I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan.
General Scheme of Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2014: Statements
On behalf of the Government, I am introducing the general scheme of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2014 which was published last month for consultation. When it is enacted, the Bill will reform arrangements for the election of six Members of the House by institutions of higher education in the State. While I welcome the opportunity to present draft legislation in this form, today's debate is not about what I have to say. I am more interested in what the Senators have to say. Last month I sent the Cathaoirleach a copy of the general scheme for the consideration of the Seanad and I am here to listen to the views of Senators.
Three Senators are elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland and three by graduates of the University of Dublin, Trinity College. The general scheme is an early but important part of the legislative process to implement the 1979 amendment to Article 18.4.2° of the Constitution to extend the right to vote to graduates of other colleges and universities. It will create one constituency with six representatives elected by the institutions of higher education in the State. It is estimated that up to 800,000 people will be entitled to register under the planned reforms. When the present arrangements were established in 1937, the National University of Ireland had 9,000 electors and Trinity College Dublin had 3,400. At the 2011 Seanad elections a total of 151,000 voters were on the combined registers for the two university constituencies. The reforms represent a significant expansion of the electorate and will make the election more democratic. The implementation of this constitutional provision could have been done at any point since 1979. The Government is now taking action to implement the will of the people.
The approach being adopted is for a broad definition of institutions of higher education to be applied in order to include universities, institutes of technology and other higher education institutions and private colleges in the State. In publishing a legislative proposal in draft form in this manner, the Government looks forward to a public debate on its contents. As well as being discussed here today, the general scheme has been forwarded to the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht for consideration.
It says something about the diversity of third level education in Ireland today that my Department has identified 81 colleges and universities to which a copy of the general scheme has been sent. Written submissions have been invited from these institutions. In addition, submissions have been invited from citizens and from any other interested individuals or groups. There is a deadline of Friday, 11 April 2014, for the receipt of submissions and all those received are being published on my Department's website. Some members of this House have already set out views on the issues addressed in the general scheme in the context of the three Private Members' Bills on Seanad reform published by Senators in 2013. I acknowledge the work of Senators in presenting these Bills.
In parallel with the consultation process under way, there are practical issues that will need to be addressed in order to implement the planned reforms. Aside from questions of policy, the modalities of voter registration and the running of elections will give rise to particular administrative challenges, especially given the scale of change to the electorate that is envisaged. To progress work on these matters, I have established a technical working group comprising departmental officials and nominees from stakeholder bodies. This group which met for the first time last Friday, 7 March will make observations on operational matters, including in respect of the creation and maintenance of a register of electors and the administration of elections in the new Seanad constituency, and issues of cost arising from the implementation of the proposed new electoral arrangements. The technical working group which is chaired by my Department includes nominees from the Department of Education and Skills, the National University of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin. The Irish Universities Association, Institutes of Technology Ireland and the Higher Education Colleges Association which represents a number of private colleges have also been invited to nominate a representative to participate. I have asked the technical working group to report back to me by May this year.
Today's discussion is about the general scheme before us and it might benefit proceedings if I briefly outline its main provisions. The Bill proposes to amend the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act 1937. There are eight heads. Head 1 is the standard initial section of a Bill. Head 2 provides for the election of six members in a newly formed Seanad institutions of higher education constituency and defines the term "institution of higher education in the State", which is used in the Constitution.
Head 3 provides that a person who has been awarded a degree or equivalent qualification recognised through the National Qualifications Framework from an institution of education in the State will be entitled to register. In practice this would be the equivalent to what is known as a level 7 qualification in the framework. Head 3 also provides that the award must be validated by an awarding body in the State. Head 4 provides that there shall be one register of electors for the constituency and that the register shall be established and maintained by a registration authority designated by the Minister.
Head 5 deals with technical provisions related to voter registration following on from other sections of the Bill. Head 6 provides that the Minister shall appoint a returning officer for the constituency. Head 7 makes provision for new arrangements for the nomination of candidates to bring them more into line with reforms made in respect of other electoral codes. Head 8 makes provision for an alternative arrangement for the filling of casual vacancies based on the replacement candidates list system that operates for European Parliament elections in Ireland.
Having described the provisions of the general scheme, I look forward to hearing the views and ideas of Senators. It is open to any Member to make a written submission in addition to making comments today.
I welcome the Minister. I call Senator David Norris who has ten minutes.
That is a privilege. I wish to share time with my colleague Senator Sean D. Barrett. Perhaps the Acting Chairman might remind me when I have spoken for three and a half minutes because that is all the time this piece of tripe deserves.
Is that agreed? I am referring to the time.
Yes, but we all agree that it is tripe.
I believe this Bill is a prelude to the invasion of the university seats by political parties, which is made quite clear by the Minister's remarks towards the end of his contribution, in which he said:
Head 8 makes provision for an alternative arrangement for the filling of casual vacancies based on the "replacement candidates list" system that operates for European Parliament elections in Ireland.
Nothing could demonstrate more clearly that the Government proposes to invade these seats. This is a gratuitous act of revenge against the universities because it simply will not work. I said a couple of weeks ago in the House that the only way it could work was if the Taoiseach was prepared to be generous and gracious and give some of his powers of appointment away to create a larger constituency. I said at the beginning that I felt this would be very difficult to work because there might be up to 500,000 people entitled to register, but the Government now states the number is 800,000.
Let us just look at this; it is complete nonsense. What we propose is quite acceptable and we all spoke about it when the Government was doing sweet damn all about activating this reform. The Minister was not a bit bloody interested in reform but now cannot wait. Let us see what the effect will be, however, because he is not reforming the whole Seanad but just doing a little bit to gratify the Government and get at the people who speak out openly in this House. We will have 800,000 people electing six members, 1,000 electing 43 and one person electing 11. Is that what the Minister calls democracy? If so, I was right to say he was a hypocrite. While I like him personally, I do not like hypocrisy. This is the greatest bit of bloody hypocrisy I have ever seen in my life. It is matched by several other elements in this Bill. The general scheme states, "As a consequence of having a model based on a single constituency, no graduate would have more than one vote in the election of members by the institutions of higher education". Come on - what kind of eejits does the Minister really think we are? This is not necessary. The Bill is not necessary to achieve that objective. I am glad that the Minister is looking embarrassed and picking his lip. He is right to because he has left intact the fact that the political people will still be left with six votes each if they have a graduate degree. There are five votes for the parties. Those concerned are saying they are desperately worried that somebody with a degree from both Trinity College Dublin and UCD might have two votes but do not give a rattling fart for the fact that there are five votes on the political panels.
As far as I am concerned, this scheme does not take into account Northern Ireland or graduates abroad. What is the meaning of the franchise section? Are we now to be run by the bureaucracy? What happened to representative democracy? The Minister does not give a sugar about it.
I am staying on merely to hear my colleague, Senator Sean D. Barrett, on whose time I hope I have not trespassed. I regard this as the most contemptible piece of blatant hypocrisy. The Government will get nowhere with it. The public will not be fooled and will accept only real reform. The entire Seanad must be reformed instead of this tinkering around.
The Senator is dead on the button of three and a half minutes, which is a unique occurrence in the House.
It is unique for me.
I welcome the Minister. Speaking in County Sligo on the day after losing the referendum, the Taoiseach said, "We know now that like the all-Ireland final, it is not going to be replayed so we have to deal with the question of how you make a Seanad effective." I have my all-Ireland ticket from that fixture. Our side won. Normally it is the winning team whose captain gets to make the speech, but the Taoiseach is trying to introduce a scheme whereby the captain of the losing side gets to make a speech. This is ironic, given that he would not debate the issue before the referendum.
Well said. Bravo.
He had nothing to say before it. He is now to seek revenge on the Independents, the five of us who defeated five political parties, namely, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, People Before Profit, Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance. That was a major achievement. Why did we succeed? It was because we provided the vital checks and balances and, strictly, that is what a second Chamber does. That is what the Government is trying to eliminate. I have from the European Economic Review of 2010 an article stating, "we show that bicameralism improves the accountability of legislators in the electorate where the same party controls the two chambers". That is what the Government is trying to do away with.
I have tabled 328 amendments. Nobody will move such amendments when the political parties take over the seats because we will not have the money or resources to canvass 800,000 people. That is what the Minister is at; it is still the same power grab. The checks and balances that are so vital cannot be in place if this scheme is implemented. We must oppose the monopoly of ideas, which is what bicameralism is designed to correct.
The whipping record in this House is appalling. The Government whips people time and again. If we do not move the amendments, it never will. The procedure will be in secret such that an effort will be made to persuade the Minister at party meetings.
That is not good enough in the type of democracy we need so badly in this country.
The filling of casual vacancies under head 8 is the abuse practised in the European elections and we referred to it recently.
Candidate A who is well known is nominated and when this person wins it is handed over as a gift to candidate X of whom nobody has ever heard.
This will be introduced in the Seanad and it is appalling. It is the worst aspect of the abuse of democracy in European elections. The general scheme proposes to extend this malpractice and abuse to this House. It really is a disgrace. Why does the Government have no ideas on reforming the Taoiseach's 11 nominees, the local authorities' 43 seats or the fact Independent Senators are recruited by political parties? Senators Eamonn Coghlan and Ivana Bacik have joined political parties. The Whip system means that this is the end of their independent voices.
For what did the people vote? We are entitled to make this speech because the Government side lost out. I am delighted to make the winning captain's speech, unlike the Taoiseach using Croke Park analogies in his. We found young people are totally alienated from the political party system because it is run more rigidly than anything by Mr. Stalin or any other enforcers of the party Whip system. This is one set of people the Government had better address and it is not doing so today.
A total of four fifths of the other Chamber wanted to abolish this Chamber and it tells one something about the low standing they have in their constituencies that the majority of people voted to keep it. In Dublin working class constituencies, where every Deputy wanted the House abolished, we won handsomely with more than 60% of the vote. The Government ought to consider why it has alienated working class people so much.
My colleague, Senator David Norris, referred to the absolute anger this measure has found among our graduates in Northern Ireland. We are the only part of the Oireachtas for which people who reside in Northern Ireland have a vote. A referendum was held to deprive them of this vote and they had no vote in the referendum. Some of them were thinking of going to the courts to rebuke the Government on this. The leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Micheál Martin, asked me on the day of the count in Dublin Castle how on earth the "No" people won in County Donegal. It was because our supporters in Northern Ireland got their friends, hotels, grocery shops and the man who gives one a bag of potatoes over the hedge when one is on holidays in County Donegal to vote "No". I am sure this shocked the Government to the core. We want to have better relations with Northern Ireland, and President Clinton referred to it only last Friday. To throw out of the Oireachtas the only constituencies where a substantial number of Unionist people have voted and made a very valuable contribution to the House seems particularly short-sighted.
This is the same power grab by sore losers who would not accept the verdict of the people last October. It will weaken the Seanad. Now the Government will really invent a Seanad which I will vote to abolish the next time because it will be crowded out by Fianna Fáil light against Fine Gael light and the Fianna Fáil reserves against the Fine Gael reserves. When we are not here to move vital amendments, which I have done 328 times, they will not be moved. The existing power structures, the permanent government, the public service, the Cabinet structure and the inner circle of Ministers will have even fewer checks and balances, and as the Minister knows very well, this is not for what the people voted. Why does the Minister not make proper reforms instead of getting revenge on four or five people from the two university constituencies by abolishing their constituencies? It is a shameful thing to do and I am sure the Minister will acknowledge it.
I welcome the Minister. I am a little surprised by Senator Sean D. Barrett's contribution because the way I see it it is not revenge, it is an extension of the franchise of the very elitist system in place whereby very few people-----
Excuse me. The Senator dares to call it elitist? How many people elected her?
I am not saying-----
Will I continue?
The Senator has an almighty cheek.
The Senator confused the panel system and the university system when he stated everybody would have five or six votes.
Under this Bill the universities will have one.
Yes and the Senator's lot will have five each.
Can I speak?
The Senator should talk sense.
Will the Acting Chairman allow me additional time from the Senator's time to cover the time lost due to his interruptions?
This is a debating Chamber.
I ask the Senators to respect each other.
When the Taoiseach was appointing his 11 nominees to this Seanad, for the first time in the history of the State, real independent Senators were appointed. There was only one who was a party affiliate of the Taoiseach's. The people got independent Senators. The Taoiseach did that. He was generous and gracious, as he was asked to be. That is a fact.
I am pleased to be standing here 31 years - or is it 35 years, worse again - after the amendment to the Constitution made provision for this to be done. I will not say we were hardly around then, we were around but this has taken a long time. We were talking earlier about legislation being introduced in the Seanad and 35 years is a long time for anybody to wait. The people have spoken on this issue and the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, are now implementing what the people want.
Why does the Senator not ask them?
They made it quite clear they wanted a complete reform of the Seanad, not this rubbish.
Senator Keane to continue, without interruption.
I did not hear Senator Norris call for implementation of the people's wishes when he was here all those years.
There is simply no reason that 33, 35, or whatever is the number, of years------
It is probably in the Deputy's script.
-----after the amendment to the Constitution, 21 years after the establishment of the University of Limerick and Dublin City University and decades after the establishment of other third level institutions, that no legislative effort has been made to provide for this. A consultation process is now open which I welcome and it will close on 11 April. I ask everybody to make submissions to it and, as the Minister said, he is here today. We have had many debates on this matter. The Minister has taken notes. Obviously, one cannot do everything in one day. I admire the Minister for what he is doing today. There is much more to be done, but one cannot do everything in one day. A consultation process is open and the general scheme of the Bill has been referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, which will debate this matter further. People are invited to make submissions on how a university panel could be more inclusive in the future. I welcome this.
One suggestion I would make is that we could replicate in legislation Article 33 of the Free State Constitution and establish a cross-party or non-party system for the representation of important interests and institutions in the country, but that is a matter for another day. It is reasonable to suggest we have it within our collective power to make many changes. I admire the Leader of the House who has made some changes, including inviting people in to address this House. This House was established to represent different voices in the community and it is open to us to do that. We have already started to put that into practice. Legislation is not needed to do everything.
It has been suggested the estimated eligible electorate for the new enlarged constituency for the Seanad will be 800,000. The electorate for the university seats in 2011 was 151,399 and the Minister has also given figures. The possible ways this will change the dynamics of the university system has been shouted down here because it will take more people to elect a candidate, but many more people will have a vote. We can note the percentage of the people who have a vote in the university system and when it was established and that franchise will now be extended to include the Institutes of Technology. More than 73,000 in this year alone applied to the Central Applications Office, CAO, and all of those now will be included in the electorate. We have a highly educated workforce. Restricting the vote to the NUI electorate only recognised one educational system, but now most of the education systems or, as the Minister said, 81 colleges will be included. That is a huge step forward. It is estimated that 800,000 will be entitled to register under the planned reforms. This is a more reflective figure in regard to third level education in Ireland today. All third level institutions will be given the recognition they deserve. Students pay the same fees in all third level institutions. Students are educated to the highest level in all institutions, be it institutes of technology or universities. The system was elitist and discriminatory, but the Bill will change this.
The Seanad was established to get people from a spectrum of backgrounds involved in the political system to reflect a variety of experiences and sectors and the institutes of technology reflect a varied variety of experiences.
These include all types of education and not solely what is known as academic education. I would support the further extension of the franchise, but we cannot do everything in one day. I am sure the Minister will be back after the consultation has concluded. In addition to the national qualifications authorities, other bodies may also grant awards and degrees. The existence of 81 educational establishments represents a significant step forward in higher education.
In 2013 Professor John Coakley conducted a wide-ranging study on the system of Seanad election. He made reference to the 1979 constitutional amendment which was passed by a huge majority. Citizens have been waiting 35 years for that decision to be implemented. The process of implementation is finally starting today with public consultation. In regard to the debate on the unrepresentative nature of university representation, Professor Coakley found significant differences between the two universities. In a paper on the topic, he stated:
The NUI electorate broadly reflects the distribution of the Irish population, though with a stronger Dublin bias (this accounts for 31 per cent of the electorate, as compared to 28 per cent of the overall population). In the earlier years, the Dublin share was rather higher. The proportion resident outside the state, 3 per cent, has been shrinking over time. The University of Dublin, perhaps not surprisingly, lives up to its name in having a much stronger Dublin orientation (47 per cent of the electorate). [...]
It is likely that getting qualified graduates to register for Seanad elections poses a considerable challenge, especially in the NUI, where the electorate has not kept pace with the growing pool of graduates. This no doubt reflects the university’s own diverse structure[.]
The Minister will have to ensure there are sufficient staff to address this challenge. All of us are familiar with alumni who do not bother to keep in touch with their former universities or to keep their addresses updated. All university and institute of technology graduates should ensure they have provided up-to-date information in order that they can vote when the election is held. However, not everybody goes to universities or institutes of technology. Perhaps one day we will recognise other skills such as mechanical skills and all of the educational bodies. One educates the mind, the body, the soul and the hand. All spheres of education should be taken into consideration. The educational system should help to develop an all-inclusive society in which everybody has a vote. I realise that we are trying to introduce reform without holding another referendum, but perhaps we will find in the future that we have to go down that road.
I will not rehearse all of the recommendations contained in the 11 reports on Seanad reform. However, the Minister has taken them on board. This is the first step in reform, but, after 35 years, it is a good step.
I welcome the Minister back to the House. He has returned to the House unbowed from his visits prior to the referendum, but I have not been able to figure out his personal views on the future of the Seanad. I mean this as a compliment to his Chinese traits of inscrutability. We are now presented with the heads of a Bill to extend the franchise in Seanad elections. I am bemused by those on the Government side who are lauding this wonderful initiative and saying that after 35 years it is wonderful the Government is doing this wonderful thing. It raises the question of why successive Administrations did not implement the 1979 constitutional amendment. Through various Governments of different hues and colours, the matter was never on the radar.
I have to be somewhat cynical in my response to this latest initiative that it perhaps might not have been taken by this Administration but for the fact the people took a decision last autumn. Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn who are in the House should continue to bask in the reflected glory of that wonderful democratic achievement. Has the Government been brought kicking and screaming to the table in regard to this initiative in that it had to be seen to be doing something in response to the people's decision last autumn? That then begs the question as to why previous Administrations did not bother implementing this. Despite the fact the Minister has set up a technical working group to look into the ramifications of the decision taken by the Government, does he have any views on how this will pan out?
The Minister referred to expanding the electorate for the university seats from 150,000 to 800,000 as a challenge. I think that is under-stating the reality of the situation facing this Administration when it comes to setting the parameters and logistics of dealing with this initiative come the next election as 800,000 is a lot of people. The Minister has said this will make it more democratic, but I am not so sure. I am sure the university Senators will outline what the turnout has been, notwithstanding the fact Senator Cáit Keane correctly identified a problem of registration in that many people ignore the requests to update their addresses, etc. That means that a considerable number of third level graduates do not participate in the election.
On the positive side, if all 800,000 people vote, although they will not, it means that there will be very few households in this country which will not be aware of the impact of the Seanad elections in that a voting form will be sent to quite a significant number of households. That must be good from the point of view of the profile of the Seanad in that more people will empathise with it and with what it does.
One of the main issues which arose prior to the referendum was that people did not empathise with this House. There is a variety of reasons for that not least - I return to my favourite theme - the continuing studious ignoring of the workings of this House by the major media organisations. The only time they come to this House is if they think something exciting will happen such as the Government being defeated on a motion, as it was recently following Senator Feargal Quinn's initiative. The Press Gallery was agog with excitement and anticipation but we rarely see members of the press. I appreciate they watch the proceedings of this House on their monitors; therefore, I am not suggesting for one moment that they must be physically present to pick up on things. However, what annoys me about the printed and electronic media is that they tend to ignore the legislative programme this House pursues on a daily and weekly basis, notwithstanding our remarks on the Order of Business today about the lack of same currently, but I suggest that is only a temporary aberration.
What I find very frustrating is that Senators on both sides prepare their contributions and Ministers who come to the House testify on a regular basis how impressed they are with the standard of debate and the manner in which Senators go about their business and yet much of this is ignored. If I was to make any plea, it would be to the print and electronic media, especially to "Oireachtas Report" on RTE with which I have taken issue on more than one occasion, that on the odd occasion, they would look beyond the banter on the Order of Business and take extracts from some of the main business in the House as it pursues its legislative role. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, said on one occasion that "Oireachtas Report" was watched by drunks and insomniacs because of the outrageously late hour at which it was transmitted.
How does the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, envisage making this election with an electorate of more than 800,000 more democratic?
It will impose an enormous cost on candidates. Will a free leaflet, litir um thoghchán, be sent to every voter courtesy of the Government, as happens with general elections? That is essential and that would have to be done. The Government will have to bear that cost because otherwise it will make a fool of the concept of democratisation of the Seanad election in this instance. If one of the major obstacles to members of the public putting themselves forward for election to the six university seats is finance, there will be nothing democratic about this. That would be similar to the American model and that would mean that those who have the most money will be able to run in elections because there will be no cap on expenditure. Currently, there is no such cap. While there are regulations governing how and where candidates procure money and how they spend it, there is no cap on the amount they can spend. There will be a cost. Will we end up with a two-tier system? I am treading on dangerous water but university graduates might have more money in their pockets than those who have not attended university. There must be a larger percentage of graduates and there could be a two-tier system under which those with the most money win the seats.
My second concern relates to the branding of the new seating arrangement. Since the foundation of the State, the NUI and, in particular, TCD have been an integral part of the electoral process under the old Seanad and the new 1937 Constitution. There are reasons for this. Both the Cumann na nGaedheal Government and the Fianna Fáil Government that succeeded it in the 1930s must have felt there was a value nationally to having a TCD brand. Senator Sean D. Barrett and others during the lead up to the Seanad referendum referred to what they believed to have been the cutting off of the franchise from those of a Unionist persuasion on this island. I am again a little concerned that if the brand disappears under the new arrangements, this may lessen rather than strengthen the ties between the Unionist community in the North and the rest of the island, which would be detrimental to the ongoing relationship between the South and the North.
There has been a great deal of criticism of the fact that while the institutions in the North are working and the institutions in the North and South are working effectively together and there is a strong rapport between Ministers on both sides of the Border, when one filters down to ordinary life, citizens are experiencing an increasing ghettoisation of Northern Irish society. More peace walls have been built since the Good Friday Agreement than prior to it. It is becoming increasingly difficult rather than less difficult to reduce this ghettoisation according to people who operate on a cross-community basis to whom I have spoken. In other words, Nationalists are shopping and socialising in their own community, while Unionists are doing the same. This is an issue both Governments must face. I wonder if the TCD brand is abolished, whether there will be less input by those of a Unionist persuasion into Southern Irish politics than might the case if it was retained.
I acknowledge this is a complex issue and many questions still have to be addressed about how election to the university seats can be made more democratic. It is a huge challenge for the Government parties. Having taken the step they have taken, how will they see it through? It is vitally important, whatever system is agreed to by the Technical Group, that additional expense is not placed on candidates who put themselves forward for the university seats and that the Government will take steps to ensure the election is resourced. The Minister referred to setting up the register of electors and the process.
It is essential that no financial obstacles are put in the way of the candidates who wish to put themselves forward. The Minister, as a Deputy, is not expected to canvass an electorate of 800,000. Under the current system, we are not expected to do it in order to be elected. I do not see why this burden should be placed on people in order to satisfy some public perception or in order that the Government can be seen to do something in response to the people's decision of last year. It is not enough simply to put a spin on this and to do it as a PR exercise. It involves serious thought on how it will pan out.
I welcome the Minister to debate this important issue. I am delighted we have the opportunity to debate the general scheme of the Bill to extend the university franchise at this early stage. It is a welcome change to our normal processes and I hope we will see plenty more of this because it gives us a real opportunity to make an input and give the Minister our ideas on changes or possible amendments to the legislation.
We have been waiting 35 years for this Bill. The people voted to change the Constitution in 1979 and successive Governments have failed to deliver the reform the people voted for then. I am delighted this legislation is before us, particularly in the wake of last October’s referendum whose result is that the Seanad be maintained. I campaigned with Democracy Matters and others to retain it. I am also very proud to speak as one of the Senators elected by Dublin University graduates, an electorate of 50,000. These are Irish citizens resident in the jurisdiction of Ireland, Northern Ireland and all over the world. I think I sent my litir um thoghchán as far afield as the Pacific Islands to at least one graduate who was an Irish citizen registered there.
Many of Senator Paschal Mooney’s comments were very constructive on the complexity of this legislation and the logistical complexity of rolling out an election to so many electors. We in the university seats already have the right to send a litir um thoghchán to each registered graduate and I hope that will continue under the new regime. In the interests of cost, however, instead of having one litir um thoghchán per candidate per graduate, we should instead have one item of correspondence to each registered elector, containing text and photographs from each candidate. This would be one composite litir um thoghchán. That would be very welcome. I regularly receive objections from people about the amount of mail they receive in every Seanad election. Some people do not like the waste of State money and of paper. We could streamline that process without losing the democratic right to communicate with potential electors. That would be very important if there are to be 800,000 electors. I am also conscious on the practical side of the huge difficulty the alumni offices in Trinity College Dublin and NUI have maintaining an up-to-date register of electors. Senator Paschal Mooney addressed the very practical difficulty of rolling out this new legislation.
I have just received yet another e-mail from a constituent saying I have sent my newsletter to their parents’ address. Many graduates register on graduation at their parents’ address. Inevitably, they move on and change addresses many times and often do not update their details with the alumni offices. That will present a huge difficulty for the broader register of electors to be put in place. These are mere logistical difficulties which can be overcome in time. The technical working group has had its first meeting to consider these practical difficulties. All of us on the university panel will be very glad to help and make observations based on our experience.
The Bill is very welcome. I am glad that the Government is finally moving on it and hope it will have cross-party support. Since I was first elected in 2007, all of the university Senators, without exception, have called for this reform.
There are many obvious reasons it is hugely important that we would make this reform. I want to address the merits of the Bill before mentioning one issue in particular that might change.
In response to some of the points made by Senator David Norris, this is not an attempt to capture the election of university Senators by the political parties. I do not see it in that context and I do not think it should be seen in that context. The Senator referred, in particular, to the new procedure that would be set out in head 8 for replacement candidates from a replacement list, as is the case with elections to the European Parliament. That applies to all MEPs elected to the European Parliament. The Independent MEP, Marian Harkin, has a replacement in the same way as MEPs from political parties. It is a sensible approach. It is a sensible recommendation given the logistics and potential cost of running a by-election. What is important is that the replacement name is put out in the public domain in order that when people vote for someone they know who the replacement will be also. That is also the case with elections to the European Parliament.
If that were the only reform to the Seanad electoral system it would represent a deeply disproportionate model whereby we would have six Senators elected by 800,000 people and the remaining 43 Senators elected by a very small number of several hundred, and 11 people to be appointed. Just because that would be disproportionate does not mean we should not welcome the reform, but we should not stop there with reform. Senator Cáit Keane put it well when she said that this was the first step of reform and there were already other reforms that had been suggested. I hope that in the lifetime of the Government we will see other reforms also, in particular, to the method of election for the 43 Senators elected on the vocational panels. I will address the matter. It is important that the reform is welcomed in itself. I would be disappointed if colleagues who support reform, increased democratisation and opening up the university seats would oppose the Bill simply because they feel it might be the only reform.
In terms of the merits of the Bill, the obvious benefit is that it will end the discrimination against graduates of other universities and higher education institutes. It will open up the Seanad for the first time to much larger numbers of voters – 800,000. There is an argument about elitism in allowing only university graduates and college graduates to vote. We have, in fact, a very high level of participation at third level, as shown by the numbers who would be entitled to vote. The higher education institutions have made huge efforts, in particular, in recent years to increase diversity in the make-up of the student body.
The final point is that without changing the Constitution we cannot change the provision that requires that there would be six Senators elected by university graduates. In the context of the current constitutional framework the most democratic way to deal with the six university Senators is to ensure we are elected by graduates of all the third level institutions. I do not see that as abolishing the TCD brand. As a Trinity graduate I am sure Trinity College Dublin will be well represented. I very much hope it will be even with the new system in place. I say this in response to Senator Paschal Mooney.
The second merit of the proposed change is that it will abolish the current rule whereby a number of citizens have more than one vote for the university panels. Someone who has a degree from Trinity College Dublin and a master’s degree from UCD, for example, has two votes. That seems inequitable. Third, in head 7 we see an improved nomination system in terms of 40 people who are registered. I have one difficulty with the nomination system which I will address.
The fourth merit of the Bill is in head 8, namely, the replacement candidate system which I mentioned. In head 5, I hope I am correct in my interpretation that head 3 appears to reserve the rule that an Irish citizen resident outside the jurisdiction will still be entitled to vote in Seanad elections. That is hugely important because as Senator Sean D. Barrett has said, it does enable a large number of Irish citizens resident in Northern Ireland to have a voice and representation in the Seanad. I would not like to see this changed. Head 3 appears to retain the current rule and does not require that someone is resident in this jurisdiction which is very welcome.
One particular flaw, as I see it, in the scheme of the Bill as drafted – I hope we will see it changed – is that in head 7(7) a deposit of €900 is required. Other speakers have mentioned the need to ensure financial considerations do not put people off running for election. It is important that we make sure the deposit is not too high. I believe €900 is too high. I am grateful to the Minister’s officials for clarifying that the current deposit rate for the Dáil is €500.
The deposit for a European Parliament election is €1,800. I can see the rationale is that this is a much bigger electorate, but I am not sure, given the status of Deputies versus that of Senators, that it is justified to have a deposit double the deposit for a Dáil election. Will the Minister revisit that issue?
A deposit of €900 for the Seanad is a very high deposit and may dissuade meritorious candidates. It is also a huge departure from the current Seanad university panel model, where we do not have a deposit system, but simply ten nominees. I am all in favour of having a greater number of people who can nominate and believe the suggested figure of 40 as sensible. Ten nominations is too few. The requirement for 40 nominations should not put people off running. If people cannot get 40 people out of 800,000 to nominate them, perhaps they should not be considering candidacy. The €900 deposit does not seem fair.
The main issue with the legislation is that this should not be the only reform taking place. It would lead to a skewed system of representation in the Seanad if this was the only reform made to the Seanad electorate in the lifetime of the Government. I am glad that we have already initiated a process of investigating other potential reforms. While we press ahead with this reform, it is essential we also introduce other reforms. As the Minister is aware, we had a meeting with the leaders of all the groups in the Dáil and the Seanad with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste in December. One of the points made there was that the Senators elected to the five vocational panels should also see an expansion of their electorate, beyond the current limited number of people who can vote, drawn from the councillors, sitting Deputies and Senators.
I would like to see universal suffrage, or perhaps suffrage on a regional basis, in line with the European election constituencies. I would also like to see a further important reform that would reduce the potential costs, namely, to have the elections on the same day. I am conscious the Bills put forward by Senators Feargal Quinn, Katherine Zappone and John Crown contain many of these changes such as the universal suffrage principle and the timing of the election. Dáil and Seanad elections should be timed for the same day and we should define postal ballot in such a way that people can cast their ballot in the polling station, with their general election ballot. This would get rid of the current critique of people - including me - who failed in Dáil elections running for the Seanad.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
It is a matter of debate and I would be happy to debate it further in this House. While it is not the subject of the Bill, having the elections on the same day would resolve the issue of cost, if that is an objection to having universal suffrage.
It could deprive the House of the Senator's talents.
I thank the Senator, but the principle of universal suffrage is hugely important. The 43 Senators elected to the five vocational panels should cede an expansion of the electorate, commensurate with the expansion we will see on the university panel which I very much welcome.
I welcome the Minister. He has been here on a number of occasions to deal with this issue and it is great to have him engage with us again. I also wish to say "Aye, aye" to the captain of the women's team.
I view the Bill as the start of the opening up of the Seanad to make it more democratic and inclusive. However, I must ask the question which has been touched on by many other contributors. Why has the Government not taken the opportunity to make the Seanad fully democratic? I would love to hear an answer to this question. What is the rationale for not making this Bill fully inclusive by including a vote for all citizens? What is the rationale for not incorporating the principle of universal suffrage?
As others have mentioned, the Bill implements the will of the people from 1979, but it is also reflective of the attitude of 35 years ago. It is not reflective of the most recent poll of the people from 2013. What is the Government’s reasoning for this?
If cost is the answer, one must ask if that is a sufficient reason. If cost is the answer, would that mean that local, European or general elections should be restricted in order to save Exchequer funds? Should we worry about the cost of the other types of elections?
It is 2014 and we should be seeking to ensure we have a better electoral system and a more democratic system of government than we did 35 years ago. In that context, I will be attempting to put forward some amendments to this Bill to open the Seanad up more, given that it seems that this is the only Bill that will come before us. If wider reform, based on the principle of universal suffrage, is not on the agenda then it is really important for the people to be clear that this decision rests with the Government. I have put forward motions, as have some of my colleagues, to widen the electorate for the Seanad but those motions have been defeated. It is very important for people to be aware that if that does not happen, ultimately, then that decision rests with the Government, although the Government may yet consider amendments to the Bill to that effect.
I would like to identify a number of areas of the Bill which I welcome and tmake some recommendations on certain elements that could be changed, apart from opening the Seanad up to the whole electorate. I welcome the establishment of a single register of electors for the reconstituted higher education constituency, as referred to in head 4. This new infrastructure will allow for a smoother transition and greater flexibility should we extend the franchise to all citizens at some stage in the future. Under the Bill, it is estimated that the Seanad electorate for the higher education panel will be over 800,000 people. The electorate for the 2011 general election was just over 3 million. I do not think it is such a huge leap to go from just under 1 million to 3 million in the interests of democracy. As I indicated in my remarks on political reform last month, I believe that a permanent independent electoral commission is required in order for us to be in line with international best practice in this area. I ask that the Government consider this in drafting the Bill.
I welcome the definition in the Bill of an ordinary bachelor degree as being level 7 in the national framework of qualifications, as contained in head 3. This is very significant because it opens the Seanad to people who may not have experienced a traditional route into education or who have experienced educational disadvantage. I expect and hope that it will bring a much greater diversity of background to the Seanad electorate, which can only be better for our democracy and for the laws that we make.
My final comments centre on a recommendation to change one aspect of the Seanad nomination process within the Bill which could potentially be included under head 7. The Bill is an opportunity to open up the Seanad, but it is also an opportunity to modernise the process through which nominating bodies to the Seanad apply and are approved. Prior to the Seanad referendum, my Independent Senator colleagues and I held a meeting of the current nominating bodies along with a significant number of civil society organisations who were interested in becoming nominating bodies. It was a very well attended, vibrant meeting with over 60 participants. As part of the event, I presented information on how Seanad elections work. I outlined the number and type of panels, how people are nominated, including a mention of the sub-panels and I also described the five vocational panels. Having had some key meetings with Ms Deirdre Lane and Ms Jody Blake prior to that meeting, I was also able to explain how they could register an interest in becoming a nominating body and how they might qualify to become a nominating body.
Many organisations have expressed an interest in becoming nominating bodies. However, we found the administrative process through which organisations apply to become nominating bodies is most outdated. The rules under which the bodies must apply date from the 1947 Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act and contain no provision for electronic communications. Applications must be posted or hand-delivered. More critical than this, the criteria for becoming a nominating body are not absolutely clear to those who wish to apply, as this provision of information is restricted within the 1947 Act. We need to amend the criteria required to become a nominating body in order that those organisations which nominate can represent the wide diversity of civil society organisations that have been established since the 1950s. These amendments to the 1947 Act could be incorporated within this Bill which would be a positive move by the Government.
In 2014 we need a more open, transparent and modern process for selecting nominating bodies. If such a process were more straightforward, civil society’s interest in the Seanad could be harnessed to create a more accessible and representative Seanad. I would be happy to discuss these issues further with the Minister’s officials.
I welcome the Minister. Many good comments have been made on the heads of the Bill. Like others, I welcome the process of change but recognise change comes slowly and cannot be all together. I say, “Well done” to the Minister for being in the Chamber for this debate even if there are other jobs that need to be done.
Senator Ivana Bacik referred to the difficulties with the Seanad’s electoral register and this expanded group of 800,000 graduates. The devil will be in the detail. If we knowingly expand the electoral register which we appreciate already has problems, will we set aside some expertise to ensure it is a meaningful 800,000 people, not just names on paper? As we know, many of them are already paper members. As a graduate entitled to vote, I had a curious incident in the last election when I was trying to chase down my lost university panel ballot papers. The post office was bemused and puzzled by the fact I was chasing them down and believed it never had anyone seeking their misplaced ballot papers before. In the end I just made the deadline. Voting in Seanad elections is not considered a priority by university graduates eligible to vote in Seanad elections. If we are going to expand the register, we have a job to do to educate graduates.
I share Senator Ivana Bacik’s observation that the €900 sum for a candidate's deposit seems rather high and out of step with the €500 required for a Dáil election. That is a matter the Minister can easily review. I agree with Senator Katherine Zappone’s point about the archaic nature of the legislation governing, as well as the lack of clarity around, Seanad nominating panels. If we are changing the way the elections for the university panel are done, one would imagine those nominating bodies would be next in line asking where is their opportunity to change. I do not believe there is a single Senator who would not want to see this area changed. While I know it is not part of the Bill, when does the Minister intend to address that area?
I share the notion that at some point we will have a universal franchise in the House and that elections for both Houses will be on the same day, which means that those who fail in one election will not be able to stand in the other election. I do not offer any criticism and I accept it could happen at another time with another Government. This is progress.
I propose to share time with Senator Feargal Quinn. The question before the Government of the Republic with respect to the Bill is a very simple one: does it believe in democracy or does it not? A second question is whether all citizens of the Republic and those qualified to vote have equal rights in selecting their public representatives, or whether some have more rights than others.
In formulating the Bill the Government is transforming its prior 35 year sin of omission into a sin of commission. The Government, in common with Labour Party and Fianna Fáil Governments in these Houses since the seventh amendment of the Constitution in 1978, sat on its hands and was guilty of a sin of omission by not instituting the reforms that had a clear mandate from the people. Since the Constitution was first implemented in 1937, all politicians in the House have committed a greater sin of omission, which was not to reform the Seanad to make it democratic. It is widely recognised that the cultural antecedents of our Seanad include vocationalism and a notion of noblesse oblige that came from the British House of Lords. Perhaps it would not have been said as bluntly as this, but some people were felt to have a greater right to determine the shape of our national Parliament than others. This is a small and grudging step in the right direction. I am going to be gracious enough not to impugn the Government's motives for bringing it to the House at this particular time with respect to the outcome of the recent referendum.
If I had been an anti-apartheid campaigner living in South Africa before its liberation and the P. W. Botha Government had come up with the idea of extending the vote not to Africans but to people of mixed race, which would have made South Africa a slightly more democratic place but would have represented a heinous offence against democracy and fair play, I would have looked at it and said, on balance, in the struggle to get full and free votes for everyone, it represented a chink in the armour. Perhaps this represents some advance. If the Saudi Arabians decide to introduce some limited form of representation for women or to allow women to drive cars between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. but not all day, we might say it was an advantage compared to the current situation but still an affront to the notion of decency and fairness. During penal times, if a suggestion was made by some quasi-reformer that the laws be changed to allow Catholics to have property and voting rights but only if they lived in Dublin, were over 5 ft. 6 in., or had not converted to Catholicism from some other religion, one might have said the upshot was a slightly more democratic solution but one that was far short of representative democracy.
The Government is embarking on a transformation from a sin of neglect and a sin of omission to a deliberate sin of commission, which has its name all over it. The Government is introducing a Bill, of which it is the auteur and the father, in which voting rights will be extended to some citizens of the Republic but not all. The Government cannot hide behind the fig leaf of the 1937 Constitution or some Pope Pius X interpretation of what was vocationalism. This is the Government's work and on this work shall be its name.
We have two Bills that would address the fundamental democratic deficit in the Constitution, which deficit will remain after the Government's Bill to implement the seventh amendment with the result that there will be two castes of people in the country, namely, those who are eligible to vote in some elections and those who are not. The Government should produce, with but a fraction of the legislative effort made in the Taoiseach's office and the Office of the Attorney General, legislation that would combine the Bill of Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone and mine. This this would extend the franchise to every citizen and every person deemed qualified to vote, be it through citizenship or domicile. Thus, the Minister could fix the democratic deficit and leave a great piece of work as his legacy. I urge him to remember that if some of us are confronted with the choice between voting "Yes" and "No" on a Bill that extends the franchise from approximately 150,000 people to 800,000 people, we will vote "Yes" because it is better that more can vote than fewer, but it is an inadequate solution.
There was a song from the 1950s, possibly by Frank Sinatra, that went something like, "Is that all?" I will not attempt to sing it. I agree fully that third level graduates should be represented and, therefore, I am in favour of the first little step we are taking in this legislation. However, there is a long way to go. The context of the Bill is that 158 days ago the people rejected the Government's proposal to abolish the Seanad. On 4 October 2013, the people who are sovereign gave the Government an unequivocal message that they wanted to see the Seanad not only retained but also reformed. That is a basic aspect of what we are talking about. In support of that statement, I ask Senators on all sides of the House to reflect on the nature of the campaign five months ago.
The referendum campaign was hard fought and informative and it raised key constitutional issues. All sides in the debate accepted that the Seanad, in its current form, is badly in need of change. Those of us who were prominent on the "No" side of the campaign did not ask people to reject the referendum in order to defend the status quo but to vote "No" to help to create a democratic Seanad in which every single citizen would have a stake. The outcome of the referendum provides the Government with a strong mandate to begin that very process. The voters have made clear that they want a future Seanad that is more efficient, democratic and representative. I have said many times that the Taoiseach now has the opportunity to make a name for himself by being able to achieve something that no other Taoiseach has been able to achieve since the Constitution of 1937. He is in a position to do something and will be able to stand up later and say, "Look at what I did." Unfortunately, this is not being done.
If the Government's Bill is to be its sole response to the people's vote, we will not have fundamental reform. It is fair to say the Bill represents a minimal response. It is lacking in political vision and courage. That is disappointing because, in the immediate aftermath of the Seanad referendum, the Taoiseach seemed ready to embrace the cause of meaningful reform. I remember the words he used on the evening of the result. He acknowledged that the result had brought "clarity" - I love the word - on the issue of the future of the Seanad. He stated that the people had undoubtedly "decided and confirmed that the Senate is retained as part of our constitutional institutions". He stated also there was a continuous need for change and reform in politics and that the Government should reflect on the best way in which the Seanad could be made an effective contributor to change in politics. These are good words. Is the proposed Bill the only action we are getting? Is this all we are getting today? To echo the song I mentioned, is that all?
At the Fine Gael Party conference on 12 October 2013, a week or so after the referendum, the Taoiseach promised to extend voting to all third level graduates, which is the essential provision in the Bill. He described the measure as a small first step. Now, 156 days later, it seems to be the only step. Somewhere along the way, the small first step seems to have become the Government's only step in dealing with the Seanad franchise. On 18 December, the Taoiseach ruled out giving voting rights to all citizens in Seanad elections. Specifically, he stated that he did not believe the framers of the Constitution intended that there should be universal suffrage for the Seanad in the same way as there is for the Dáil. This assertion by the Taoiseach is not correct. The Constitution makes it clear that the Seanad is not to be elected in the same way as the Dáil - that is, by geographical constituencies. However, the articles of the Constitution dealing with the Seanad, Articles 18 and 19, clearly do not exclude universal citizen suffrage in Seanad elections; they intend the opposite.
Senators John Crown and Katherine Zappone both had Bills on Seanad reform - I was happy to support both - and they were passed in this House. What must we do to ensure the Government does more than the least it can do? I urge the Minister to take the steps to listen to what is being said here. We have a chance to do something and make the House the strong constitutional body it is capable of being. The Minister will find the answer in the two Bills I have mentioned and probably in the Fianna Fáil Bill also. In the two Bills that have already passed through this House, there is an answer for the Minister. This should be acted upon.
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Caithfidh muid insint céard atá ag tarlú anseo. Tá nath breá sa Ghaeilge "Sop in áit na scuaibe" agus sin atá sa Bhille atá anseo againn. Níl ann ach sop in áit na scuaibe. Níl ann ach an Rialtas ag ligean ar féin go bhfuil sé ag déanamh leasaithe. Níl aon leasú ceart i gceist anseo. Níl an Rialtas ag glacadh leis an teachtaireacht láidir a fuair sé ón bpobal. Cruthaíonn sin go raibh an ceart ag Sinn Féin ón tús nuair a dúramar nach raibh sé i gceist ag an Rialtas aon leasú gur fiú trácht air a dhéanamh ó thaobh an tSeanaid anseo.
In the run-up to the Seanad election last year we called for a third option to be put to people, namely, all-round reform. That was voted down point blank by the Government. The coming of this Bill to the House proves us right. The Government never really had any intention of reforming the Seanad. It got a blow on the chin from the people when the referendum was defeated. We never believed the Government would reform the Seanad, which is why we said we did not want what we regard as an elitist and totally undemocratic House to be kept. The Bill before us proves we are correct. It is nothing more than window-dressing. It is another PR stunt by the Government, or a fig leaf to cover up for its embarrassment on having lost a referendum. The reform is cosmetic and elitist.
In October 2013 the Government’s referendum proposal to abolish the Seanad was rejected by the people, but all participants and parties involved in the campaign were clear in saying the Seanad in its current form is elitist, undemocratic and unacceptable. The result cannot be viewed as a vote to retain the Seanad in its present form. Piecemeal reforms are just not good enough. The House should be fundamentally redesigned to better serve the people. As a first step in the process, the matter should be referred to the Constitutional Convention, in which citizen members have a controlling majority. The Seanad must become a fully inclusive, representative and accountable institution. This requires direct election by way of universal franchise for all citizens on the same day as the Dáil vote. When we hear certain Senators calling for an element of universal franchise in the election of some Members while calling for the exclusion of the university Members, we realise it is hypocritical. We need Northern and diasporic representation. Fifty percent of Members need to be female and the representation of marginal and minority groups is required.
For the Seanad to truly fulfil its potential of having a balancing function in the Oireachtas, its powers must be increased. It must have a distinct and complementary role and functions that do not merely replicate those of the Dáil in a weaker form.
In particular, the primary role of the Seanad should be: independent initial scrutiny of EU legislation from proposal stage; scrutiny of statutory instruments and ministerial appointments; to ensure equality proofing of all legislation; and to best represent the general public interest and reflect the priority of public accountability in decision-making. The Seanad should also act as a forum for dialogue between the many interests in Irish society, ensuring the inclusion of those sectors with less power and influence. It should use public consultation and deliberative democracy for enhanced citizen participation. A reformed Seanad would have a specific focus on consulting with children and young people about the impact of proposed decisions directly affecting them.
In a unitary state it is right that if the electorate's political and geographic interests are represented through the Lower Chamber on a population basis, their social, economic and cultural interests should be represented through the Upper Chamber on a sectoral basis. This is an important distinction that should not only be retained but strengthened in a new Seanad. The Seanad should also include the representation of regional interests on a non-population basis to redress the power imbalance for those marginalised by reason of residence in the North, the west, Gaeltacht areas and the Diaspora.
Sinn Féin does not support the Bill. The proposal to give all third level graduates a vote in future Seanad elections in the light of the recent campaign around the abolition of the Seanad and the subsequent rejection of this by the electorate, by extension of the university franchise simply does not go far enough. After the defeat of the referendum, the Government gave an undertaking to reform the Seanad. In other words, it acknowledged that people wanted a reformed House and not abolition. The promise of reform was a signal that it respected the wishes of the people but let us be clear, extension of the university franchise does not constitute meaningful and genuine reform. One of the very arguments put forward by the Government, and Fine Gael in particular, in favour of abolition was that the Seanad was elitist and dysfunctional. Extending the franchise to all third level graduates does nothing to alter the situation or to challenge the elitist nature of the Upper House. Any modern democratic state that would limit the franchise to people who had a third level degree cannot in all seriousness consider itself modern or democratic. I am sure there are a number of Senators here who do not have a university degree and I certainly respect them as fellow Members of the Seanad, but are we saying that they should, therefore, not have the same right to vote as the other Members who do have a degree? There should be no place in a 21st century democracy for such elitist nonsense.
To decide who can vote on the basis of educational attainment is nonsense and blatant elitism. It is educational apartheid and apartheid is the state of being apart. Sinn Féin believes in one person, one vote and universal franchise. We need a properly reformed Seanad, one that is democratic, accountable and egalitarian and that works in the best interests of good governance. Piecemeal, cosmetic change reinforces elitism. We need to bring an end to that elitism. Extending the vote to everyone is a first step towards real reform.
Dá bhrí sin, níl baol ar bith go nglacfaidh muid leis an sop in áit na scuaibe seo atá an Rialtas ag cur os ár gcomhair. Is é atá ag tarlú ná go bhfuil sé ag magadh faoi na Seanadóirí a throid agus a bhí dáiríre ag iarraidh leasaithe a dhéanamh ar an Seanad. D'éist muid leis an méid a bhí le rá acu, ach i ndáiríre, bhí barúil mhaith againn gur beagán leasuithe a thiocfadh chun cinn ón Rialtas, mar níl aon suim ag an Rialtas i leasú ná i ndaonlathas. Tá sé tar éis bord Údarás na Gaeltachta a dhéanamh níos neamhdhaonlathaí agus tá sé ag fáil réidh leis na comhairlí baile agus mar sin de. Is ag iarraidh na cumhachta ar fad a lárú agus mar sin de atá sé. Níl anseo ach stunt eile ó thaobh PR de le go mbeidh an Rialtas in ann a rá sna meáin go bhfuil sé ag déanamh leasaithe nuair nach bhfuil. Ní bheidh muid ag tacú beag ná mór lena gcuid cleas.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan. He was not the worst person in the campaign to abolish the Seanad. He was pretty fair in this regard as far as I can recall. I do not think his heart was in it. He was a former Senator. I think he was here for a number of years.
I expect the Senator to be well informed.
I am well informed. I was just posing the question and I thought the Minister might have responded in a positive manner.
The Senator was a Minister of State at the time.
I was. I recall that the Minister was a very constructive Senator. I took on board much of his wisdom at the time - that is why I am here.
I would say to the six Senators elected from the university panel - Senators David Norris, Feargal Quinn, John Crown, Rónán Mullen, Sean D. Barrett and Ivana Bacik who jumped through the hoop and is now a Labour Party Senator, even though she was elected from the university panel - that they have nothing to fear from the extension of the franchise to approximately 1 million people. Extending the franchise to the general public would be the ultimate step but that is not likely to happen. I am sure the Cathaoirleach might not be enthusiastic about that but he cannot say anything about that because he is the Cathaoirleach.
Since the referendum in 1979 no Government has brought forward legislation to implement the decision of the people at the time, which was that this franchise would be extended, particularly to the colleges and the new universities like the University of Limerick. I request the Minister to consider adopting a Bill that I published on 22 October 2013, which I handed to the Taoiseach. We wrote a note to each other and I said at the time "a joint project, I hope, will be the case." The Minister is accompanied by two senior officials and I am sure they are aware of that Bill.
The Long Title of my Bill was:
An Act to provide for the amendment of the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Acts 1937 to 2006, to provide for the provisions of the seventh amendment of Bunreacht na hÉireann and to extend the franchise of the university panel of Seanad Éireann to all people who are over eighteen and legally resident in Ireland and are holders of an appropriate third level qualification from an Irish Institute of Higher Education and to provide for related matters.
It provided for amendment of section 6 of Act of 1937 as follows:
Section 6 of the principal Act is amended by the substitution of the following for section 6:
all Universities and Institutions of Higher Education in the State shall be a constituency (in this Act referred to as the University Constituency) for the election of six members of Seanad Éireann;
every person who is for the time being registered as an elector in the register of electors for the University constituency shall be entitled to vote in that constituency; and
the Minister may make regulations to give effect to any matter or thing that is referred to in this Act
It also provided that:
every regulation made under this Act shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas;
no person shall be entitled to vote at an election in a university constituency unless he is registered as an elector in the register of electors for the constituency.
It further provided that:
the qualification of ‘degree’ referred [to] ... shall be construed as defined in the framework of qualifications established by the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland or its successor bodies, under section 7 of the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999;
the qualification of ‘diploma’ referred in subsection (1) shall be construed as defined in the framework of qualifications established by the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland or its successor;
any person, who would not be disqualified for membership of the Dáil under section 41 of the Electoral Act 1992, and may vote in that university constituency, may declare their candidacy in that constituency.
There are quite a number of excellent private colleges such as Yeats College and Hibernia College. These are private institutions that bring students to degree qualifications level. I want to ensure they will be included in the extension of the franchise. It will be up to every college to hold a register of electors. The students who have qualified would be on that roll and that would be made available to the candidates. The majority of candidates would only canvass by way of the Internet. The voting could be defined as electoral voting. It would be a confined way of voting, bringing back a system of automatic voting machines in a sense, although not bringing back those machines as they have been scrapped.
Those of the Senator.
I was never too keen on them.
The Senator should not have walked into that one.
My eyes are wide open. I got elected under the old system; it was a good system and I liked it. I never agreed with the machines. They were the worst I had ever come across. They were not even up to speed. I looked at them at the time and thought they were the daftest machines ever. One had to put a paper behind the screen and then press a button. It was the craziest voting system that I had ever come across. Now we can define a way of the electorate voting in an automatic way through the Internet.
The Senator has one minute left.
I am sorry I do not have more time.
I cannot understand why the Minister cannot publish the bloody Bill, if he does not mind me saying that. He is long enough at it. He published the heads of the Bill, but will he publish the Bill and be damned? He should not confine this to the universities and institutes of technology but should extend it to everyone in Ireland who has a qualification, whether educated abroad or otherwise. If someone has a third level qualification, as far as I am concerned, he or she should be entitled to vote in this election.
It is only wishful thinking to think it will be extended to a general franchise for all, which I would love. I would love to run for the Seanad in the constituency of the west, which would have six or seven seats in the Seanad. It would be a lovely electorate. The election could be held on the day of the European Parliament and local authority elections and not on the day of a general election; therefore, we would not depend on the Dáil.
These are all very aspirational ideas. The Minister is a pragmatic and realistic man. The Taoiseach will never attempt to reform this House. He will never put a referendum before the people again. On the last occasion, his proposal was rejected and he has completely lost interest in this House.
I do not find anything wrong with this House. This Cathaoirleach is one of the best I have ever dealt with because he is fair, impartial and has a good sense of humour.
The Senator's time is up.
When I was a Minister of State and brought Bills through this House, including a companies Bill, I received tremendous advice. I remember former Senator Pat Kennedy from Limerick who was a Member from Fine Gael. He made a massive contribution to Bills in this House as he was a barrister. Former Senator Mary Robinson is another example, as are Senators Feargal Quinn and David Norris.
I would like the Bill to be published as quickly as possible. I will move my own Bill fairly shortly and hope the Minister will incorporate it into his one in order that we can make one good Bill out of the two.
I welcome the Minister and the debate. It is positive that the heads of the Bill are being debated rather than the specific legislation. A couple of Ministers use the Oireachtas committees to present heads of Bills, but we are using the Seanad, which is very appropriate.
I listened with interest to my colleagues and my difficulty is that ten Governments since 1979 have refused to respect the people's decision in the 1979 referendum. We finally have a Government which is acting on the June 1979 result, but I am a little worried about the type of response proposed. We are suggesting a national constituency to select six Senators. Presumably, there will be hundreds of thousands of voters and the figure could perhaps reach 1 million. That will fundamentally change the type - I will not say the quality - of Senator traditionally elected to the university panel to contribute to this House.
In the aftermath of the referendum on the Seanad and of the huge input not only into the referendum debate but into the Seanad over the past 20 or 30 years of Independent and university Senators, some of the more cynical among us could say what is being proposed is political revenge rather than political reform because a national constituency of six seats with an electorate of hundreds of thousands will certainly ensure that the type of Senator - I will not say colourful characters because that is an unfair description - traditionally returned by the university panel electorate will possibly not be the type of Senator elected under the new system and that concerns me.
The Minister is as much a scholar of politics as anybody in this House and if he looks at the university panel down through the years, only two party political figures were elected. The President, Michael D. Higgins, was, to the best of my knowledge, elected to the university panel in the early 1980s as was a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Jim Dooge who never hid his Fine Gael colours. However, the typical university Senator, whether elected by Trinity College Dublin or National University of Ireland graduates, is very independent minded, but I fear if we have one national list of six Senators, that type of Senator will never be elected again. I think we would all be at a loss as a result.
What about Mary Robinson?
Mary Robinson, as the Senator should well know, was elected as an Independent Senator.
She joined the Labour Party.
She left it again. She stood as an Independent candidate in the presidential election.
The debate needs to move on as soon as possible to the question of a universal election to Seanad Éireann. I have read various interventions to this debate by Ministers who seem to suggest - I am not sure whether they are deliberately attempting to misinform us or whether they have been deliberately been misinformed by someone else - that somehow it would require a further constitutional referendum to allow universal suffrage, but it would not. It simply requires the political will to put in place a system where every citizen of this State can vote in a Seanad election.
The Minister will recall that 12 or 18 months before the Taoiseach announced that he was in favour of abolishing the Seanad, Fine Gael proposed that on the same day as the European Parliament and local government elections, every citizen of the country would vote to elect the panel of Senators. What was good enough for Fine Gael in 2008 should be good enough today. That proposal stacked up in that every citizen of this country would vote to elect Senators in a panel system. It would require a little political ingenuity, legislative work and much political courage but if it was good enough for the Fine Gael document in 2008 or 2009, it is worthy of consideration today. This could be done if there is a political will to allow every citizen to vote in the Seanad election and, as the Minister knows, it does not require a further constitutional referendum.
It was back in 1992, when Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush, that the phrase "It's the economy, stupid" was coined. George H. W. Bush lost the US presidential election and Bill Clinton won it because the people's only concern was economics. We saw that in 1997 when the excellent rainbow Government was beaten by the Irish Independent headline: "It's Payback Time". We probably saw this in the last general election also that the economy was not only the primary but the sole consideration of the electorate. However, I think there has been a very dramatic sea change in public opinion in the past few years. As the Government is attempting to rebuild the economy and as we are trying to rebuild a different sort of political way of managing our country, we must build a new type of politics. Part of that politics must include universal suffrage for each House of the Oireachtas. The means of giving every citizen a vote in a Seanad election exists; it is not complicated and does not require constitutional change. I hope that as part of the wider debate around this Bill, we will reflect on this.
Some 40% of the people voted in the referendum last October. Some say it was only 40%, but it was impressive compared to the traditional turnout for referendums. I appreciate what my Sinn Féin colleague said that the third option was not on the ballot paper but all of us know that on the streets, in the pubs and in the clubs, the majority of people who rejected the Government's proposal did so because they wanted a reformed Seanad and did not want things to remain as they were. All the evidence from the polls appears to suggest this.
This is a response to a historical question from 1979, not to the people's decision of last October. I hope that, collectively, we will try to respond to what the people said last October that they wanted a much different and much more universal Seanad where every citizen would have a vote. I wonder what the outcome would be if somebody questioned the constitutionality of allowing some citizens to vote but not others and brought that challenge all the way to the European Union.
On the Order of Business Members questioned the fact that we were only discussing the heads of the Bill and wondered why we would not have the Bill before us. When the Taoiseach came into the House following the referendum, he gave an undertaking that he would bring the heads of the Bill before the House and the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht. We are honouring that commitment by having this discussion.
The intent of the Bill is to give effect to the wishes of the people who decided in 1979 that all third level graduates should have a vote and it has taken until now for a Government to take action in that regard. We will never know why that happened. The logistics of the change will prove difficult as we need to find out the number registered in each third level institution because under the Constitution they must be written to by registered letter to be eligible to vote for Members on the university panels.
Senator Sean D. Barrett has also published a Bill in respect of the university franchise and suggests a number of seats should be allocated to the universities on the Culture and Education Panel. I am not sure what the constitutional position is in that regard and whether that would be possible, but I am sure it will be examined in the coming weeks and months.
I pay tribute to the role TCD and NUI Senators have played. They have in the past played an important role and made excellent contributions, as have the current Senators on these panels. However, they are democrats and would wish their electorate to be increased, if that is the wish of the people and it was the case in 1979. It will be a much larger electorate - probably between 700,00 and 800,000 - which will be difficult to canvass for candidates. Candidates from TCD which has a smaller electorate than other universities and panels will probably feel their chances of being elected will be lower than heretofore, but I cannot go along with this because university graduates, irrespective of which college they qualify from, will vote for the people they think will best represent their wishes in the House. The cream will always rise to the top and I have no doubt that, based on the contributions university panel Members have made during this term and given their qualifications, they will be viewed positively by whatever number of graduates decide their fate in the next election.
The Government has made it clear that this is the only legislative change that will be made during its term. It has made a number of proposals regarding procedures which I have forwarded to the Cathaoirleach to be discussed at the next meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. It will probably take a number of meetings for us to make decisions on the changes to procedures and Standing Orders. The Government parties are, therefore, serious about reforming the House and the way we do our business and are acting on the wishes of the people by enacting legislation to give effect to the 1979 referendum result.
I welcome the debate we have had on the heads of the Bill and we will have a more in-depth discussion when the Bill is taken in the House. There will be even greater contributions from all Senators on that issue. Members elected to the university panels will be affected most and other Members will listen to them, but graduates, irrespective of the institution from which they qualify, will vote for the best people they believe will represent their views in the House. I look forward to making a further contribution when the Bill is published and introduced in the House.
I thank all Senators for giving me the opportunity to discuss this scheme of Seanad electoral reform in the context of implementing the 1979 amendment to the Constitution. A number of issues were raised, which will be considered.
With regard to the contributions of Senators Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone, the reason the Government is not implementing the policy decision on universal suffrage is it subscribes to the view that we do not need a replication of the House of Representatives in the Seanad. That is the fundamental issue on which we disagree.
The manner in which Seanad electoral reform is carried out is a separate issue and all matters raised in the debate have been raised by the party leaders in the consultation process in which they are engaged with the Taoiseach and they are being reflected on by him. However, I am sure the Taoiseach and the Government will consider other proposals to bring to the House, not just this legislation. As the Leader stated, the manner in which the House operates and how it conducts its business under Standing Orders are under consideration by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I agree with him that these matters need to be addressed, but I refer to suggestions made by Senators David Norris and Sean D. Barrett. Reform that provides for the will of the people to be implemented in the context of the 1979 referendum should not be anything to fear. There is scope for a wide variety of people to become candidates before the graduate electorate, albeit a larger one, but those who have been elected to the three seat NUI panel or the three seat TCD panel have made a major contribution and will continue to do so. Their names are well known in Irish life and even more well known in the graduate community. I do not subscribe to the view that if one is a graduate of a particular college, one will be in any way disenfranchised. I expect Members, particularly those of long-standing, to be confident in their own ability to be elected through an expanded franchise.
A number of the contributions focused on Seanad reform outside the scope of the heads of the Bill, but because the Bill is dedicated exclusively to the notion of how the membership of the university panels will be constituted from the next election, it is appropriate that the general scheme be discussed by Members. I thank them for their contributions in that respect.
I will reflect on the issues raised and reiterate that it is the Government's desire to facilitate debate and consultation on the general scheme of the legislation, while reserving the right to bring forward further proposals in the future, legislative or otherwise, in the House in the context of reform, which we acknowledge is the wish of the people.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh engaged in a little revision.
Not at all.
He supported the Government on the abolition of the House and the least we would expect him to do is to stand on principle.
We called for a different option.
I thought Sinn Féin was a party that had some backbone in standing by the issues. The Senator should be man enough to say he supported the Government in the abolition of this House. The people decided otherwise and we should agree with the decision as it is the democratic wish of the people and get on with it.
The Minister should put reform on the agenda.
The Senator should not try to rewrite history. Sinn Féin regularly tries to do this.
The Minister suffers from amnesia himself.
I understand Senator Terry Leyden has a very good Bill, but it has many weaknesses. I am sure he will strengthen it before he publishes it.
That concludes statements. When is it proposed to sit again?
Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.
Is that agreed? Agreed.