Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Terry Leyden: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, my constituency colleague. I commend him on the excellent speech he made which outlined the situation on reform of the Seanad. It has been an interesting debate and Senator O’Toole argued that local councillors should not have a franchise to give us a mandate. The 1,000 councillors in Ireland are elected by more than 2 million people who went to the polls most recently in June 2009. They have a right and responsibility and we have a mandate from them to be here equal to any representative from the universities or those nominated by the Taoiseach. I recommend to Senator O’Toole that he advocate the institutes of technology be given the right to vote. This would be a very positive move. A constitutional amendment accepted by the people has not been implemented. Will the Minister of State implement this prior to the next Seanad? It will require legislation.
I commend Senator Maurice Cummins on proposing the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) (Amendment) Bill 2008. It is quite interesting that the party bringing forward the Bill is the very party that wants to abolish the Seanad. This side of the House, which is in favour of retaining the Seanad, outlined through the Minister of State exactly what the future holds for the Seanad.
Senator Terry Leyden: I will not re-read the Minister of State’s speech. I will not plagiarise him. He outlined it in his speech; please read it. It was a very comprehensive speech and I hope it will be——
Senator Terry Leyden: It is interesting that Senator Maurice Cummins has not proposed an amendment with regard to the labour panel, of which he and I are members. He does not propose additional nominating bodies for that. It is very difficult to get elected to this House.
Senator Terry Leyden: I was first elected to the Dáil in 1977. It took me three efforts and three panels to get elected to Seanad Éireann. I went on the administrative panel, which was mentioned, the industrial and commercial panel——
Senator Terry Leyden: I wish Senator O’Toole well as vice chairman of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, which is a wonderful appointment for a Member of the House. The relevant legislation allows a Member of this House to have such a position. Senators and councillors should be members of boards. The Minister of State is very keen on this and he will ensure any legislation he proposes will allow for it. There are Members of this House who are well qualified to serve on the boards of some of the banks to bring rationale to those areas. This House has tremendous potential. There is a certain sense of unreality about this because of the circumstances.
Senator Terry Leyden: ——promoting the recent conference in Listowel which was very successful. I commend the chairman, Hugh McElvaney, the secretary, Noel Bourke, and Councillor Tom Crosby from Tarmonbarry in my constituency——
Senator Terry Leyden: ——who is the Oireachtas representative. We have a very close working relationship. Through Senator Diarmuid Wilson, the Government Whip, we met the LAMA executive in Leinster House to discuss other issues as well as this one.
Senator Terry Leyden: I very much hope that the association would be allowed to take part in the nomination process. The Minister of State explained the matter very well and he will convince LAMA that its best interests lie in supporting Fianna Fáil candidates in the next election because we support the retention of the Seanad. Many of its members have aspirations to be here and I wish them well. It would make their passage much easier if LAMA had a nominating right but let us be assured that a vote for a Fianna Fáil candidate in the next Seanad election is a vote for the retention of Seanad Éireann.
Senator Paddy Burke: I compliment Senator Cummins on bringing the Bill before the House. It is the first legislation we have debated since the recess. Two issues have been raised today, the reform of the Seanad and the Bill itself. Seanad reform is a much bigger issue and with only five minutes to speak, the only issue to be discussed is the Bill, which I support.
The franchise should be extended to LAMA. I was a member of the association for a number of years and I can vouch for the great work it does on behalf of local authority members, not only members of county and city councils but also members of larger municipal authorities. It is a wide-ranging and extensive body which is well run. There is nothing wrong with Members of the House being elected by councillors. The councillors are elected by the public and come from wide and varied backgrounds and from all educational backgrounds. They have great knowledge and those they elect to the House also have great knowledge and experience.
I fully support the position outlined by Senator Cummins. Why should the representative body of local authority members not have the right to nominate one person to stand for election to the Seanad? Various bodies apply to the Clerk of the Seanad for the right to nominate to various panels. This Bill spells out in detail that the Association of County and City Councils, the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland and the Local Authority Members Association are the only bodies that would nominate to the administrative panel other than bodies with charitable status. It is clear LAMA does not have charitable status and Senator Cummins has outlined that the Bill should be changed to allow it to be a nominating body. I agree with this.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: Although I am glad to have an opportunity to speak about the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) (Amendment) Bill 2008, I have no hesitation in saying I do not support it. I am conscious I am one of the Senators who enjoys the patronage of the Taoiseach, having been nominated to my position in this House. I was used to having a mandate as an elected representative, but that is no longer the case in my capacity as a Senator. It certainly impedes my sense of having a mandate as, technically, I do not have one. I am conscious I am approaching this issue from that perspective. I do not have any cross to bear or cause to fight for any particular group. The reason I am opposed to this legislation is that it would perpetuate the power of vested interests, which is what is fundamentally wrong with this Chamber.
I am conscious that I am a former member of a party that originally wanted to abolish the Seanad. Since I was elected to this House, I have noticed that the quality of debate is much higher here. The manner in which Senators interact when discussing complex legislation was especially evident during the debate on the National Asset Management Agency Bill 2009, which was much better in this House than it was in the Dáil. I have come around to the position that this is a worthwhile Chamber. I am sure all the Fine Gael Members of this House would like the Seanad to continue. Perhaps the leader of that party, on mature and measured reflection, will change his tune. It is quite ironic that Fine Gael proposes to extend the franchise and nominating abilities of the Seanad at a time when it also proposes the abolition of the House. There is a lack of coherence in such a strategy.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I would like to continue without interruption. I find the current system offensive, if that is not too strong a word. If we are to be democratic, we should be elected by the people. That is what it comes down to. We need a different system of electing Senators. It is amusing to hear Senators speaking about their constituencies. The only constituencies they have are their representative bodies. Why do we continue to perpetuate the involvement of such interest groups when in every other sphere of life or element of politics we say we do not favour interest groups?
The one welcome aspect of the introduction of this legislation, if the Minister of State will permit me to say so, is that it might shame the Government into admitting that the Seanad reform which everyone was saying would be done will not take place during the lifetime of this Seanad. A great deal of work on Seanad reform was done during the previous Seanad but we have very little to show for it, which is not something of which we can be proud. For that reason alone, Senator Cummins has done some service by introducing this Bill. We need to think about whether we are serious about reforming the Seanad. It is high time we started the process of reform. Everyone should be elected by the people, rather than on the basis of their education, for example. I propose that the system should involve something like a regional body.
I accept the Minister of State’s position. I think he is right not to accept this Bill. We do not need piecemeal changes that make more room on the trough, which is essentially what this legislation proposes. I do not think that is the right way to reform the Seanad. If we are to change it, we should change it fundamentally. I accept that the university panel system may have some merit, as those elected under that system have contributed strongly to each successive Seanad. None the less, it is fundamentally wrong that a person can be given a vote on the basis of his or her level of education. We cannot stand over it. Senator O’Toole admitted it is unconscionable that to provide representation, he must stand on an elitist panel. There is much to be said for his honesty.
The legislation proposed by Senator Cummins highlights the need for fundamental change to take place. I hope it will trigger the introduction of legislative reform by the Minister of State and his senior colleague at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. People are entitled to be disappointed that more fundamental Seanad reform has not taken place to date. I hope the Government will attend to the matter with greater diligence as seo amach.
Senator Marc MacSharry: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. I congratulate Senators Cummins and Coghlan on their initiative in introducing this Bill. I assume they have done so in the context of a difficult atmosphere in the Fine Gael Party, the leadership of which has determined that the abolition of the Seanad is desirable.
I wish to express my personal views on Seanad reform. Eight years have passed since I was first elected to this House. I have been involved in many debates on reform proposals. I was a Senator when substantial cross-party reports were published under the leadership of Deputy O’Rourke. I appreciate that the Minister of State has said an independent electoral commission will be established. The fatal flaw or handicap in our entire system is its inability at times to allow decisions to be made. The stones on the road probably know how the contribution of the Seanad could be usefully maximised. The Minister of State is well aware of the need for reform, as he said in his speech, having been a strong advocate for it during his many years as a councillor and as an excellent Member of this House.
I would like to speak about the inability of the hierarchy of the political establishment to make the necessary changes. All of this country’s political entities, particularly Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour Party, have sought since the foundation of the State to preserve the status quo, in effect. I have never known a Senator from any side of the House — Independent or otherwise — who is not a strong and enthusiastic advocate of substantial Seanad reform in the interests of the people. It is hugely frustrating, however, that we have consistently been told reports will be compiled and bodies will be established — in this case, an independent electoral commission.
The Members of the Oireachtas have developed tangible proposals for meaningful reforms that would help to streamline this country’s democratic process. The people want reforms that represent their views and, above all, are not as pedestrian as many of the reforms we seek to make in these Houses. They want decisions to be made instantly and change to happen quickly, as is the case in the private sector. The decisions that are made in these Houses usually involve the establishment of an independent commission or review group. We have to talk to civil servants and see what they think. The matter is then reviewed again independently at some phenomenal cost to the State. The point is usually reached at which the proposed reform has been questioned so much that it is obsolete and the process needs to be started all over again.
I agree with Senator O’Malley that if the people were truly informed of the level of debate on and scrutiny of the various legislative proposals that come to this House, including EU legislation, they would have much more confidence in our political system, even with the flaws that exist. The media, for one reason or another, has decided not to cover the workings of this House in any meaningful way. Many people in the public service, the Civil Service and — not least — the media look down their noses at the work of these Houses. Senator O’Malley referred to the debate on the National Asset Management Agency Bill 2009. Over approximately 70 hours, the legislation in question was teased out, changes were made and a number of recommendations were accepted by the Minister. We should acknowledge for once that change is required in these Houses. We do not need another report or the input of an independent electoral commission. Genuine political will is needed not to preserve the status quo but to make the changes that are needed. Everyone who has ever served in this House knows that such changes can be made.
Senator Cummins will fully understand that I am bound by the Whip. I will meet my responsibilities in that regard when I vote on this Bill. I commend him on having the courage, in the face of opposition within his own party, to introduce this small piece of the kind of reform that is needed. I accept that Senator O’Malley would like a universal franchise, although there are various views on that. I suggest that in the interim, we could continue to be nominated by county councillors. I was elected on the industrial and commercial panel, which has between 50 and 60 nominating bodies. If we are to have additional nominating bodies, I do not see why the Local Authority Members Association should be excluded from consideration in that regard.
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