Government’s Dismal Progress in Political Reform – We Need to Move Away from sheepdog-like behaviour

[Speaking in the Seanad during Committee Stage of Seanad Bill 2013]

I am stunned at the effrontery of the Government side in trying to be so utterly obstructionist about every aspect of this Bill. Those Members were elected on the promise of political reform but have split themselves asunder on the issue of abolishing the Seanad. Most Government Senators were either lukewarm in their support for abolition or, in many cases, frankly opposed their own Government’s position. They should be warmly embracing every opportunity for meaningful Seanad reform. If the 2013 referendum meant anything, it was an endorsement of Seanad reform. I do not believe any single person went into the polling station on the day of the referendum wishing to maintain the status quo. A plurality of people, a majority of those who cast their ballots, voted effectively for reform. This message needs to be taken on board.

For the Government merely to implement the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution 40-odd years later and say that this is long-promised political reform is absolutely unsatisfactory. Their use of tactics such as calling a vote on the Title of the Bill speaks somewhat to the insincerity of their commitment to the whole question of reform.

What could be simpler? The people said “No” to abolishing the Seanad. We are all democrats and we believe that we should have a popularly, generally enfranchised second Chamber, elected in a different fashion from the first Chamber, so that we have people representing a different spectrum of interests; perhaps not local electoral constituency interests, but more national interests. What could be simpler?

We have a number of opportunities with various reform Bills – including the Bill from my esteemed colleagues, Senators Quinn and Zappone, my own Bill, and now the Fianna Fáil Bill – to deal with substantive reform. If the early signals we are getting here mean anything, it seems to me that there is going to be no reform whatsoever. There will be a little bit of adjusting around the edges, changing the way we elect the current six university Senators. By the way, I will support that. Anything that increases the number of people who have a direct popular vote for any seat in this House is something I will support. I will support enthusiastically anything that moves us away from a situation in which 200,000 people elect six Senators, 1,000 people elect 43 Senators, and one person elects 11 Senators. It can only be an improvement. That is what we should all be striving for.

The whole question of political reform is not hung just on the Seanad. Much as we like to think it, we are not the centre of the political universe or the centre of politics in Ireland. We are what we are. It has been an interesting forum for debating meaningful political change. Such change should apply not only to the processes of this House but to politics in general. Right at the core of it, we are seeing example after example of the system’s failings – specifically, how they revolve around the Whips in the Dáil. It should be an opportunity for us in this House to try to break free from the turgid shackles of whipped, unthinking, slavish, sheepdog-like behaviour and, instead, to think, come up with some constructive suggestions, and vote with our consciences on how we can make the politics of this country a little bit better. I see no evidence of it, however.

We know who the winners are when the true democrats start behaving like this. Those recent converts to democracy, who may have a rather lukewarm commitment to it, suddenly start to look not so bad when those who are supposed to be the expert exponents and passionate devotees of democracy start behaving in a fashion that is a little bit undemocratic.

I hope we will get this Bill through Committee Stage today and that we will pass it. I also hope that my Bill will be afforded the opportunity for a full debate when it comes before us. Our colleagues in the other House should also have an opportunity to see these important pieces of legislation and have a debate that relates not only to the way we do business here but also to the way we do business in our Parliament.

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