Seanad Reform

[Speaking in the Seanad during Statements on the Report of Working Group on Seanad Reform 2015]

I welcome my two esteemed colleagues and thank them for the great work they have done in a spirit of public service. Any departures I might have from the consensus that may have existed within its group about its recommendations should not construed as anything less than fully appreciative of the efforts they have made.

I came in here last week and spoke on a different issue in which I quoted Mill, Hume, Voltaire and Orwell and was greeted with the response that I should go back to being a doctor that I did not know what I was talking about. It is with some trepidation that I will start by quoting Descartes, but I will do so because with Seanad reform we are, in the words of the famous Irish diplomat, putting “Descartes before the horse”.

I am very cross at Senator Cullinane for using the phrase “navel-gazing” repeatedly because I intended using it and I am afraid he has stolen my thunder from his appropriate invocation of the phrase. Problems with Seanad reform inevitably arise in that they resemble attempts at navel-gazing. We have a group of people in the Seanad or those who are charged with looking at it from outside or from inside. They have decided it is a body of sadly, minimally relevant officials with minimal legitimacy who are seeking their own reform in an attempt to increase their relevance and legitimacy. Increasing the relevance and the legitimacy of the Seanad is a worthwhile undertaking but it is not the principal problem which besets our system of government. When I ran for the Seanad I stated at the time that I would campaign for its reform or its abolition. I believe the status quo is unacceptable and that therefore minor adjustment of the status quo is equally unacceptable. I have consistently held that view. I have always stated that if the alternatives were a commitment to a wholly unreformed Seanad and no Seanad, I would say no Seanad would be better.

The problem, however, is not specifically with the Seanad but with the system of government. There are a number of critical dysfunctions. Consider the governmental dysfunctions that wrecked our country over the past ten years, condemned so many to unemployment, emigration and the loss of their homes, and caused an already mediocre health service to become even poorer. Although I will not be dramatic enough to call the health system a Third World health system, I believe it is a poor one by comparison with the one we should have. We found our universities dropping out of all the top league tables and there was so much wasted talent. What was the reason, at Government level, for these occurrences? By and large, it was incompetence. It was not malice, malevolence or corruption, although in certain sectors of the economy, and to an extent in government, some of these might have been a factor. By and large, however, it was a question of incompetence or, to use another phrase, non-competence and a lack of national focus.

Deputies in our more powerful Lower House are elected according to a system that, in 99% of cases, is rigidly focused on local politics. I acknowledge we all have our personal ambitions and agendas and we all have our own interests to defend. In this regard, I am not being holier than thou or moralistic but just stating a fact. I do a lot of things in my own self-interest. Deputies do many things in theirs, but theirs is principally determined by the next general election. If they believe they will do well in the next general election by doing something good for the country, they will do it, and if they believe they will do well by not doing something good for the country, they will adopt that approach. We see much of the spin-off from this way of thinking in this House, unfortunately. I am not moralising about any of my colleagues but I must draw attention to the intense irritation many of us feel every time we hear someone in the House using the phrase “In my constituency”. It makes me want to ask which part of the agricultural, commercial or culture panel they are referring to when they make such a reference.

A major problem is that we have not elected people whose eyes have been focused on national problems. It is not their fault as their activity reflects the system we have. The result is that representatives are elected in disproportionate numbers for very local reasons. My saying this will result in some criticism, which I can take. Some are elected, not usually but disproportionately, because they have a certain family background or some other local advantage or because they have been very good at negotiating with the constituency organisation of a local party that is culturally strong in the area in question. This is the gene pool, the talent pool, from which we must pick our Government. These are the folks we must then rely on when facing really big problems, such as banking crises, banks spreads and bond yields. Every taxi driver in Dublin has become an expert on these over recent years but hardly any of us had heard of them ten years ago. Suddenly there are people making very big decisions about these major issues. There are people making big decisions about the health service who know nothing about the delivery of health care. Therefore, we need really fundamental reform of our system of government.

We need an arrangement that somewhat decouples the Executive from the parliamentary branches. We need a system that results in the right people being appointed at the highest levels of the very technocratic Ministries. I am not decrying civilian control of the military, for example, but contending that we need a system that allows people with expertise and talent in particular areas to put themselves before the people under some sort of ratification process with a view to becoming the folks who will sit around the table. We need another group of people who will hold them to account in a national parliament. We have neither. The same people who pick the Executive sit in the Parliament and are whipped into silence and prevented from making statements they believe to be true because they are not allowed to deviate from the party line. I will not personalise but I believe we have had examples of this phenomenon in this very House. There was a spectacular case early in the history of this Seanad concerning a very fine and much-needed Bill that was introduced and advocated by a Member on the Government side. That Member was then whipped into voting against the Bill having made a very passionate and articulate case for its acceptance and implementation. This is the kind of daftness we are dealing with, yet we wonder why we have so many problems.

The two former Senators were given tremendously narrow confines in which to operate. Within these confines, they have behaved competently, honourably and cleverly and have done a good job, but the problem is more fundamental.

It has been stated the Seanad is not the number one item on the agenda of most people in the country. Perhaps this is the greatest truism ever spoken. The Seanad may not be in the top ten, 100 or 1 million items on the agenda of most people in the country. The House is regarded as largely irrelevant. We love standing in our august Chamber making a speech that nearly nobody will hear or read. That is sad but it is the reality. For Senators, former Senators, people interested in politics and those who care about politics and the system of government, issues such as the reform of the current Seanad assume great importance. It appears such people need us to increase its legitimacy and relevance. There is something sad about an organisation that is seeking to increase its own relevance. Sometimes a lack of relevance is a statement of reality, not something that needs to be changed.

In my ideal world, which I will never see, there would be a fine argument for a bicameral system of parliamentary representation in a country such as Ireland, with one Chamber comprising representatives very focused on local issues in their election campaigns. I do not decry parochialism in politics. The connection between individuals and government is critical. We should never think the people are an irrelevance to the process of government. They are not and are what the process of government should all be about. If people have concerns, there should be a mechanism whereby they can identify a representative who can articulate them, but the Chamber in which such a representative would sit ought not to be the only kind of Chamber. We could also have a Chamber or forum focused rigidly on national issues in which a representative would not be reluctant to advocate an approach to the national economy, employment policy or health policy that is unpopular. He or she would be able to say, in spite of its being unpopular, that a certain hospital should close and that its patients would be better served if they had to travel 40 miles farther to get better care. In our current system, almost nobody elected is able to say anything like that. Therefore, there is a need for us to examine the system fundamentally.

In many ways, I am a great admirer of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny. I have stated before that I believe he is the best Taoiseach we have had for a long time, although it must be stated the competition for that accolade has been somewhat weak. With regard to the question of Seanad reform, however, the Taoiseach has played this one exactly wrong at every step along the way. As a doctor, I would prescribe one of three approaches to somebody who received a wallop. The Taoiseach correctly self-diagnosed his wallop. One could deal with the disagreement that caused the wallop, one could wallop the person back or one could put something very cold over the walloped area to make the pain go away. It is very hard for me to escape the conclusion that the latter is what the Taoiseach has done on this occasion. He is trying to put a big cold compress over the wallop and wound, which is the deficiency in our parliamentary system of government, but he is choosing the wrong option.

It has been stated there have been many reports and much navel gazing and irrelevant debate on Seanad reform. When I ran for election to this House, I said I would either work to abolish it or work to reform it. I have worked to reform it together with my very able colleagues in my office, Shane Conneely, Aoife O’Toole and Aoife Casey. We formulated a Bill, which was advanced. Before the end of this Seanad, we will advance it for further discussion, although I know it will be shot down in flames. It would be dishonest to do less than that.

I thank the witnesses unambiguously and acknowledge what they have done. I sort of wish them well but must admit I am afraid we are aiming at the wrong target.


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