Seanad Reform Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed) [Private Members]

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Before I speak on the Bill, I would like to say, “Labas rytas” to our visitors.

I congratulate Fianna Fáil on bringing the Seanad Reform Bill 2014 forward. It is a sign that spring has sprung. Last year’s stupid blank proposition to abolish the Seanad was made even more stupid by the imposition of the Whip on both Government parties in the debates on it in both Houses. The evidence was clear that Government Members did not believe that it was right to present such a proposition to the people, yet they voted to support the abolition of the Seanad, a sign that something is very sick in our democracy. Well done to Fianna Fáil for bringing forward a Bill that invites all Members to participate in bringing forward reform proposals. That is intelligent and I commend the party for it.

The political reform that has taken place so far has been cynical and just tinkering but not fundamental. It has been disguised and camouflaged in language that is irrelevant to life today. We are a country that has spent five years in the chains of austerity, trying to deal with the damage and wreckage from the financial collapse which has not been properly measured or articulated by the Government or its advisers. It still remains poorly articulated, leaving our families and smaller indigenous businesses hurting unnecessarily.

Up to €15 million was expended on putting forward that stupid proposition to abolish the Seanad. What a shame. It is also a shame that Sinn Féin has not joined in this opportunity to bring forward this collegial, co-operative and frame-worked proposition from Fianna Fáil. There is some sort of inadequate thinking pattern pervasive here whereby, unless something has the credentials for being a final product, it must be rejected. That is again stupid.

In the debacle with the Minister for Justice and Equality that has been going since early February, I was pleased the other day that Deputy Mick Wallace took only three minutes - 180 seconds - to enumerate succinctly and in ordinary English eight features of what had happened. It was refreshing to hear it compared to a ministerial statement prepared in the bureaucratic style of the old parliamentary choreography and language which was meaningless and one had to fight through. Again, the ministerial statement was a waste of time. No wonder people do not listen. We have an opportunity to power-hose the barnacled hull of the ship that is the Oireachtas and clean it down.

As a newcomer to Oireachtas representation, I have been disappointed as I feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, weighed down by so much rope. One cannot think or converse because of the proprietorial and proud connection people have with what is being discussed, instead of being open-minded, generous-hearted and constructive in attitude. Sometimes, the guard and mask slips, which is refreshing. When people become cement-set in their attitudes and bound by the orders and instructions of the Whip, it is more than depressing - it is demoralising, destructive and wrong.

Last July, with the abortion Bill, to give it its shorter name, and the abolition of the Seanad Bill, there were moments in a millennium watching the imposition of a Whip, unnecessarily, on parties. It was deeply depressing. There was something almost weird in the behaviour of parliamentarians when a Government with the largest majority ever in the history of the State was behaving like it was having its last gasps and could only survive by imposing Whips to steamroll and kill off any sparks of originality, thinking or conscience. Wake up is all I can say.

There is a Private Members’ Bill in the lottery drum waiting for providence to draw it out.

I hope every one of the 166 Members of this House will subscribe to this Bill, because one of the greatest countries of modern 20th century Europe, Germany, was reduced to rubble and ashes because of an over-concentration of power. After the Second World War and out of the wreckage of that war and the 85 million dead in all theatres, between Asia, Europe and Africa, Article 38.1 of Germany's Bundestag basic law - its basic constitution - states, "The members of the Bundestag shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience."

The Bill in the drum for the draw for Second Stage reading here is identical in wording to that. It proposes that the Members of each House of the Oireachtas shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience. There is nothing to be afraid of in this. Everybody in this House, all 166 Members, should embrace this because it is fundamentally wholesome and the lynchpin protector of the democratic principle. I invite all Members to prepare their minds and hearts to embrace this concept, which has served Germany well. Germany unified two countries separated by and after war with that constitutional insertion. It has had coalition governments with small majorities and with different principles and policies, bringing forward a people that had been separated by a horrible war to where it is today. We should think about this type of fundamental structural change.

In a spirit of generosity, I say well done to Fianna Fáil. I hope Sinn Féin can change its course in mid flight. Aeroplanes do it; parties and individuals can do it. However, we must create the fertile conditions for a strong democracy that represents the whole people, where parliamentarians are not bound by orders or instructions and can carry the ideals of a better and more equal society forward into the 21st century.

I would like to point out to Deputy Mathews that we have made significant progress, North and South, as a result of actions taken by this Parliament, regardless of government, in bringing peace to our land. Now we have shared Administration in the North and, thank God, after many years of violence, there is no violence on the streets. This is a result of our Government, the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland working together. Therefore, we have been very successful at bringing about a democratic resolution of many of the issues.

With regard to electoral reform of the Seanad, last month the Government published for consultation a Bill to implement the 1979 amendment commented on by other speakers in regard to the election of university Members of Seanad Éireann. The main features of the scheme are a single six-Member constituency to replace the current two university constituencies, an extension of the franchise to all holders of a degree or equivalent from an institution of higher education in the State, other technical provisions for the organisation of elections, including, for example, the creation of a register of electors, the appointment of a returning officer and arrangements for taking the poll and counting votes.

An opportunity has been provided for input into the preparation of legislation and the feedback from the consultation process will inform the further development and preparation of the Bill. The general scheme has been circulated to Seanad Éireann and forwarded to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht. Copies were also sent to other stakeholders, including to 81 other institutions of higher education. As part of this process, written submissions have been invited from citizens, elected representatives and any other individuals or groups with views on the matter. Implementation of this constitutional provision could have been done at any point since 1979, but it is the current Government which has now taken this action to implement the will of the people.

While there has been no shortage here today of analysis of the shortcomings of how the Seanad operates, one thing that has been lacking is the willingness to act, but this Government has taken significant initiatives. Earlier, I outlined the Government's proposals for reform which can be implemented in the life of the current Seanad. In addition, we are advancing the overhaul of the arrangements for the election of the six university Senators.

We have instituted real and significant political reform since coming to office. These reforms range from constitutional reform - we have already put six referenda to the people and more are planned - to radical and significant reforms in regard to the financing of the political system. We have legislated to link the payment of State funding to political parties with the achievement of a gender balance in candidate selection at general election. Our reform of local government is the most radical of any reform in the past 100 years. We have introduced Dail reforms and reforms in the operation of the Oireachtas committee system.

There is a lot more to be done and we will continue, over the next two years, to advance the reform of our political system and the Oireachtas within the constitutional parameters to ensure that they operate to the best advantage of the people. I would like to mention also that the Freedom of Information Act was significantly dismembered by the previous Government and we are now restoring it to ensure the more probing and analytical advantage of full and transparent accountancy, which had been removed by the previous Government. In regard to Seanad reform, when Deputy Martin was in government with former Minister John Gormley, a Seanad reform group was set up in 2009. All of the political parties in the House contributed to that group, with the exception of Fianna Fáil which claimed the pressure of parliamentary business did not allow it time to make a submission.

The Fianna Fáil Seanad reform Bill cannot deliver the change nor the reform that is needed. I have outlined the reasons for saying this in my earlier contribution. On behalf of the Government, I oppose this Bill.

I thank Deputy Mathews for his kind comments and his erudite contribution which goes to the heart of much of what is wrong with our Parliament. The Parliament has not moved with the times and is losing its relevance to the public. When I mentioned the Chairpersons of various committees, the Minister of State took umbrage, yet in advance of the Seanad referendum, the Government produced a Dáil reform package. In that package was a proposal that we should have a d'Hondt methodology around the chairmanship of parliamentary committees, meaning there should be a pro rata distribution of chairmanships among the various parties in the House. What did the Government do but defer that until after the next general election. It chose not to implement that proposal for the duration of this Parliament, but now the Minister of State has attacked me for making a valid statement that the Executive controls the House and the committees. Yet, in terms of the recent Garda scandal of the penalty points issue, it was the Committee of Public Accounts that managed to get that issue onto the agenda. Strenuous attempts were made to undermine the Chair of that committee and the committee at the time and to prevent it from doing its work. This attitude is very unhealthy.

The unhealthy aspect of the whole issue is that there is no sense of separation between the Executive and the Parliament. Before the last general election, given the enormous economic collapse, both global and domestic, we all said we should change our politics. Every party said this before the election. Now, irrespective of whether the Minister of State likes it, there is huge disillusionment among the public at the lack of change and the lack of any response. For example, the lack of any parliamentary oversight over regulation continues. Fundamentally, nothing has changed in terms of the financial architecture of how the financial world is regulated or, in particular, the parliamentary oversight of that regulation. Who guards the guards remains an ongoing issue that has not been resolved in any way.

The problem with regard to the Seanad is that the Government said during the referendum it was elitist. The basis of the Government's campaign was that it was elitist and a cost issue.

Democracy is something I value. Obviously we have to manage our costs, but the Government should stop putting that up front. Every time we have a debate about democracy, it is all about costs.

The Government celebrates getting rid of urban councils as the best reform in 100 years. It is not. It is removing a fundamental, low-cost element of our democracy which gave people a voice and allowed them to try to help their local communities.

Correct. Forty-five million people died in Europe.

Deputy Martin without interruption.

We now have a situation in Ukraine, Crimea and Russia which should remind us all-----

-----of the absolute imperative of democracy, the importance of democracy and the degree to which we should cherish it. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, and his party will never again put up posters exhorting people to vote "Yes" for fewer politicians. What an appalling message to send young people in this country. What appalling cynicism. Some of Deputy O'Dowd's backbenchers knew it too and were saying it privately. Vote "Yes", get fewer politicians. It is more democracy we need, not less.

The one good aspect of the Seanad, imperfect as it is, whether we like it or not, is that it has produced alternative voices in Irish debate and discourse from across the board. I refer to celebrated figures who use the Seanad to raise issues of public importance and have good public debate. That is extremely important in a democracy. It is not all about passing legislation, regulations and so on. It is about a range of voices-----

-----and the power of debate. I do not know whether Deputy O'Dowd saw Seamus Mallon's excellent programme with John Bowman yesterday. I noted Mr. Mallon's comments about how he enjoyed the House of Commons. What he enjoyed most was the debate, the engagement-----

-----and the ideas. I was taken by that contribution because that goes to the heart of what democracy is about - alternative voices, debates, competing opinions.

There is too much uniformity here. We as a political party need to change as well; I am not saying otherwise. Of course we have to change. We go forward in a spirit, in the aftermath of the collapse, of having learned lessons from the crisis. It is a fact that this Parliament did not discuss the financial world after it had set up its regulatory infrastructure eight or nine years ago - the financial authority, the new Central Bank, etc. Parliament did not actually start debating it until it had imploded. In between, there were no debates. When they debated the new financial regulatory authority, the preponderance of the debate was about consumer issues, not prudential risks or other more important issues pertaining to the euro. We desperately need alternative voices.

To cut to the chase, the principle of this Bill is to democratise the franchise. It is to give the citizen a say in electing Senators.

This is Second Stage of the Bill. We acknowledge that it can be improved. The Second Stage speech of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, was almost like a Committee Stage contribution, going through the technical issues, the problems and so on.

Apparently, it is impossible for us to allow our citizens to vote in embassies overseas, yet for many other countries there is no difficulty in allowing their citizens to come to vote in their national elections in their embassies in Dublin. For some reason, it is beyond our capacity to ever countenance organising it, and that is the proposition that is coming back. It is wrong.

I urge the Minister of State to give consideration to the principle of this Bill and allow it through to Committee Stage-----

-----so that we can have a meaningful discussion with Members of the House. Some of his own party's members, even in their later contributions this morning, indicated they wanted that kind of debate.

Deputy Murphy stated earlier that he would welcome an opportunity to contribute. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State to allow this Bill to proceed to Committee Stage so that we can have discussions on it.

It is depressing that the Taoiseach is ruling out any further referendum and ruling out any legislation to allow for direct franchise, which would get rid of the elitism on which the Minister of State rounded so agitatedly during the referendum campaign.

Question put.

In accordance with Standing Order 117A(4), the division is postponed until immediately after the Order of Business on Tuesday, 1 April 2014.