That Seanad Éireann:
believing that it should operate primarily as a House of influence, reform, scrutiny, reflection, consolidation and persuasion and rather than replicate or undermine the Dáil, should act in parallel to it by giving new breadth to the parliamentary process;
believing that the House should seek to convince by force of argument and logic rather than compel by weight of numbers and formal powers;
recognising that the future of Seanad Éireann cannot be secure unless it is seen to have a viable and creative role;
appalled by the Government's lack of progress on Seanad reform;
resolving that the membership of the House should be a fair reflection of civic society and that the various panels and constituencies should be designed to reinforce that concept and to ensure the citizens of the State be the main stakeholders;
believing that every citizen eligible to vote in Dáil general elections should also be eligible to vote in Seanad general elections;
demands, as an indication of its determination, that from 1 January 2011 all degree holders who are Irish citizens and graduates of Irish universities be entitled to register on the register of electors for a six seat higher education constituency and be entitled to vote in all Seanad general elections after that date;
supporting proposals for a Seanad structured along the following lines:
23 directly elected by national popular vote using a list-PR system;
6 directly elected to a higher education constituency under PR-STV;
23 indirectly elected under PR-STV to a national constituency by Dáil Deputies, Senators and county councillors;
8 nominated by the Taoiseach; and, an automatically re-elected Cathaoirleach of the Seanad;
demands that, such an arrangement be in place for all Seanad elections beyond 2012 and demands that the Government should now implement such proposals by bringing forward the necessary legislative and constitutional amendments and putting them to the people by referendum or proposing them to the Legislature as appropriate; and
decides that, even though citizens may qualify to vote on more than one panel, insists that no voter may exercise more than one vote at an election for Seanad Éireann and, in that regard, must make a personal choice as to on which panel he or she will register.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I understand the senior Minister is dealing with a crucial legislation in the other House. I have no doubt he will keep an eye on this motion.
I could stand up here and say "ditto" or "the same again" because it is embarrassing that this topic has been discussed many times in the House. This Chamber is not fulfilling its role as contemplated by Bunreacht na hÉireann. In its current embodiment it is indefensible, it is not viable as a political institution and there seems to be no political will for change. I could quote what the Minister, Deputy Gormley, said two or three years ago. I could refer to the discussions with the Minister in various places and I still believe that he was well intentioned towards it but he has been completely outmanoeuvred by the main Government party which has ensured he has made no progress whatever on this matter. In my view, the Seanad will die if it continues the way it is going. It is indefensible as it stands at the moment and we must examine its role.
It is not a question of whether the Seanad has sufficient powers. The Seanad was never intended to be a mini-Dáil or to subvert the will of the people as articulated in the Lower House. That is not the role of an Upper House in this part of the world. It is that way in Washington, which is why they are in trouble today because the Administration only controls one of the Houses of Congress. This causes legislative gridlock, which was never intended in the Irish Constitution and which, I wish to make it clear, is not what I am proposing in this motion.
The Seanad was meant to be a deliberative Chamber with experienced and knowledgeable people who would inform, amend, extend and consolidate legislative and policy initiatives through persuasive argument and thoughtful debate and which would make a distinctive contribution to the parliamentary process. The main Government party has its head in the sand. I do not want Members opposite to regard my statement as being a personal criticism of them. I have no worries about the people who sit opposite and anything I say is not to be taken as a reference to them because this is not the case. They are good people who mean to do the right thing.
That said, anyone who thinks the criticism will go away is wrong. It is also wrong to believe we can survive the onslaught of negativity about the Upper House. The response of the Fine Gael leader, much as I disagree with it, is understandable but is inadequate and inappropriate. Surely at a time of recession, politicians should know better than anyone, having seen what has happened in other countries and during other times of recession, that it is inappropriate and inadequate to try to row back on the structures of democracy.
The Green Party Minister, Deputy Gormley, stated in this House three years ago this month that he intended to use the period of this Parliament to address reform of the Seanad. He has not done so. In that context, I have some sympathy for the point of view articulated by Deputy Kenny. I do not agree with it but I understand his frustration.
The Seanad should be a tether to the people, connected at all times. It should be the conduit between politics and the people. It should form a synthesis with the people and that is what it was always intended to be. Any reading of the Constitution will make this clear. It should be the voice of the various components of our community. It should be the channel for bringing the vocational experience and knowledge to the legislative heart of Parliament and also to the policy drivers of our democracy. This is what it was meant to be, not a place to embarrass, subvert or overturn the Government. It was meant to add to rather than take from. The thinking was that rather than demonstrating outside the gates of Leinster House, seeking grace and favour meetings with Ministers, Deputies and Senators, or having to lobby individual Members of these Houses, groups in society would be in a position to have their views articulated within the Parliament. This is how it could work. The role of the Seanad is only discussed during election time and perhaps we are in election time again.
I am making proposals in this debate which go against the grain for me because time and again I have said I would oppose any attempt at reform which was merely to change the university panel and nothing else. I have moved back from that position, in pure frustration.
I propose we put in place what the people decided 30 years ago, namely, to extend the franchise to Irish graduates of all Irish universities.
In order to discharge the function about which I spoke — our role in society — ordinary citizens should be the main stakeholders in the Seanad. That is crucial. The Seanad cannot continue merely as a creature of political parties. It is past time for the Government to take a serious look at how we can change it and how it is working currently. I will not go down the road, which I could easily do, of talking about the great things we do at times, the very good debates we have or the great people who have come through this House. I will not go down that road because it would sound overly defensive and like self-justification.
I would like to look at this as if I was not a Member and I was outside trying to create a second House of Parliament. I would begin by acknowledging that Seanad Éireann is exclusive, undemocratic, unrepresentative and, in particular, that its opaque system of election is in urgent need of abolition. One can no longer justify that 43 Members of the 60 are elected by fewer than 1,000 local authority members.
However, I wish to put that in context because earlier I listened to people like Senator Glynn speak about issues on which I agree with him. I support the principle of one tier of democracy electing a distilled version above it. The idea of members of local authorities electing people to the Houses of Parliament is one I welcome. It works very well in other ways. However, I do not welcome that they should elect 43 Members out of 60. That is indefensible.
We need to look at how people get elected to the Seanad. All of us on the Independent benches are very political people but we are not members of political parties. However, the only way we could get elected to the Seanad was through the university panel. As someone who came from an education and trade union background, the choice for me to go on the university panel was difficult. I believed it to be an exclusive cadre. I could not justify it, except that other people had the vote. It reflects a time which is long gone.
We should give voting rights to people. In each of the panels, there is a nominating bodies sub-panel and an Oireachtas sub-panel. Those on the Oireachtas sub-panel are nominated by four Members of the Oireachtas while those on the nominating bodies sub-panel are nominated by the nominating bodies. There is a more simplistic approach, although I do not propose it as an absolute solution but it is an example of how this could be done. If those on the Oireachtas sub-panel were elected by local authority members, it would deal with that issue. The nominating bodies sub-panel could be elected by members of the nominating bodies. That is the way one could get them involved. The agricultural Oireachtas sub-panel would be elected by local authority members while the nominating bodies sub-panel would be elected by those involved in agriculture. The same would apply to the labour panel and the remaining vocational panels. Every citizen should be entitled to vote in a Seanad election and this could be achieved by the simplest of constitutional changes. Members could be elected in the manner I just outlined and in other ways.
Imagine if the Seanad was put together in four different sections. Section one would be elected by registered voters in large geographic constituencies, for example, the European Parliament constituencies. People entitled to vote in a general election would be entitled to vote in a Seanad election. Section two would be ordinary citizens elected through a variety of panels, like the nominating bodies sub-panel about which I spoke, and including the university panel.
The only way one can justify the retention of a university panel is if other people can vote. In a modern democracy in the 21st century, one cannot justify the idea that people have a vote because they are graduates of certain universities. My colleagues and I find it embarrassing.