Seanad Reform

[Speaking in the Seanad on Independent Senator Sean Barrett’s Bill – Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) (Amendment) Bill 2014]

I have great pleasure in supporting and seconding Senator Barrett’s Bill. I believe Senator Barrett, more than any of us, represents the epitome of the intention of the Seanad – that is, to bring expertise unencumbered by the discipline and requirements of political party membership into the halls of Parliament where it can be brought to bear in areas of special interest.

In truth, one has to wonder, had there been more people like Senator Barrett tramping these corridors in the past decade or decade and a half, is there a chance we would have found ourselves with a greater critical mass of expertise in economic, financial, banking and commercial matters in the House? Would our Government have been in a stronger and better position to analyse, diagnose and correct the problems that have caused such pain to so many people in the country? It is primarily for this reason that I became vehemently supportive of the notion of Seanad reform as opposed to Seanad abolition. These were the two options I put in my election leaflet in 2011. I stated that the Seanad as currently constituted was unsustainable and that it needed to be either abolished or reformed.

As a Member of this House, it strikes me that we need to give the whole reform agenda a good go, because we have a real opportunity here. When one considers the problems and dysfunctions that have beset the Dáil, it is clear how difficult it will be to fix. By having the entirety of our generally mandated and generally enfranchised electorate electing politicians on the basis of geographical constituencies, there is an inevitable tendency for those politicians to be mostly concerned with representing their constituency, which they do very well. The system means, however, that we have a deficit of people in the Lower House who are elected with a specifically national outlook, but it is from this available group that our Ministers must be selected. As it happens, we often get very good Ministers. Sometimes, however, looking across the spectrum of people who have occupied the positions over the years, one would have to say that some of them were rather inexpert when they were appointed. I am not looking at the Minister of State when I say this. He is very expert.

It is for these reasons that I espoused a very fundamental reform of the Seanad which, if it had been enacted, would have given us one nationally elected Chamber based on universal franchise. It would have afforded an opportunity for people who are not heavily politically partisan in their orientation and involvement to come in greater numbers into the Chamber. Realism dictates that the reform I have espoused will not happen. Likewise, it is very unlikely that the similar and very high-quality reform espoused by Senators Katherine Zappone and Feargal Quinn will be enacted. This is because all the power to enact changes in the law and Constitution rests in the hands of a very small number of people, in an inner sanctum at the Cabinet table. In fact, that is the very problem we were hoping to address by way of the reforms we have proposed.

Having said that, it is good that we have an array of options available in order to keep the reform agenda alive. Those of us who urged a “No” vote in the referendum to abolish the Seanad have since taken criticism because no reform has occurred. In fact, the Bill produced by Senators Quinn and Zappone, my Bill and now Senator Barrett’s Bill have all been put before the House at various points. We have done our bit to honour our commitment of working for reform of the Seanad. In that vein, I am strongly in favour of Senator Barrett’s proposal advancing and forming part of the Government’s consideration when it examines the possibility of Seanad reform. Against a background of referendum fatigue, we are cognisant that all three of the proposals that have been brought forward, as well as the Fianna Fáil proposal, could potentially be enacted on the basis of legislation without the requirement for any referendum-authorised changes to the Constitution.

I enthusiastically support Senator Barrett in his endeavours and am proud to second his proposal. I hope the Government will give serious consideration to the results of the referendum last October. It might be putting it too strongly to say that people voted overwhelmingly in support of the Seanad, but certainly they voted against all expectations, not for retention of the status quo but for a reformed Upper House. Every indicator of opinion at the time showed there was a great hunger and appetite for reform. Merely making some small changes will not be adequate, but any changes are none the less welcome.

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