I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill was drafted by the working group on Seanad reform, chaired by the former Senator Maurice Manning, to embody the reforms proposed in the working group’s report. The Bill gives this House an historic opportunity to make history, to keep faith with the people and to restore their faith in our democracy and to take the brave strides necessary to ensure this House lives up to its intended constitutional potential in the future. My colleagues and I who introduced this Bill, to whom I am grateful for their support and co-operation, warmly welcome the strong support we have received from the Taoiseach and the Government, in whose programme the implementation of the Manning report is included, as well as the Fianna Fáil Party and the other parties and groupings in the Oireachtas for the Bill’s enactment.
This Stage of the Bill’s consideration is concerned with the broad principles of the Bill. When the debate is concluded, we can get down to a detailed consideration of the Bill’s provisions. I am sure very careful consideration will be given to the proposals for reform, to their phased implementation, perhaps, and to amendments to improve the Bill. Nobody has a monopoly of wisdom, but that is no excuse for inaction.
I think it is only fair to point out that while doubtless there are Senators who will not agree with every element of the Bill, it is equally true that this Seanad would certainly no longer exist if the people had been confronted at the time of the referendum with a simple choice to either abolish the Seanad or leave it totally unreformed. There is a strong will among the people for reform of this House in order that it can play an enhancing role in our democracy. This House can become a forum for voices that have traditionally been marginalised and excluded from the democratic process because of the dynamic of multi-seat proportional representation in our representative politics. There are national movements, national perspectives and community and voluntary interests that can never realistically aspire to winning Dáil seats, but that can and should be part of the parliamentary process. This Bill opens up the parliamentary system to their presence in Leinster House. The current method of electing 43 Members of the Seanad by an electorate of approximately 1,000 Deputies, Senators and councillors finds no specific basis in the Constitution. The Oireachtas is given a constitutional blank canvas as to how Senators are to be elected. The reform Bills tabled by former Senators Feargal Quinn, Katherine Zappone, now Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and John Crown for the first time showed that it was possible to have the 43 vocational panel senators elected by ordinary citizens without amending the Constitution.
The Manning report is a compromise, based on consultation across the parties, between the principle of popular election and the current system. Of the 43 panel seats, it proposes that 30 should be elected by citizens on a one-person-one-vote basis, while the remaining 13 seats should be elected by Deputies, Senators and councillors. Under the Bill’s proposals, any citizen will be eligible to register to vote in any vocational panel in the same way as certain university graduates can register to vote for the existing university seats. In this way, people with, for example, a special interest in agriculture, fisheries and the natural environment could register as voters on the Agriculture Panel, people with an interest in voluntary social activity could register to vote on the Administrative Panel, and similarly in regard to education. These electors could choose to elect national figures or campaigners active in their respective fields.
If there are Members of this House who consider that the changes proposed in this Bill are too sudden, they can, of course, table amendments to phase in the changes. However, I do not believe that there is any significant support in the Seanad or the Dáil or among the public for retaining the status quo. By initiating this Bill in the Seanad, we can bring our collective experience and judgment to bear on its provisions, and then send it to the Dáil for its consideration. The alternative of having such a Bill sent to us by the Dáil is, I think, less desirable.
I would like to add two further points. The Bill is not intended to create an extra or rival Dáil. The Constitution never envisaged that this House could obstruct the democratic process or rival the Dáil. The proof of that is to be found in the Dáil’s constitutional power to override the Seanad after 90 days. That provision simply would not be there if the Seanad was always envisaged to be a place where the Government of the day had to have a majority as a matter of electoral fact or by convention. On the contrary, the power to override this House strongly suggests that the Seanad’s composition was expected to be independent. That is why, as part of the new politics, we should not fear a loosening of the tight grip of political parties over this House. The compromise of the Manning report is designed to ensure the composition of the Seanad reflects some party political presence and some degree of independence.
Senator David Norris has voiced opposition to having a single university constituency, inter alia, because he thinks such a constituency would become dominated by political parties. The NUI electorate is very large, but it has never succumbed to party dominance. I do not believe that, 30 years after provision was made to widen the higher education franchise to other institutions such as the University of Limerick and Dublin City University, we can simply turn our backs on them on a cry of “No surrender.” The constitutional amendment made by the people did not prescribe a single higher education constituency, and indeed it envisages dividing the seats among groups of those institutions and even giving individual seats to individual institutions. Yet again, there is room for consideration on Committee Stage of alternatives other than a simple choice between leaving things as they are and having a single constituency for the university seats.
In the brief time available to me, I will not have enough time to canvass the entirety of the content of the Bill. I point out to Members of the House that the Bill is accompanied by a very satisfactory explanatory memorandum which deals with the various issues contained in the Bill. The Bill for the first time seems to have cross-party support, the support of the Government and the personal endorsement of the Taoiseach, and seems to be the first opportunity the House has had to advance the question of reform in the eyes of the people in a constructive way.
It is true that the Second Stage debate is largely one confined to the question of principle and not detail. The principles laid down in the Manning report are, in my respectful view, ones which should commend themselves and attract support almost universally. The idea that ordinary citizens interested in agriculture should be entitled to register for an agriculture panel vote, just as much as UCD graduates are entitled to register for the NUI panel and vote on it, is not a strange or frightening one. Likewise, for those who believe the current system, which to some extent connects the county council and local government structures with the Oireachtas, has merits, this is preserved in the balance struck by the Manning report. In essence, he has acknowledged the idea that there should be a majority of popularly elected Senators based on the existing system of panels provided for in the Constitution, while at the same time preserving some aspects of the current system of indirect election via county councillors.
In that context, one thing occurred to me when I prepared my remarks for the debate. A number of Ministers have come to the House in recent times and said they are minded to enhance the role and support given to local authority members. That is good. However, in the context of the Bill, we might consider whether the absolute ban on members of local authorities from being Members of the House is something that deserves to be reviewed. I fully accept the proposition that Dáil Éireann chose, under the former Minister Noel Dempsey, to enact legislation to end what was called the dual mandate. However, if there are to be indirectly elected members of the House under the terms and conditions mentioned in the Manning report, it seems a little strange that somebody can be an elector while at the same time being disqualified from membership of the House.
As part of an overall package to recognise the role of local government and the link between local government and the Oireachtas generally which has existed through the Seanad electoral system, we should be open minded about looking at those issues. We should ensure nobody who is involved in local government which is very important should feel this Bill is designed to exclude, marginalise or reduce their influence in the affairs of the State. With those words, I commend the Bill to the House.