Seanad Electoral Reform Bill 2013: Committee and Remaining Stages

SECTION 1
Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire Stáit. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad today. I am conscious of the fact that, at a busy time in the dying embers of the current Oireachtas, the Government has generously made 29 minutes available to me to discuss Committee and Final Stages of this legislation, legislation which would cause a fundamental reform of one of our two Houses of Parliament. When I was elected in 2011, I made a promise and a commitment in my speech at the count centre in the RDS that I would never run again for the Seanad under the electoral system which then applied, a system which I described then, and still describe, as an affront to democracy. Among the few other reforming actions I have attempted to make in my few years here, I have put a fair bit of effort, with the very able assistance of Shane Conneely, Aoife Casey, Benjamin O’Hara, Aoife O’Toole and others, into crafting a fundamental reform Bill for the Seanad, as I promised I would do.

As the Minister of State is aware, Ireland has had a problem in recent years. While I do not limit this to the present Government, we found ourselves in some difficult situations five or six years ago that largely could be ascribed to bad governance. While people were happy to blame banks and the real estate sector, the country had a problem with governance and the reason Ireland had inappropriate governance was because it did not have a good system for electing the people who applied the power and the principles of government to the Republic. In the Dáil, the principal objection that can be raised is people are elected who are greatly focused on local issues. In the Seanad, the principal problem is people are elected in a bizarre, elitist, unbalanced and anachronistic electoral system. Within the confines of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Constitution, there is a limit to how much reform can be achieved without a referendum and Members of this House are not in a position to effect a referendum. Consequently, I put together the maximum reform package possible within the strictures of the current Constitution. This addresses the core deficit in the Seanad, which is the democratic deficit, that is, the fact that few people in Ireland have the opportunity to participate directly in the election of the representatives in Seanad Éireann.

In line with the reforms I have put forward, this opportunity would be extended to each citizen of the country, including those citizens who live outside the country. This is important because the ravages of emigration have taken a disproportionate toll in Ireland and it seems only appropriate to have a vehicle of some kind, as do many other countries, for electoral representation for Irish citizens who, through circumstances that are not of their own making, have found themselves forced to live without the Republic. The argument has been advanced that were the reforms outlined in this Bill to be made, the Seanad would become a mini-Dáil. I believe that what would happen is the Dáil would become a mini-Seanad. There would be a single Chamber, based on universal suffrage and nationally based constituencies, in which any citizen could run with limited interference from the possibility of political parties blocking their appointment. In this context, Members have all seen how much difficulty that has caused nationwide in this particular electoral cycle. Any citizen could vote in such a constituency and would not be voting for a local or sectional representative. Instead, he or she would be voting for somebody as part of a national constituency or as part of a number of national constituencies, namely, those based loosely on the existing panels. The only difference would be that one could declare one's intention to vote only for one panel and one could declare one's intention to run in only one panel, thus ending the present position in which individuals in Ireland have up to eight votes at the time of a general election because of their multiple votes in the Seanad, as well as their vote for the Dáil.

While this may appear to be a rather quixotic ideal, I believe it is entirely feasible. It is entirely possible within Bunreacht na hÉireann, would not subvert the Constitution and would not lead to gridlock. The Taoiseach's constitutional lock on appointing 11 Members to the Seanad would be retained because it is set out in the Constitution and no part of this Bill challenges the Constitution. What it would provide is a different kind of Chamber, that is, one in which Members are not focused on local issues. Incidentally, I do not for a second belittle the importance of local issues. As has been noted, all politics is local and I understand that. Local issues affect local people, who need to know they have representation in the halls of power and of Parliament. It would, however, allow for the possibility of having two different kinds of representative in the national Parliament, namely, those in the Dáil, who still would be able to look after local issues, and a collection of Senators who would be focused on, shall we say, the big picture.

For all these reasons, the Bill fixes the democratic deficit in the Seanad, which really is an affront. This was evident in the multiple and often correct objections to the Seanad raised at the time of the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad two years ago. People asked whether they got to vote in the Seanad and noted they did not. This Bill would extend that right to everyone. Consequently, as the people have spoken in the aforementioned referendum and have stated their wish to keep alive the Seanad, there is an absolute obligation to reform it. While it is not the fault of the Minister of State, it is awfully sad that a referendum was held in 1979 on a rather simple, technical issue to change the way in which one votes for Senators but 36 years later, it has not even been possible to implement it.

I made a promise in 2011 that I would not run again for the Seanad under the current electoral system. While maintaining me in this House is not necessarily a good enough reason for reform in the Seanad, it is a promise I intend to keep. There are other good and important reasons for which I urge the acceptance of this Bill, including fixing the democratic deficit in the Seanad and providing one Chamber in Parliament which is nationally focused.

I gave the Senator some latitude, but there are other speakers. I will be checking the section we are on.

I thank Senator John Crown for bringing this Bill forward. He is keeping a promise on reforming this House. The Government made a promise about the referendum and we have seen no reform or change since. This is important legislation which proposes to change the way in which this House is elected and who can elect people to the Oireachtas. One of the important provisions in the Bill is the right of members of the Irish community overseas to vote in a reformed Seanad election. There are 120 countries in the world facilitating this type of voting and yet Ireland does not allow its citizens overseas, bar a few diplomats, to vote in its national Parliament. It is simply not good enough. On the eve of the anniversary of the 1916 Rising-----

I know, but let us be honest; we are not going to reach the rest of the sections. Senator John Crown sums up the need for reform and the need to ensure more people are allowed to vote in a reformed Seanad, which would allow them to have a stake in what this House does and the type of legislation it proposes. I know that Senator John Crown is not going to run again but it is heartening to see the legislation he put forward, and which the Cathaoirleach and I supported, dealt with in the regulations this week.

This House can do what the Dáil simply would not pursue. Senators are aware that the process is quite laborious, and legislation takes a long time to get through. A reformed Seanad could do more of that and be as dynamic as Senator John Crown and others have made it during the years. However, for that to happen the Government needs to want reform and not simply talk about it. I am unsure if it was in the five point plan but perhaps it was tucked in there somewhere. Again, the necessary reform has not happened. That is a regret for all the Members of this House and for the people who voted in that referendum who sought change and who voted for a better form of Government. This Government would tell us it did not get the reform it asked for in 2011.

I commend Senator John Crown for keeping this issue on the agenda. This House agrees that change has to happen and going back-----

That is great.

The Senator should address the Chair.

Do not talk to me. The last piece of legislation was waiting 17 years to go through.

Is that the reason the Senator is objecting to this one?

The 1937 Constitution envisaged and enabled the expansion of the electorate for the vocational panels. When the current Seanad was established, the Leader made it a priority to ensure it would be done and there has been more than one reform. The Seanad university constituencies were widened. That was also on the agenda and passed by referendum for 17 years. Also, giving extra duties to this Seanad-----

The Senator would want to check her briefing notes on that one.

-----and the procedural reforms have been working, as I am sure Members will agree. We have also seen community forums invited to the House. I would like to see more of that, and I know it is on the Leader's agenda. However, more needs to be done. It is our own policy.

In 2009, it was proposed that every citizen would have a vote in the Seanad, as is proposed in the Bill. The issue is how to properly achieve this shared objective, which has been recommended in 11 reports. An election that excludes the majority of citizens from participation lacks popular legitimacy and we all agree that the issue must be addressed.

I am speaking to section 1, which sets out definitions and covers a multitude of issues. The nominating bodies are to be removed from the process and replaced with a requirement to have 1,000 signatures in support of a nomination. Senators nominated by various nominating bodies all have special interests, for example, disability and blind or deaf people. While it is good that bodies have an input in the nominating process, we must make the process broader and more representative.

I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht which discussed the electoral register. The Bill proposed by Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn envisaged a role for the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission. The Bill before us does not appear to make such provision. People from Northern Ireland have made a contribution to the Seanad for many years and the Leader has invited representatives from Northern Ireland before the House on more than one occasion.

We hear a great deal about cloud computing and postal votes. The issue of cybersecurity has not been fully addressed. The centre for cybersecurity at University College Dublin is working with a group established by the Taoiseach to consider this issue. The Government has agreed a way forward in respect of registering people to vote. It will take time to implement, however, because the number of electors is large. We would have another mess on our hands if the register was not done properly.

We must be careful about proposals we make or agree to. While the spirit of the Bill is good, I do not like many of its provisions because they are unworkable. If the vote is extended to the diaspora, will we end up with more people from outside the country voting in Seanad elections than people inside the country?

Work is being done on the report on Seanad reform. I hope the Government will place Seanad reform at the top of its agenda when it has been re-elected. I was disappointed to learn that Senator John Crown has decided not to run for the Seanad again. He has made a good input in the House, including through this Bill. I will ask questions as we proceed through the sections.

I welcome the Minister of State. The Bill before us is especially welcome. While it is not the only proposal on how to reform the Seanad, it is a concrete one. I cannot get over the failure to do anything on foot of the 1979 referendum.

The Senator is wrong. The House passed the relevant legislation.

The Senator should allow Senator Feargal Quinn to continue, without interruption. I also ask speakers to confine their remarks to the contents of the Bill.

Senator John Crown explained the Bill. On the day he and I were elected, he announced he would not stand again unless the voting system for the Seanad was reformed. The Senator has proposed this Bill to reform the House. It is exactly the type of legislation the Government should accept as it would make a statement that it intends to do something about Seanad reform. Nothing has happened since the referendum two years ago.

Section 1 will allow action to be taken without presenting constitutional difficulties.

I support Senator Crown in this. I believe the Minister of State should accept section 1 because it makes a great deal of sense.

I will be brief because, as Senator John Crown has said, the time is limited. I commend Senator John Crown for pursuing this Bill rather than leaving it lying on the Order Paper to die with the current Seanad.

While I appreciate this is only one proposal on Seanad reform that has been initiated during the course of this Seanad and since the referendum, Senators Feargal Quinn and Katharine Zappone had a proposal and my party had proposals, and, indeed, the Government had proposals in this regard, and while there are sections and proposals in the Bill that I would not agree with, it is sending a signal that we are serious about wanting to reform ourselves.

Mention has been made of the 1979 referendum, which was initiated by an uncle of mine who was then Minister for Education and the arts. It is regrettable that nothing has happened in relation to extending the university franchise. However, it would be easy to do that and nothing else, and to do that in isolation would not be appropriate.

We need to address Seanad reform. I hope we will get an opportunity to come back into this House to work on that in the years ahead. While the Government, to go by what Senator Cáit Keane stated, will not be accepting this here today, my party will vote for it because we believe, flawed and all as it may be in certain respects, it is a start and we must move on from here. I would urge the Government to accept Senator John Crown's Bill.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey.

I too support Senator John Crown. In fact, Senator Feargal Quinn's statement that Senator John Crown feels he will not be able to stand for election again if he does not see meaningful reform has saddened me somewhat.

Senators Feargal Quinn, John Crown and Katherine Zappone have all been pushing for reform. Many would argue that the referendum was based on the belief that there would be reform. I am not at all convinced that we will see any reform coming from the report that was done by former Senators Maurice Manning and Joe O'Toole and others, which was a great piece of work. Based on that, I add my voice and vote to the support for Senator John Crown's Bill.

I hope any notion that Senator John Crown might depart this House will leave him as quickly as he leaves the House today and that he will return. The Senator has been a significant spokesperson for legislative reform and, indeed, for the medical profession and the treatment of patients nationally. I hope that if the Government does not accept this Bill, it will not in any way deter him from returning.

In 1979, we passed a referendum. Two years ago, we passed a referendum. I honestly do not believe there will ever be reform unless some brave Minister - Deputy Paudie Coffey is brave - will take the step of adopting a Bill, and we can change it through legislation afterwards if need be. I ask the Minister of State to accept it.

Senators spoke on wider issues around the Bill, and I would appreciate some latitude in making my response.

I thank Senator John Crown for tabling the Bill and acknowledge the contribution he has made in general to this House. I regret to hear that he may not be standing for election, but that is everybody's personal decision.

Before I address section 1 in detail, the Government will be opposing this Bill, and I will outline why. I appreciate that the Bill before us specifically addresses electoral reform, but the stated objective of the Bill suggests an ambition to achieve a far wider Seanad reform. We all are in agreement - many Senators have said it, as have I, as a former Member of this House - that reform is needed.

However, I am not convinced that this Bill can fully deliver on that as it is currently drafted. The Government has agreed an approach to Seanad reform which is based on the implementation of procedural reforms and reform of the Seanad university constituencies, and also on advancing reform more generally through considering the recommendations of the working group on Seanad reform which was established by the Taoiseach. It is in that context that the Government has considered the content and stated purpose of this Bill and has decided to oppose it for a number of reasons that I would like to put on the record. First, administrative issues arise which compromise the ability of the Bill to be implemented in practice. The Bill, if implemented, could give rise to significant costs which do not appear to have been comprehensively analysed. That would have a huge impact on the Exchequer. The Bill would also reduce representation from the sectoral interests and agriculture, labour, industry and commerce in the Seanad. In the absence of any explanation for this change, the Government is not persuaded that it is justified or that it should be agreed.

The Bill also removes the nominating bodies entirely from the process of candidate selection for the vocational panels. The Government is not convinced that the Bill adequately replaces the existing arrangements or that the new arrangements for candidate selection would adequately meet the constitutional requirements in relation to the formation of the vocational panels. A key feature of the Bill is the extension of the franchise to all local government electors in the State and also to Irish citizens who are resident outside the State who are passport holders. This would create a second directly elected House of the Oireachtas with a significantly wider franchise which could be more than 5 million votes. As I have said previously when debating another Seanad reform Bill, if the Seanad was to be so configured and the right to vote in Seanad elections so provided for, the Constitution would then have been framed in this way. As we all know, it is not.

The Bill does not quantify the likely electorate, but we estimate that more than 5 million people would be entitled to vote under the Bill as drafted. Clearly, this would have serious cost and administrative implications which I believe are not adequately addressed in the Bill. On the matter of costs, the Bill provides for a novel way of paying for the running of the Seanad elections, which is that the costs would be met from the parliamentary activities allowance paid to Senators and to the political parties whose members are Senators. The Government will not be supporting the Bill, as currently drafted.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 2 to 29, inclusive, agreed to.

Acting Chairman (Senator van Turnhout)

As it is now 3.30 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with the order of the Seanad of this day: "That section 30 is hereby agreed to in Committee, that each of the sections undisposed of, Schedules 1 and 2 and the Title are hereby agreed to in Committee and the Bill is, accordingly, reported to the House without amendment, that Fourth Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed."

Question put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 17; Níl, 24.

  • Barrett, Sean D.
  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Crown, John.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Norris, David.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • van Turnhout, Jillian.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
  • Zappone, Katherine.

Níl

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brennan, Terry.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Cahill, Máiría.
  • Coghlan, Eamonn.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Comiskey, Michael.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • D'Arcy, Jim.
  • Gilroy, John.
  • Hayden, Aideen.
  • Henry, Imelda.
  • Higgins, Lorraine.
  • Keane, Cáit.
  • Kelly, John.
  • Moloney, Marie.
  • Mulcahy, Tony.
  • Mullins, Michael.
  • Naughton, Hildegarde.
  • Noone, Catherine.
  • O'Brien, Mary Ann.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Neill, Pat.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
Tellers: Tá, Senators John Crown and Feargal Quinn; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.
Question declared lost.