seats from 43 to 26. Nonetheless, a panel of 26 seats, however they are divided up, would still make for a lower quota than many of the present panels. If candidates were practised public representatives, the method of election would be less difficult and therefore the need to persuade many public representatives would be lessened.
I return to the fact we have a Seanad membership that is vastly changed from that of the previous Seanad and the likelihood the next Seanad will be composed of people who are part of this rolling process of membership of the House. As we are part of this period of Seanad history, now is the time to make these changes. Many of us can stand aside from being seen as having vested interests and can make the necessary arguments and changes.
Another recommendation in the report is that not only should there be a rolling membership of the Seanad but perhaps a rolling form of election. Again, this could be a matter of debate in determining whether consensus still exists. There is a value in having an ever-evolving Seanad outside the Dáil's election cycle. Other countries operate quite well on this basis. I referred to the German example in which the upper house constantly changes regardless of what is happening in the lower house. Some seem to think the evolutionary approach to membership of the Seanad might be difficult in terms of the public perhaps using the opportunity to give a mid-term Government a bloody nose or a kick in the shins, but this is not necessarily a bad thing because it would help inform the policy debate and give the public an involvement in policy issues they would not otherwise have between the main parliamentary elections.
The other suggestions as to how the Seanad should change relate to the other types of membership in the House. The first relates to the university membership. I have already outlined that the only effort at change to have been made in the 70-year history of the House was the holding of a constitutional amendment in 1979 that has never been acted upon. The principles argued then remain the same. While the membership of university Senators is a very valuable component of this House and their contributions are marked and often illustrious, they must reflect the sector they represent. At present, that representation is limited to Trinity College and the National University of Ireland colleges.