I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am not advancing this Bill because I wish to preserve the Seanad in the face of extinction by way of referendum; rather, I advance it because I wish to offer something better and something we have never had, namely, a truly democratic Chamber that would draw the citizens of the Republic closer to the heart of the parliamentary process. Others have argued that the Upper House should be retained and reformed because it performs a critical role in our democracy and is a counterweight to the otherwise unrestrained excesses of Government power. I must respectfully disagree. The Seanad, as constituted, does nothing of the sort. This Seanad, despite the sincerity and diligence of most of its Members, has, sadly, been largely ineffectual. The lack of impact is a near inevitable consequence of the way its Members are elected. Senators and others have asked why I am doing this at this time and the answer is simple. I ran for public office on the promise that I would campaign for the reform or abolition of this House which I described at the time as an affront to democracy.
The Taoiseach has entirely correctly, in line with his pre-election promise and with my support, indicated his intention to put the issue of the future of the Seanad to the people in a referendum. However, the choice that will be offered to the citizenry is too limited, namely, the status quo. That involves keeping this undemocratic and dysfunctional Upper Chamber or abolishing it completely. Most citizens to whom I speak would like a third choice - reform. If Members allow this Bill to pass Second Stage, there will be a viable alternative which can be amended on Committee Stage to be presented at the time of the referendum. We will be giving the people a choice.
While the democratic deficit at the heart of the Seanad was my principal motive in campaigning for change, other compelling reasons for reform have been become clearer to me in the two years since I was honoured with election. In short, not only is the Seanad, as constituted, undemocratic, it is also ineffective. What are the problems? In the first instance, it is clear that Parliament collectively consistently fails in its duty to hold the Executive branch of government to account. The recent economic meltdown provides the best example of the consequences of this political failure. It has long been my position that the principal responsibility for the collapse does not lie on the shoulders of the bankers or real estate developers whose actions, while generally irresponsible and sometimes unethical, were, however, rational exercises of financial self-interest.
Elected parliamentarians and Ministers and the professional regulators who were appointed by and answered to them failed to exercise their responsibility to rein in the excesses of these sectors. This was sometimes due to unhealthily close connections between politicians and those in the banking and building sectors. More often, however, it was less sinister in nature and was due to either a lack of economic expertise or, in the case of some of the more financially literate Members of Parliament, the silencing effect of the party Whip.
This failure is not some theoretical abstraction, it has real and tragic consequences. Some 100,000 of our children emigrate each year as a result of bad governance and poor and inadequate Oireachtas oversight of the activities of Government. Others are languishing on hospital trolleys or waiting lists or have had their social supports withdrawn. How could parliamentary reform have prevented these problems? How could the expertise of parliamentarians been used to overcome bureaucratic inertia and stasis? If good, innovative and well thought-out legislation such as the Medical Practitioners (Amendment) Bill 2012, which was put forward by Senator Colm Burke and which was designed to address an important but, in scope, limited problem, cannot even traverse the Whip system because civil servants did not approve of it, how can parliamentary oversight of the actions of Ministers and officials in the macroeconomic sphere ever succeed?
The Seanad Electoral Reform Bill 2013 is primarily a pragmatic attempt to democratise the Seanad within the constraints of Bunreacht na hÉireann. While I firmly believe the Constitution requires far-reaching change - particularly in so far as it pertains to both Houses and to the way in which Ministers are appointed to the Government - I accept that we in this House are not able to effect such change. To believe otherwise is fantasy. We must work within the Constitution and this means that certain things are constitutionally non-negotiable. In the first instance, the Taoiseach retains his right to nominate 11 Members of this House. We cannot touch this right without amending the Constitution. It is a little undemocratic but it is not entirely unprecedented internationally. In Italy, bonus seats are given to the most successful party in elections. This can combat gridlock and - as has abundantly been the case in the current Seanad - allows for other, non-political expertise to be introduced into the corridors of Parliament. In the second instance, the panels, including the university panels, cannot be abolished. Finally, the vote must be postal.
The Bill addresses the democratic deficit definitively. We propose that all electors - in Seanad elections these people will be defined as all citizens of the Republic and also those who are legally resident within the jurisdiction of the Republic and already allowed to vote in local elections - will have the opportunity to vote in respect of one panel. When they present themselves at polling stations on the day of a general election, these individuals will be given a Dáil ballot paper and also one Seanad electoral panel ballot paper of their choice.
The old university panels posed something of a challenge to us in framing this legislation. The elitist limitation of voting rights to graduates generally but even more so to the graduates of only two universities, namely, Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland, NUI, has been a frequent and appropriate source of criticism of the current Seanad. I am the first member of my family who would have had a vote in Seanad elections. I include in that my grand-uncles, who served time in Frongoch and Pentonville, as guests of his then Majesty, for their role in our struggle for independence. The seventh amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann allowed for the extension of this right to other graduates. However, that amendment was never legislated for nor acted upon. The Bill before the House provides the long overdue legislative correction to extend voting rights to three smaller, two-seat legislative constituencies. Those outside who are looking at this debate and who may think the Bill an exercise in self-preservation should note that in this dispensation I would not have been elected to the Seanad because I came third in the three-seat constituency and Senators Rónán Mullen and Feargal Quinn would, therefore, have been the sole NUI representatives.
Under the Bill, the nomination process would be thoroughly democratised. Any citizen of the Republic would be eligible to stand for any panel, although nominations to the third level panels would be constitutionally limited to graduates of the relevant institutions. Nomination would require the signed agreement of 1,000 citizens. Thus, the filtering effect of the parties and of the rather bizarre nominating bodies system would be ended. The people would nominate and the people would elect. No one else would be involved. It is simple.
Two other provisions of the Bill have been flagged by some as being controversial. These are the extension of the franchise to Irish citizens abroad and the enfranchisement of non-citizens who are legally resident in the Republic. With respect to voting rights for Irish citizens abroad, it should be noted that this is not some radical, internationally unprecedented departure. A total of 115 countries recognise such rights for their citizens. The countries to which I refer include the United States and many of our EU neighbours. In the case of countries such as the United States, citizens living abroad have absolutely full voting rights. In the case of other countries such as Italy, limitations apply and citizens living abroad are only able to cast their votes in respect of a number of seats. It must be remembered that if the Bill were accepted, we would be joining the ranks of the limited. The proposal is, therefore, not that radical. We are only extending voting rights to Seanad elections, not to Dáil or Presidential elections. Disquiet to the effect that this is representation without taxation has been expressed. The actions of successive Oireachtais have ensured that not only have many citizens here lost the right to pay taxes because they lost their jobs but also that hundreds of thousands of others who would love to work and pay taxes right here in the Republic have had that opportunity dashed from their hands as a result of forced emigration. Denying them the right to vote would be absurd.
There is also concern that our domestic politics might somehow be malfeasantly subverted by the highly organised and orchestrated registration of large numbers of tenuously Irish, passport-eligible Americans or others. This is not really plausible. Not only would possession of a passport be necessary, formal registration on the register of electors at any embassy or consular office would also be required. In addition, the arithmetic does not stack up. In large national panels, the effects of such manipulation would, in truth, be minimal. Similarly, the Bill extends the right to legally resident non-Irish citizens who live in the Republic. This is not as controversial as has been portrayed because these residents - and contributors to our society - are already registered and recognised as electors in local elections. As such, they already contribute indirectly to the election of 43 Senators who are elected to this House by the local representatives for whom these residents can vote.
Why should colleagues vote for the Bill? The principal reason is that there has been widespread and long-held near unanimity that the Seanad status quo is not acceptable. The latter is mainly due to the democratic deficit which lies at the core of an institution that was deliberately crafted by its creators to minimise the input of ordinary citizens. Thus, it is not only functionally undemocratic but it is also, at its core, philosophically undemocratic. Nothing could illustrate this dysfunction better than the discordance between the overwhelming support I have received on a personal level from most Senators in recent days in respect of the Bill and the real possibility that they may be constrained from voting for something they actually believe would benefit our country.
Many people have asked me about the brains behind the drafting of this legislation. In that context, Shane Conneely deserves the bulk of the credit because he has worked tirelessly on the Bill in recent weeks and months. He was assisted in his work by a young law student, Aoife Casey, who is present in the Visitors Gallery. We also received research support from Aoife O'Toole and Eibhlin Mullarney. Those to whom I refer form the coalition of mostly unpaid interns who work as my assistants. I thank them for their work. I also wish to thank the Minister for his attention and I look forward to his acceptance of this democracy-enhancing Bill.