That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to reform the method of election of members of Seanad Éireann and to provide for related matters.
On behalf of Fianna Fáil I wish to move First Stage of this, the Seanad Reform Bill, and to explain briefly our reason for introducing it. In the last general election, every party and Deputy represented in this House promised to support a profound reform of politics in our country. Three years later, there has been no significant reform of any of the political institutions of the State.
The Government's control of Parliament has been increased and even the Chief Whip has described its treatment of the Dáil as deplorable. Although the Dáil sits for longer, serious issues are less and less likely to be allowed proper debate and Ministers regularly withhold basic information. While claims to have delivered reform are constantly repeated the reality is exactly the opposite. We saw this in operation last year when the Taoiseach refused to allow consultation or debate before pushing through a referendum proposing to abolish Seanad Éireann while concentrating all power in an unreformed Government-controlled and Government-dominated Dáil. In spite of the major resources spent by the Government, and the active support of Sinn Féin and many commentators, the people saw through the proposal. They recognised it as a proposal which had nothing to do with reform. The Taoiseach got his wallop but has subsequently refused to listen to the people. Nobody on the "No" side of the referendum argued for the retention of the Seanad in its current form, but the Government's reaction has been to state it is not interested in reform beyond a minor and tokenistic change of the electorate for one tenth of the Seanad.
Our position in successfully campaigning for a "No" vote was that the Seanad could and must be reformed. This should ultimately involve a new referendum drawn up on the basis of proper consultation and reform of the Dáil. However, it is not essential to wait for a referendum; just because the Government arrogantly insisted on putting its own crude proposal to the people there is no reason to sit back and state nothing can be done. The Bill we introduce today addresses the most important element of reform which is possible immediately. This is to open up the Seanad to all citizens. By adopting the Bill we could immediately end the elitism about which the Government and Sinn Féin were concerned during the referendum. We could make our entire Parliament representative of the direct will of the people. The Bill proposes to open voting for Seanad panels to all citizens, including those who do not live in the State. Given the Seanad will continue to have limited powers, and no powers regarding financial matters, extending the Seanad franchise to all Irish people is reasonable and fair. We do not have available to us the level of support staff the Government can use for legislation but we have shown quite clearly it is possible to significantly open up the Seanad even if the Government continues to refuse to hold a referendum on real reform. Many issues are to be addressed and refined in the Bill through a full debate on various Stages, but the core point stands. The people demanded reform last year and we have the duty and ability to deliver it. To fail to act, or to do the minimum possible and move on to other issues, would be an act of political arrogance which would reinforce the growing public disillusionment with the failure to reform Irish politics.