I welcome this Bill on Seanad Reform to the House today. I commend Senators Quinn and Zappone on its publication. The debate on the future of the Seanad has been on-going for years as we know – we have had 11 reports; all worthy documents in their own right but none acted on. This Bill has been drafted to transform Seanad Éireann without the need for constitutional change and it follows on from the Report published by Senators Zappone and Quinn last autumn on the same subject.
The most recent and extensive report published on Seanad Reform by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in 2003 remains a very practical framework from which significant reform can be implemented. As it is noted in this consultation paper, all 11 reports have advocated reform and not abolition. All of them concluded the same thing- that the Seanad should be retained but not in its current format. Senator Crown published a Bill on Seanad Reform only two months ago and he deserves credit also for the work that put into drafting such a document.
The fundamental purpose of this Bill is to extend the electorate of the Seanad on a ‘one person, one vote’ system which I believe makes sense and is fair and democratic and is probably the biggest area in which the Seanad is in need of reform. However, there are a number of technical issues I have with the Bill and I will address them through the course of my contribution to this debate.
In relation to section 6 of the Bill, provision is made for a six seat constituency for Universities and other higher education institutions. What would the name of this constituency be as it is not stated? Also, in relation to the proposed cultural and educational constituency, what would the criteria be for qualification into this group? Also the ‘constituencies’ will be very large.
I welcome the section 7 which provides for gender equality in terms of the composition of the Seanad being mandatorily equally represented by men and women. This is progressive and I think gender equality must be extended to other areas of political and commercial life. The Government published legislation last year that will provide for gender equality in the other chamber of Parliament but I believe it should be extended to local councils and to board rooms in companies. Hopefully over the lifetime of this Government, those changes can also be implemented.
In addition, the provision that each elector is only entitled to one ballot paper- seems a sensible proposal to ensure it is all inclusive and not elitist as is sometimes the criticism now. The present system where some of the electorate can vote under two or three categories is unfair and undemocratic. In section 8 the Bill provides for the disentitlement of any retiring member to receive a lump sum payment accrued during their holding of a seat – I think this is gone anyway?
Section 14 deals with the referral of legislation from the Seanad to the President and petition him to decline to sign a Bill on national importance grounds and put it to the people in a Referendum. Even though it is an outright majority required, I fear that this type of power to the Oireachtas may interfere with the legislative process in a negative manner.? The practice could prove unwieldy as the potential for multiple referendums would not be practicable for our country- if one only considers the cost alone, could this work in practice.
I move onto section 26 and I have a question in relation to the provision made for 1,000 signatures on a petition to hold for a Seanad Public Consultation Committee to hold a debate on a matter of national importance. Senator Maurice Cummins has already initiated this public debate forum and it is to be welcomed. When the Seanad was founded its emphasis on providing a voice for civic society meant that it offered real opportunities for building bridges to citizens. It was supposed to have developed into a political platform where citizens representing different sections of society were provided with a voice and given the opportunity to DEMAND DIFFICULT ANSWERES FROM THE GOVERNMENT. However I regret to say Seanad Éireann has not really developed in this way. This year as I said there has been an attempt to address this citizen input element.
I welcome section 27 which proposes that the ballot for the election of chairman and vice-chairman be secret- I think this would be interesting. I want to mention section 30 and in particular, the subsection which proposes that any Irish passport holder could vote in a Seanad election including those residing outside the state- I can see the rationale behind this and that is obviously to make the election process more inclusive but again on a practical level, I would like to know has any research been carried out as to the numbers that would qualify – or no qualifying period say 5 years – or does it cover everybody that ever emigrated and now holds dual passports etc. Could it lead to a situation where we have more citizens outside of the state voting in a Senate national election?
I note that in section 32, a proposal is made to that an elector must be at least 18 years of age which is in line with current voting arrangements but in light of the outcome of the constitutional convention which suggested that the voting age be reduced to 16, perhaps we must re-consider the voting age for all elections- national and local.
I jump to section 47 which proposes that any person nominated to one of the vocational constituencies must demonstrate ‘requisite knowledge’ of the vocational area they are being nominated to. What are the specifications for this ‘knowledge’ is it going to be specified -and how would they be qualified? Or is it going to continue as is re qualification? This needs clarification. Section 53 has a provision for an election expense threshold of €40,000 in one instance and €50,000 in another. I think this is excessively
I want to ask, in relation to schedule 2, which deals with nominating bodies, I presume that current nominating bodies will have to ‘re-qualify’ as nominating bodies? New criteria etc. laid down? Will the merged body of the AMAI and the ACCC retain its function as a nominating body?
As I said from the outset, I am in favour of Seanad Reform and I think reform is a better long term solution than abolition as I think abolition would not be in the best interest of democracy. As I have pointed out currently there are some questions I have on this Bill – but are not unsolvable I think. We all know we are promised a referendum on the abolition of this House – with a YES OR A NO answer is to be out to the people in the autumn, as there are 72 areas of the constitution that will require changing is it proposed to publish those 72 areas in booklet form? To inform the people on the choices they will have to make? I said it before and I will say it again I would like to see a preferendum and obviously there is much uncertainty surrounding the future at the present time.
Seanad Reform Additional Points:
Why we need a Bicameral Parliament:
The evidence suggests that bicameralism is not on the decline.
The majority of the world’s democratic countries have bicameral systems. 78 out of 178 members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union countries have bicameral parliaments. Ireland is one of 13 EU countries to have a bicameral system and over five sixths of the population of the Union live in countries with bicameral parliamentary systems.
There are studies which have found positive effects of bicameralism on parliamentary democracy in terms of representation, the process of legislative bargaining, the quality of legislation and oversight of the executive.
Bicameralism affects policy and law-making more significantly where one chamber has enough leverage to keep the other from acting unilaterally. However, even where rules allow one chamber to decide policy on its own after the other has had its say, as is the case in the Irish bicameralism system. Bicameralism also has the potential to protect minorities from legislation reflecting the tyranny of the majority but importantly, this potential is clearly only realised if minorities are adequately represented in powerful second chambers and so wide representative scope would be required in a reformed seanad and I think this Bill does demonstrate how this could be achieved.
A number of political scientists argue that bicameralism should result in higher quality legislation by virtue of informational gains from parallel or sequential consideration in separate chambers; others that it can improve legislation by providing an arena for adversarial consideration of competing policy proposals.
Why we need the Seanad:
•If the foundations of the democracy continue to be weak, whatever we build on them will be weaker. That is why we need a stronger, reformed Seanad and not its abolition. Abolition will lead to less democracy and accountability. We must restore the democratic value of Seanad Éireann which is at the heart of our society and state.
•Senator’s must focus more on legislation and less on local issues. This however, cannot be done until reform takes place art local level. Councillors must be given real powers and revenue raising abilities taking the national politician out of the power-broking equation. However, it is also at the discretion of members of the Seanad to not allow local work to be prioritised when their role is legislator and this should be remembered by Senators as it is why they are actually here.
•The Seanad has a role in acting as a counterbalance to the Dáil and the executive authority of the Government. Although I agree the whip system does stymy any independence of voting on legislation but I think it is necessary in order for any legislation to get passed. If there was no whip system, it would make any decision making and policy enactment chaotic and weak. The 3 line, 2 line, 1 line whip system on issues
•The Seanad has a very important role to play in terms of EU function as well as other important functions in terms of checks and balances as we have discussed in this house during our debates on Seanad Reform. As a House of the Oireachtas, under the provisions of Article 29 of the Constitution, as recently amended, the Seanad must give “prior approval” to EU proposals for enhanced cooperation, the Shengen Acquis, and the “opt out” of Ireland in respect of EU measures on freedom, security and justice, including the ending of that opt out.
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This post was written by on June 26, 2013