Seanad Reform 16.11.14

Seanad Reform: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine MurphyExtending the franchise to the other universities is a relatively straightforward issue because at least there is a sizeable electorate on the university panels. It is less straightforward to deal with the 43 Senators currently elected by fewer than 1,000 people who happen to be councillors, Deputies or Senators, and the 11 Senators who are nominated by the Taoiseach. An interrelationship between our political institutions and the diversity that could become a refreshing feature is suggested in the White Paper on local government, which concluded that there was a need for a regional tier of government. In the near future, we will be seeing a cobbled together regional tier, with most citizens unaware of its existence or purpose. They will have no direct role in electing its members because each city and county council will nominate two or three people, probably from the largest groupings.

We need to stop talking about balanced regional development and start to develop institutions that can deliver it. Balanced regional development includes not only the built environment but also the social, cultural and economic development of our regions. There is an opportunity for a small number of powerful regions to be directly elected, with direct links with the Seanad. Such linkages have made a great difference to the development of cities like Barcelona. The 43 Senators could play a role in the regional process in speciality areas such as culture and leisure; transport and planning; or industry and commerce, where they might be able to attract investment directly. The vocational nature of this work could develop a practical side to the Seanad.

Water services could have been delivered on a regional basis. Much has been made about the concentration of 43 local authorities into a unitary Irish Water but the pipes are still located in the local authority areas. The White Paper might have offered us a different way of managing this change by connecting our institutions. The Seanad could deliver that kind of change and I support the call in this motion to engage all parties and groups in the Oireachtas, as well as civil society. This must be seen as an opportunity to refresh and renew our institutions. The White Paper was drafted at the conclusion of a long process of consultation and contained a considerable number of recommendations that could have been implemented. Political parties need to stop using the Seanad as a play thing because it discredits the institution and politics in general. Most of all, it is a wasted opportunity to renew it in a way that links it to balanced regional development and decentralising the country in a meaningful way.

Deputy Shane Ross: Information on Shane P.N. Ross Zoom on Shane P.N. Ross Last September, I joined Members from a cross-section of political parties in attending a meeting at Government Buildings which the Taoiseach had called in order to involve all parties in what he described as reform of the Seanad. That was a hopeful move and, as far as I recall, it was decided that our great reform movement would meet again in February. It is now October and nothing has happened. We were promised that there would be reform of the university seats but no legislation is pending. If that is the extent of the Government’s commitment to Seanad reform, we can forget it. An enlarged university constituency has democratic appeal and I have no quarrel with it. However, it gives the impression of reforming elitist ways of electing people to the Seanad while leaving all the patronage in place.

There is a fanfare about the new reforms and radical measures to change semi-State bodies and patronage by the Government that are to be introduced on 1 November but the greatest haven of political patronage will be left untouched, at least until the next general election, and a system which is recognised by all parties and the electorate as rotten is being fastidiously preserved. As has been pointed out by other speakers, 11 Senators are directly nominated by the Taoiseach through naked patronage. That does not exclude the fact that some have turned out to be very independent, to the surprise of the Taoiseach of the day. The 43 Members who are the chosen proteges not just of the Taoiseach of the day but also the leaders of the other political parties will also survive. That system involves insiders electing insiders from the parties concerned. The party leadership and headquarters give the signal to the people in these Houses and to councillors on who they want elected. They are not automatically elected but the result is usually that the leaders of political parties get their own people elected. It becomes a reward.

What I heard today from the Minister was a reflection of that reward. His speech set out a charter for cronyism. He was utterly misleading when he claimed that the Government had proposals to reform the Seanad. Then he gave us a list of nonsensical and minor reforms which would not make a bit of difference to the way in which the Seanad operates. It was insulting. The purpose was to give the Seanad something to do. When the Seanad is in trouble about what it should be doing it asks to be tasked with reviewing EU legislation. That was on the Minister’s list. He also suggested that it review the work of the European Commission. The Commission does not give a hoot whether the Irish Seanad can review its work but it would give the lads something to do because they are really in the Seanad as a reward for what they have done in the past and what they are expected to do in future.

The primary problem with the Seanad is its electorate. Everyone has their own proposals and I have no monopoly on wisdom but I believe this problem could be solved very quickly by keeping the nominating bodies and changing them somewhat. The idea of vocational representation is totally acceptable because the Seanad should not be a straight reflection of the Dáil. Why do we not allow the nominating bodies to nominate candidates for 54 out of 60 Senators but ask the wider electorate to make the final selection in a demonstration of popular democracy?

Deputy Tom BarryInformation on Tom Barry Zoom on Tom Barry I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion. The Seanad has an important role to play. There have been issues in the past but the Taoiseach got very little recognition for his appointees. They made up their own minds and refused to vote with the Government on a number of issues. It is unfair to criticise him when he is trying to make a difference. The referendum has opened up discussion on the Seanad. We had to find out whether the people wanted it.

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Tom Barry: Information on Tom Barry Zoom on Tom BarryIt was an astonishing result in a lot of ways because in a time of economic woe people asserted their faith in the political system. It put a great deal of responsibility on our shoulders. How do we do it? We need to have a proper discussion. Today’s discussions quite interesting. While all third level people should be included, where does it stop? There are third levels across all areas of society. Do we include people who go to agricultural colleges? We need to discuss this.

The Seanad should act as a reservoir of talent. There are many people in the country who have a great deal to contribute in their particular areas, but we must have a reasoned debate. We must debate it among ourselves to establish clarity before opening it to a wider audience. A balanced talent pool representing the many sectors that are out there today is important. We are living in a different Ireland from the one in which the Seanad was established. There are now SME groupings, agricultural groupings, tourism groupings, health groupings and information technology groupings. We need to figure out what we want to have there. Is it better to have a reservoir of talent inside the House rather than go to consultants who may have ulterior motives in their advice? Of course we need a gender balance, but we also need a youth and an elderly balance. Those people also have unique insights into Irish life.

I have always found the sitting hours strange and we need to look at them. There are people who would gladly contribute to the Seanad but cannot because they are running a business or have a family. We must see if there is a way to accommodate these people to access their expertise and their vision of where we should be going. The election of people to the Seanad is open to discussion. However, we need to know what we want to achieve here. It is no good to stand up and criticise all of the wrongs; we must discuss ways to create an institution that is reformed, that works and that is seen to be working. A reformed Seanad could certainly deliver a lot of success for us. It is more difficult to answer the question of how to get there than it is to criticise what is not working at the moment. That is the challenge and it is one I look forward to debating with everyone here. If we get to a point at which we have reformed the Seanad successfully, it will be a credit to everybody in the House.