Seanad Bill 2016: Second Stage 13 July 2016
Posted on July 13, 2016
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. I commend Senator McDowell for bringing forward this important legislation. Indeed, I thank the Leader and the Government party for giving Government time to this legislation. This is an indication of the new politics we saw in evidence in this House last week when we had Committee Stage of our Private Members' Bill on freelance workers' rights. We did so in Private Members' time but the Government promised to give us Government time for Report Stage of the Bill. It is an indication of how well the Seanad can work.
Colleagues will forgive me for a slight sense of déjà vu. Like Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell said earlier, and like so many others here, I am familiar with the many debates that we have had over the years on Seanad reform. I count myself as very privileged and honoured to have been re-elected for a third term in the Seanad. I value every colleague in the Seanad equally, a view that should not need to be said. Every one of us brings our own unique life experiences and background to the Seanad.
I agree that we have had so many reports and debates on reform and yet this new Seanad has a new dynamism and energy due to the number of new Senators elected to the House. The Manning report has provided us with a blueprint for reform. When we debated the Manning report in May of last year and the draft Bill that Dr. Maurice Manning and Mr. Joe O'Toole prepared, from which Senator McDowell's Bill borrows, we said that this should be the last report on Seanad reform and that we should be able to unite in principle behind the Bill. Therefore, I am glad that the legislation has received general support across the House. I am happy to indicate the Labour Party's support for the Bill, while, like many others, recognising some flaws in it or issues that we would like to see improved on. Certainly, we welcome the legislation.
The Labour Party has tabled an amendment to Sinn Féin's motion on Seanad reform simply calling for the establishment of an implementation group on Seanad reform because we believe a smaller implementation group might be more capable of working speedily. We also recommend that an implementation group has a timeframe of 12 months to implement the recommendations of the Manning report. It is in the same spirit as this Bill. We call on the implementation of a report rather than draft a new one or start from scratch.
The context in which we debate this Bill and in which Dr. Maurice Manning's group worked was the context in which we looked at reforms that could be implemented through legislation within the current constitutional framework. All of us might like to see particular changes to the Constitution. In the Labour Party Senator's group, we have said we would like to see changes made to the Taoiseach's power to nominate 11 Senators and the existing five vocational panels. However, the agreement, and I think the pragmatic approach, is to ask what can we do within the current constitutional framework and that is the aim of this Bill, that is, to seek the maximum change we can achieve within the constitutional framework.
The previous Labour Senator's group made a submission on Seanad reform to Dr. Maurice Manning's group in January 2015. We put forward a number of proposals. The key proposal, and one that has been reflected both in the report and in this Bill, is the proposal for universal suffrage - or one person, one vote. The need to achieve universal suffrage is a principle on which everyone in the House is united, although we may differ on how best to achieve it. I want to offer some constructive proposals but we all agree that we should move towards that model.
In the last Seanad, we made certain procedural changes that did not require legislation. These included, for example, the establishment of a public consultation committee. That committee has held hearings and produced reports on a number of key issues such as the human rights of older persons, lifestyle changes to prevent cancer and farm safety. These were new and dynamic ways in which the Seanad could be seen to work. We brought in different interest groups and held public hearings in this Chamber on different days. We had a series of debates with MEPs to improve and strengthen our links with the European Parliament. We also brought in a number of distinguished visitors to speak to us. We need to ensure that all of those changes are continued. We need to continue to change the way we work in this House without the need for legislative change in order to be a more dynamic and more effective Chamber. As I said, we are happy to support this Bill. In general, it will lead to a hugely improved and more democratic Seanad. In principle, the need to extend the suffrage for the Seanad and ensure an increased number of voters is a hugely important issue. In our submission the Labour Party proposed the extension of suffrage to those entitled to be on the local election register. This Bill there proposes to go beyond that to include the diaspora, which I believe all of us would support in principle. How this would be done is an issue. I believe that the approach taken in the Bill to restrict this entitlement to current Irish passport holders is a practical limitation. As the Minister said, the logistics and costings in that regard need to be examined in detail. Some of us are already elected by diaspora voters. A huge proportion of voters on my own panel are Irish citizens who live abroad. We should be conscious that the Seanad, as currently constituted, represents members of the diaspora.
There is a particular issue in the Bill about which I would like to speak, which issue I raised when we debated the report of the working group on Seanad reform on 8 July 2015. The Minister stated in his speech that there may be a difficulty in the Bill with balancing constituencies. Under the provisions of this Bill and as proposed in the report of the working group on Seanad reform, chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning, the voter chooses the constituency in which he or she will vote in Seanad elections. As I pointed out previously this means that panels could be very skewed. For example, in regard to section 8, 100,000 people might opt to vote in the arts panel and, although nobody is quite sure about this, there could be 850,000 voters potentially on the universities panel. As such, we could have very skewed numbers on different panels.
I note that Senator McDowell has proposed a complicated amendment to section 9 by way of a new section 45(1) such that limits would be applied to the number of elected representatives who would be registered in respect of a single constituency. The Labour group gave this some thought and we have come up with what I believe is a simpler and, perhaps, less cumbersome change, namely, that everybody entitled to vote on the Seanad electoral register would have a separate vote for candidates on each of the panels. In other words, a voter would not have to opt for one panel but would have five votes on the different panels. University graduates would opt for a vote on the universities panel instead of another particular panel. We suggested the national language, culture, literature, art and education panel. We also suggested that in accordance with Article 19 of the Constitution one of the panels would be reserved for election by city and county council members to preserve the existing link with local government which we believe is important. We believe that the public administration panel might be the most appropriate in that regard. I note there is a proposal in the Bill to preserve some voter rights for councillors. It is important that we preserve the link with local government in some way. The proposal put forward by Senator McDowell that we might look at changing the current position in legislation whereby councillors are not entitled to be Members of the Seanad is interesting. The preservation of one panel for election by councillors would not require constitutional change. One could also amend the current eligibility rules to enable councillors stand for election to that panel.
Returning to the Labour Party proposals, to protect against unbalanced panels, each individual registered on the Seanad electoral register would have five votes on five panels and could vote 1, 2 and 3 on each of those panels. It would be akin to a multi-seat constituency. This would guard against the skewing of voter numbers on different panels. It would also guard against what I believe is a real danger in this area, individual candidates organising registration campaigns on a particular panel to ensure they were more likely to be elected to it. We need to look at the practical implications of the panel system.
We need to look again at the online facilities and so forth. The working group on Seanad reform consulted on this with the National Cyber Security Centre, which provided some practical points on how to address security issues. The postal ballot requirement in the Constitution is a difficulty. In terms of the use of technology to try to reduce the cost of the postal ballot the Bill is very progressive. We should also introduce a system likechecktheregister.ieto enable people to check if they are registered to vote.
The Labour group has also put forward in its proposals one very radical but simple change which I believe could make a huge difference to the make-up of the Seanad, which, again, would not require constitutional change, namely, that a Seanad election should take place on the same day as a Dáil election. Article 18.8 of the Constitution provides that a Seanad election must take place not later than 90 days after dissolution of the Dáil. The Labour group proposes that it be provided by way of legislation that a Seanad election take place on the same day as a Dáil election on a PR-STV basis by secret postal ballot. Legislation could prohibit a candidate from running in both elections, which would break the direct link between Dáil and Seanad elections often criticised by many.
I thank Senator McDowell for introducing this Bill and thank the Minister of State for his support for it.