Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Questions (2, 3, 4)

Micheál Martin

Question:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his proposed reforms for Seanad Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43141/13]

View answer

Micheál Martin

Question:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has considered an all-party group to consider legislative reforms in Seanad Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43142/13]

View answer

Joe Higgins

Question:

4. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he intends to propose reforms to Seanad Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [50126/13]

View answer

Oral answers (110 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, together.

I met the leaders of the different parties and groupings in the Dáil and Seanad on 18 December last to discuss how best to proceed with reform of the Seanad. During the discussions everyone was given the opportunity to express his or her views and it was agreed that work on procedural reform could proceed immediately. All the parties and groupings in both Houses would present their proposals to the Seanad Committee on Procedures and Privileges early in 2014 and the Government would submit its proposals through the Leader of the Seanad. It was further agreed that a task force, representative of the different parties and groupings within the Oireachtas, would look at the matter of electoral reform. The parties or groupings could present their proposals to this task force, which would be in a better position to propose a timeframe for the enactment of legislation once it had scoped out the nature and extent of the legislation proposed and examined any possible constitutional implications. There was also a broad consensus at the meeting that the question of constitutional reform, which would require a referendum or referendums, could be considered at a later date.

The House will be aware that the Government has already decided that draft legislation should be prepared to give effect to the 1979 referendum decision which allowed the State to extend the provisions for the election of Members to the Seanad by certain universities to other institutions of higher education in the State. The general scheme of the Bill, when ready, will be referred to the Seanad, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht and other stakeholders, including the institutions of higher education in the State, for their consideration. I can confirm to the House that this matter will be dealt with at the Government meeting next Tuesday.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. The Taoiseach referred to the referendum result as a "wallop". He said that the Irish people had given him one hell of a "wallop". The reason was that he did not listen to the people before the referendum, and he is still not listening. He has outlined the meeting that took place between party leaders. He will recall that he was asked in the House to refer the issue of Seanad abolition to the Constitutional Convention but he refused to do so. He did not put the question of reform before the people; it was simply a take-it-or-leave-it proposal to abolish the Seanad. A lot of this is far from the democratic revolution that was promised.

The Taoiseach's response since the referendum has not been in the spirit of the decision taken by the people. The fundamental issue is the franchise. We need a direct franchise so that the people have a say in voting for their Senators. When we met I put that issue to the Taoiseach, but I do not sense any intention by the Government to push that issue or to facilitate the development of a consensus so that we could agree on legislation that would change the manner of election to Seanad Éireann within the parameters of the Constitution; in other words, legislative change that would not necessitate another referendum in the lifetime of this Oireachtas. It is within the capacity of this Oireachtas to pass legislation to give every citizen the right to vote in a Seanad election. I note that Senators Zappone and Quinn published a Bill in the Seanad.

I published a Bill in this House, while others have also published Bills on Seanad reform. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges of the Seanad will deal with procedural issues. It is tinkering at the edges; it is not going to the heart of the issue that emanates from the referendum debate. Nobody argued for no reform; the entire debate was about reform of the Seanad. The reason for this was the Taoiseach’s party, the Labour Party, my party, Sinn Féin and others – every elected Deputy – had signed up for profound reform of the political system and, in particular, the Seanad, but nothing fundamental has happened in that regard.

The Taoiseach has said the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of the Seanad will take the lead in introducing procedural change. He also said a task force composed of all parties could be established. What is the position on the task force? Who will take the initiative in setting it up? Will it include Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn, for example, who have meaningful ideas on the subject?

Timelines are another issue of concern. The Taoiseach’s reply was well written by experienced public servants. I do not mean that in a disparaging way to the Taoiseach or anyone else, but when I read about scoping and timelining, I draw my own conclusions as to the timeline for fundamental change. The core issue is whether the Taoiseach favours a direct franchise in Seanad elections and if he will engage actively to bring about consensus to support legislation during the lifetime of this Oireachtas to make that happen?

That is too simplistic. When the Deputy talks about extending the franchise to all to elect people to the Seanad, there must be enormous consideration of the implications. I have no intention of putting in place a system over which there would be no control in the sense of citizens of Irish descent in Australia, America, Britain or Northern Ireland being able to directly elect a second House which potentially would be at loggerheads with this House elected by Irish citizens living in this jurisdiction. Such issues are all wonderful to theorise about, but it is a very different matter when one considers the implications. The Constitution requires a Dáil and a Seanad. This has been endorsed by the people and I respect that. I intend to bring to the Government next Tuesday the legislative changes required to deal with the decision of the people in 1979.

When one looks at all of the recommendations made since 1937, including more recent ones by esteemed members of Deputy Micheál Martin’s party, there are very different views which range from an examination of the Taoiseach’s nominees to reform of the Order of Business in the Seanad. If we are serious about the matter, a range of options could be considered. Party leaders were asked to submit their propositions to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of the Seanad, but that has not yet happened. I do not see why we cannot initiate more Bills in the Seanad, but that would mean that the Seanad would have to plan its work far more carefully. Ministers have a responsibility to this House and must answer to it under the Constitution. In respect of the legislative programme of the Dáil, if Ministers are to attend in the Seanad, it means a clearer, longer term strategy in terms of planning is required as to what will be taken in the Seanad. That is not something to which I would object. Neither would I object to the Seanad having a far greater role in the new pre-legislative stage for non-emergency Bills. That is something that has applied since January. When the heads of a Bill go to the Government, they are sent to the relevant Oireachtas committee, which is now normal practice, for its consideration and consultation, and people come before it to give their views.

Innovative initiatives such as the Seanad Public Consultation Committee have given the Seanad an opportunity to fulfil its vocational role. The capacity of the Seanad to review the work of the North-South Ministerial Council is an issue in which people have an interest. Engagement could also be provided for by means of ministerial statements to the Seanad following meetings of the British-Irish Council. The Seanad could review the work of the North-South Implementation Bodies and examine cross-Border issues such as the Narrow Water project, the Maze museum development, energy interconnectors among others. It could continue to engage with minority and other special interest groups, as it has done some work in that regard. Other initiatives could include the development of the young Senators initiative to enhance the parliamentary and democratic process and review the reports of public bodies covering matters related to vocational areas such as those represented by the Seanad electoral panels. That is an enormous body of work that the Seanad could do and it could be implemented quickly.

The Deputy takes the view that there should be a universal franchise in the case of the Seanad. Does he intend to include all citizens on the island of Ireland or those who carry Irish passports? Does he refer to the 1 million plus people living in Britain who have Irish passports and are of direct Irish descent? Does he refer to the one third of the population in Australia - 30 million - depending on how far one goes back, those living in the United States and all those throughout Europe? How would the system be structured so as to allow for universal franchise on the same day to prevent candidates standing in two elections? That is not an issue to be taken lightly. I do not wish to be party to a situation where one has strangulation in the Dáil and the Seanad-----

One would not have that.

-----by virtue of the fact one has two directly elected Houses that could have entirely opposite views, one elected by a vast majority, way in excess of the electorate in the jurisdiction electing the Government of the people.

Such a Seanad could have an entirely different view for entirely different reasons about where we stood. Such an issue will not be decided between now and 2016. It might well be something that could be considered beyond that time, but we should enable the Seanad, now that its existence has been confirmed, to do far more engaging work in a procedural sense and extend the vote to all those who have graduated from third level institutions, as the people decided back in 1979 but no Government in between decided to do anything about it. This one will. The matter will come before the Government next Tuesday and the heads of the Bill will go to the Seanad and the appropriate committee for discussion and consultation.

I suppose the Taoiseach would agree that his life would be much simpler if he could do things along the lines of his newly acquired Saudi Arabian friends – just threaten to cut off people’s heads if they do not agree with the governing party. He would then have no problem.

What? From where did that come?

Does the Taoiseach agree that he should have carried the referendum to abolish the Seanad with a landslide vote, considering how totally undemocratic is the manner of its appointment, but that he lost it because the people did not trust him or the Labour Party, mainly because of all their broken promises? Coming to the House with one proposal, namely, to extend the franchise to graduates in colleges not currently included in the right to vote in Seanad elections, is a huge compounding of the undemocratic privilege that characterises the appointment of that body. Why should 23 year olds who have gone through a few years in college be more privileged than their parents and grandparents who have worked all their lives and paid taxes and have a lot more wisdom be allowed to vote in elections to one of the Chambers of this Parliament?

Does the Taoiseach agree that, in any Parliament which has more than one House, the Upper House could begin to claim some democratic legitimacy only if all citizens living in the state had a vote? How else can a chamber be democratic if it is not elected in that way?

I wish to put a more profound question. There has been much said about the Seanad, the Taoiseach’s reforms and bringing about a democratic revolution. Will the Taoiseach agree that this was all set at nought when the then president of the European Central Bank, Mr. Trichet, threatened to set an economic bomb underneath the Government if it had the temerity to burn some of the financial kingpins in European financial markets? When the Taoiseach capitulated to that threat, is it not the case that he sacrificed any claim to democratic legitimacy or stand for anything that could be called real democracy in this country?

I am not sure what the relationship is between Jean-Claude Trichet and the Seanad referendum. If I recall correctly, the Deputy campaigned for the abolition of the Seanad.

Yes, for 40 years, including when the Taoiseach was appointing his pals to it 30 years ago.

The question of trust also applies to Deputy Joseph Higgins. He cannot come in with that one. The people decided in the referendum to retain the Seanad. For a long time I have understood one never argues with the people in a referendum or an election. Their decision is final; one cannot alter it.

The Taoiseach did not argue at all during the referendum.

I did not debate. Never argue with the people’s voice - I accept this and it is perfectly clear. Deputy Joe Higgins claims we have only one proposal for the Seanad. The one proposal that is very clear in the voice of the people over 30 years ago, in a referendum in 1979, is that all graduates should have a vote in Seanad elections. We will deal with that issue next week and the Seanad and the Oireachtas committee will have their chance to debate it.

Earlier I listed for Deputies Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald several suggestions of work the Seanad could usefully do in the immediate future, including the initiation of more Bills, especially ones dealing with the interests and topics on which its vocational panels are based such as education, language, culture, agriculture, labour, industry and commerce and public administration.

The Government has a majority in the Seanad. Why does it not do this?

The Seanad could review pre-legislation stage reports from committees and make recommendations to Ministers. Why not? New arrangements could be put in place for it to consider amendments on Committee Stage of non-emergency Bills of a detailed or technical nature. How many times have we heard about the wondrous amendments brought forward by the Seanad during the years? Give it the chance to look again at all Committee Stage recommendations. Why not have more time for Private Members’ Bills? The Government will outline its priorities for the year in early March to the Seanad in the same week it will do so in the Dáil. Taking Adjournment matters at midnight in the Seanad will be replaced by commencement debates earlier in the day. The Seanad could review reports of joint committees and make recommendations to relevant Ministers.

Who is blocking all of this?

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, looks impressed.

It is impressive.

The Seanad could review the reports laid before the Houses by public bodies. There have been references to the wondrous contributions made by Seanad Members. Accordingly, we should give them the opportunity to debate reports, make recommendations and see how far we get. The Seanad could review joint committee reports on EU policy reviews and the European Union’s annual work programme, as well as debating motions on reasoned opinions from committees on compliance with the principle of subsidiarity. When I attended the Chamber recently, Senators said they would like to deal with all EU secondary legislation. It could debate reports from the North-South Ministerial Councils and implementation bodies, the British-Irish Council, with Ministers making statements to the Seanad after attending such meetings. I see a full week’s programme for the Seanad, not once in a blue moon but every week.

When the legislation is passed to enable all graduates to have a vote in Seanad elections, it will certainly increase the work rate of those Senators who come from confined quarters. This programme of work will allow Senators to engage in a much more extensive review of important issues about which they have been concerned for a long time.

What mysterious force is stopping the Taoiseach from doing this?

The Taoiseach’s response gives the lie to his earlier reply to my question that a task force is to be established to examine the issue of legislation. He has just said this issue will not be looked at for the duration of this Oireachtas. Everything else he said apropos of reform has already been mooted. The Seanad initiating Bills is nothing new. It has happened before and will happen again. It depends on the Government and the majority within the Seanad. That is all Committee on Procedure and Privileges stuff within the Seanad. These proposals do not go to the core of the reform agenda and what people want. They want a Chamber that is not elitist but elected by direct franchise. The idea in all party groups coming together would be to give a response to the people and debate. We said we would change politics, but we are not doing that. Nothing of a fundamental nature has happened since the general election, other than the Government gaining more control over this House, not less.

The one Seanad proposal the Taoiseach can introduce is providing for a direct franchise within constitutional parameters. One will not be changing the existing powers of the Seanad vis-à-vis the power of the Dáil. The Seanad will continue to have the limited powers it currently has, with no powers in financial matters. This argument the Taoiseach raised about the two Chambers being at loggerheads with each other is bogus and invalid. I recall his Glenties speech before he decided he would abolish the Seanad. He wanted the Diaspora to be included in everything. When Fine Gael was in opposition, every one of its policy documents had a paragraph about the Diaspora. They should be included in this body, that body and whatever you were having yourself. Now the Taoiseach is saying it is not such a good idea anymore. That matter could be debated by an all-party grouping committed to changing the way we elect people to the Seanad within existing constitutional parameters. We could do it. It would just take political will and for the Taoiseach to listen to the people, not dismiss them yet again. They spoke very loudly in rejecting the Taoiseach’s proposition, but they did not say keep the Seanad as it was. They wanted reform of the Seanad. The most fundamental point the Taoiseach’s party kept arguing during the referendum - he did not debate it individually but got the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton to do so - was how elitist the Seanad was. He could change this; the Oireachtas could change it by bringing forward legislation.

What is the role of the task force and when will it be established? Will it be considering the core issue to which I referred?

I agree with the Taoiseach in his assertion for several months that the Seanad is dysfunctional and elitist, points we all recognise. This has happened because of the way various Governments treated the Seanad. Snowing it under with additional work might not be the solution. There is enough consensus around the House to make the Seanad more productive, more representative of the people and for it to go back to the vocational concept where it would be similar to a credit review control as opposed to replicating what is done in this House.

The Taoiseach referred to a forum for feeding into proposals on how the Seanad could develop. Some Members are not part of any recognised group in the Oireachtas. Is there any mechanism for those outside the recognised groups to feed into that forum?

I detected a note of sarcasm in the Taoiseach’s utterances about the Seanad, but perhaps I am wrong.

The Deputy is wrong.

It strikes me that the Taoiseach, after the people administered a wallop to him, is walloping back.

Perhaps the Taoiseach is telling them they wanted the Seanad and they have the Seanad. It is beyond lame for the Taoiseach to state that 35 years later, the great new dawn for the Seanad will be an extension of the franchise to include all third level graduates or graduates of higher education. The Taoiseach is aware that this is absolutely farcical and he is on the record on this matter.

Everything the Taoiseach has said strengthens the argument for passing this issue to the Constitutional Convention. While it is all very well for political groupings to submit their ideas and to have discussions on it, a broader discussion on the issue is required. I am at a loss as to the reason the Taoiseach always blocks any suggestion that the Constitutional Convention consider this issue. Its deliberations have been thorough on all the matters put before it. Its debates have been well-informed and reasoned and the convention has managed to arrive at conclusions. Therefore, what is the issue in this regard? Even if the Taoiseach's interim position is to extend the franchise along the lines of the 1979 referendum result, big deal - the Government should go ahead and do it as it is long overdue. However, it certainly is not enough and it is farcical to have a second Chamber that is not directly elected by universal franchise. I believe there would be broad public support for that, but whatever are the Government's short-term plans, the Taoiseach should explain the reason he will not allow the Constitutional Convention to consider, debate and report on this issue and to bring forward a recommendation. It strikes me that if Members' concern is about a democratic deficit in respect of the Seanad, a democratic remedy would be to allow the convention in its full sitting to consider these matters and to bring forward a conclusion.

Arising from the results of the referendum on the Seanad, any conclusion that does not conclude there is deep alienation and disaffection from the political system as a whole is not facing reality. It was not simply about the Seanad but was about politics and politicians in general. There is deep distrust of the lot of them - that is, of all of us.

Hold on a second. We are not having a debate about the reason the people voted a particular way. This is about the Seanad and what it should do. I ask the Deputy to stick to that.

I am. My point was on the conclusion one should draw from the Seanad result and how that should inform how we deal with the Seanad issue. While the Taoiseach may smirk all he likes, that is the level of anger that exists.

It is no laughing matter.

The Deputy is welcome.

One point that has been clearly expressed in this Chamber and which is the subject of an absolute consensus across the wider public is that one cannot have a democratic institution in which all citizens do not have a say. There are finer points to that debate as to how one would make it universal and not merely a replica of this institution, and they must be discussed. However, everyone would expect a universal franchise and the Taoiseach should accept that. If he does not, he is not confronting the reality.

The other issue concerns something the Taoiseach, if he intends to knock on doors in the next few months, will encounter absolutely everywhere. Can politicians, be they in the Seanad, the Dáil or anywhere else, be held accountable for the promises they make? Alternatively, must one wait for five years to hold them accountable? Most people believe this is not good enough. Therefore, Members should start to discuss what the citizens are discussing, namely, whether a mechanism can be put in place for recall or accountability between elections. Obviously, this would have to be without destabilising government altogether, which is what the Taoiseach will protest. However, can a mechanism be put in place whereby the public, in between elections, can have some say about policy matters or regarding their opinions if they believe politicians have not delivered on the promises they made? Were Members to have such a serious discussion and were they to make a serious effort to put in place mechanisms that responded to these concerns, they would be doing a good job for democracy in Ireland. In addition, by so doing they might also begin to restore some of the lost legitimacy and credibility of the political process.

The profound link between the supposed democratic institutions of the Irish State, which are being discussed here in the Dáil today, and institutions such as the European Central Bank is that the Government, at the beginning of this Administration, claimed to be a champion of democracy and promised a democratic revolution. Is that not true? On the other hand, is it not true that this claim is utterly bogus, given that a month or two after the election, when a powerful European institution threatened the Government, the Economic Management Council, the composition of which is half Fine Gael and half Labour Party, scurried away like frightened rabbits to their burrow-----

I am sorry, but the Deputy must get back to the Seanad.

-----and allowed the dictatorship of the European Central Bank to decide that our people would be obliged to carry the massive burden of the bondholders? Might the Taoiseach also not have-----

Deputy, we are not discussing all of that now.

Well, it does----

We are discussing the Seanad.

The Deputy should leave the Rabbitte out of it.

Might the Taoiseach not as well be the Prime Minister in Saudi Arabia, where the King gives the order and then the Parliament jumps? What is the difference?

The Taoiseach, on a variety of supplementary questions.

Deputy Martin asked a question about what would change.

No; I asked the Taoiseach about the task force.

I will be followed in this Chamber by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to deal with the Freedom of Information Acts and the whistleblower legislation.

No, I did not ask that at all. I asked about the task force.

The Deputy asked about what was going to change and stated that the Government had promised things would change.

I am telling the Deputy about two elements of that. I would like to know what both Deputies Martin and McDonald mean by a democratic franchise in this regard.

I published a Bill on it.

Are they talking about the global diaspora of 70 million people being entitled to vote in the Seanad elections or do they propose to limit this to those who have emigrated, who have left the country or who work for any of the institutions abroad for a short period? There must be some clarity regarding the extent of this proposition.

I considered this matter with the former Tánaiste, Dick Spring, more than 20 years ago and it certainly is not as simple as the Deputy suggests to give a democratic franchise in a global sense. Are the citizens of Belfast, Derry, Coleraine and Newtownards entitled to vote under the Deputy's proposition for election to the Seanad here in this location?

Are they entitled to nominate candidates from the jurisdiction in which they live?

There is a raft of questions that Deputy Martin and Deputy McDonald certainly would need to answer in that regard.

I simply am asking the Taoiseach to get on with it.

When I discussed this point about the diaspora previously-----

Was that with Dick Spring?

-----Deputy Martin suggested that the organisations representing the diaspora in America, Australia, Britain and so on would get together and nominate a person to attend the Seanad. However, when I first broached it with them, the list of those who wished to be appointed to represent the diaspora in the Seanad went from Leinster House to Newport-----

Was this just another Opposition policy document? Was it the kind of thing one does before elections?

-----or from Brisbane to San Diego.

Was it that kind of proposal?

Consequently, it is a question of dealing with the elitism that exists in that sense.

Deputy Timmins made a valid point. As the Deputy is not a representative of an official political party, I am sure his views as an experienced Member would be welcome to be fed in through the system here by sending his observations-----

The Taoiseach is the system.

-----to the Clerk of the Seanad to be given to the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges and to be fed into the system in that way, as it is there that the observations will be taken from the parties and from individuals. I suggest the Deputy could do this.

In response to Deputy McDonald, I would not in any way show sarcasm about many colleagues in the Seanad, whom I have known for many years. If the Deputy likes, it may not be a big deal 35 years later, but why did someone not do it before this?

The Taoiseach was in government during that period. Why did he not do so?

Yes, of course. My point to Deputy McDonald is that it has not been done but will be done now. The point is that this is one democratic piece of progress-----

-----that extends the remit to the many thousands of graduates over the years who were disenfranchised by the elitism of the current system that applied under the NUI.

And who are living all over the world.

Deputy Higgins again mentioned the European Central Bank and the making of bogus promises. The promise that was made in regard to the Seanad was to hold a referendum.

The Labour Party had a different policy.

The people decided very clearly in that referendum.

I accept that decision, and we have moved on from there to engage with the Seanad, to make it more meaningful, to implement the recommendations of the referendum.

What about the Constitutional Convention?

Deputy Boyd Barrett talks about his consistency of protest, the political system and promises that were made.

I did not mention protest.

That promise was to hold a referendum on the Seanad and let the people decide, and they have given their decision very clearly.

We should have a system of recall.

I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett that where a change has occurred it is very necessary that people be able to engage with the political process. That is why we have changed the system so that heads of Bills go from Cabinet to the Oireachtas committees, there is consultation with the chairmen and they can call in members of the public, organisations, agencies or individuals to engage with civic society in drafting legislation that is more comprehensive and thorough. As time goes on, people will see the benefit of that. Those to whom I have spoken are very pleased with the opportunity to come before an Oireachtas committee and give their views in whatever way about an issue that is being considered there.

What about the Constitutional Convention?

What about the task force?

On the task force, I have no difficulty with this, but in respect of real engagement by the Seanad within the existing rules, we must change the legislation consequent on the referendum about the extension of the vote. There is a whole raft of work about which I intend to engage with the Committee of Procedures and Privileges. The question of a task force examining some future options will not be considered within the lifetime of this Government.

Why did the Taoiseach say it would be so?

Because Deputy Martin has not answered any question about the people in Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Britain, Northern Ireland or anywhere else.

The Taoiseach just said, in a formal reply, that a task force would be established.

He wants them all to vote.

Would the Taoiseach withdraw the answer?

He has put no thought whatsoever into it.

This is extraordinary.

He should come back with his paper.

This is unprecedented.

He can have all the task forces he likes, but give them something to think about.

It is a Dallas moment, with Bobby coming out of the shower.

In the space of 45 minutes the Taoiseach has said one thing and the entire opposite in the compass of one reply.

Deputy Martin cannot be jumping up and down in the middle of a reply.

Does the Taoiseach withdraw his earlier response?

What is the task force? What will that do?

With the permission of the House, that completes parliamentary questions.

I seek clarification on that. The Taoiseach said there would be a task force. He is now saying there will not be a task force.

I cannot comment on the replies given.

It is a Dallas moment. He has forgotten all about it.

With the agreement of the House, we will move on to the Order of Business.

We were having a bit of fun.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.