Future of Seanad Éireann on the line

Last night, a motion was put down on Seanad Reform by the Independent Senators.  You can view the motion here.  Following the debate, the motion was put to a vote where the government was defeated 28-27. Below, you’ll find my speech from the night.

There is an element of this debate that is profoundly depressing because it is shot through with a terrible feeling of déjà vu. This is at least the third time in my short time in this Chamber when I have stood up to make pretty much the same contribution I am about to make. That is not acceptable, and it is not acceptable that the Minister, Deputy Gormley, would finish his speech to the House in January 2010 with the following conclusion:

We seem to be some way off cross-party consensus on reform of the Seanad and I will be reporting this conclusion to the Government. I intend to submit a report for discussion with my colleagues in government shortly. We will have regard to the views expressed by all parties and the commitments given in the programme for Government. We will then consider the next steps to be taken in the process. While consensus remains elusive, I have previously informed the House that the absence of consensus cannot be allowed to lead to paralysis. It is my ambition that the Government will press ahead with reforms from which successive Governments have shied away.

He is correct about successive Governments having shied away. I will take that criticism in so far as it involves parties on this side of the House. However, that is now almost one year ago. The Minister had said the same thing in the House some months earlier and the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, said the same thing again today. Senator Fitzgerald was right to ask whether this proposal has been brought to Government.

We cannot fly everything on the electoral commission. Either the Government has serious proposals to bring forward or it does not. Perhaps it should just say it does not see Seanad reform as being a priority at this time. That is what I gathered from listening to the Minister of State and, although it is not what she in fact said, it was what any reasonable person would have concluded. She tipped us off when she asked what we were doing about it. I wonder what the Leader , Senator Cassidy thinks about the very thinly veiled criticism of some of the procedures and practices in the House. For example, the Minister of State was unhappy today that we had two debates about the Seanad and wanted to know what reforms we were bringing forward ourselves. In so far as it goes, that is not an unreasonable point for her to make but it does not constitute a response to this debate.

I and others have raised this issue repeatedly. On the Order of Business last week, I asked the Leader to name one reform, however minimal, he had brought forward in the lifetime of this Seanad. Out of respect, I tried to maintain my practice of not interrupting when he replies to the House and although sometimes I fail, on that occasion I did not. He announced in his reply that he had brought about a change, namely, a practice had been introduced whereby Ministers who made statements in the House would take questions. That is not a reform that has been introduced since 2007 because it has been in Standing Orders for many years. Therefore, the sum total of the reform that has been introduced since we all were elected to the House in 2007 is exactly zero.

People on both sides are blue in the face talking about the economy and the grave financial situation facing the country. Why can we not have a debate that is structured differently? Why is it all about the Minister making a statement before we make set-piece statements? Why can we not have a more committee-style debate? Why can we not – perish the thought – interrupt each other sometimes, not in an attacking way but in a way which seeks to clarify what each Member is saying in order that we can add to the debate and move it forward?

I am a member of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges where these issues have arisen. I have also raised at the CPP the issue of a petitions system which the Labour Party has been pushing for years and which was, I understood, agreed at the CPP.

It has been agreed for years but where is it? We do not need to change the Constitution for any of these issues. The Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, asked what the Seanad itself is doing about making itself relevant. It is a perfectly reasonable question and it should be answered. As a Chamber, we are not doing anything about it.

We stand condemned. I do not take the blame because I believe it is principally a matter for the Government to bring forward the proposals. It has not done so.

I commend Senator O’Toole on his remarks. There is no question but that the future of the Seanad is on the line. Its survival, in terms of its place in our political system, is open to question. If it is possible to have reform instead of abolition, we must realise that much of what is in the motion describes the kind of reform of which I am in favour. It draws attention to the sorts of issues we should be addressing. I remain sceptical as to whether we can reform this Chamber on its own. We require considerable reform across all our democratic institutions in the near future. We need a much stronger Parliament, as everyone is saying, and we need a stronger committee system. I doubt we can or should be trying to address only one aspect of the reform required.

We must ask ourselves what the Seanad is for. It is implied in the motion that we do not want to be a second Dáil or a shadow Dáil. What would be the point in that? What is the point in having a mini-Dáil upstairs? The Seanad should have a separate, credible and identifiable role but it is not really clear what that is at present. The only constitutional role there is for the Seanad is to pass legislation.

When Senator Ross was speaking, he implied it did not matter one way or another whether we pass legislation or not. Passing legislation is the only role we have under the Constitution. It may come as a surprise to Members to know that between the Seanad election in mid-2007 and the middle of 2009, only 40% of the Seanad’s sitting time was devoted to legislation. Unfortunately, I do not have figures for 2010. The Order of Business took up 25% of the entire sitting time of the House during the period in question. There cannot be many parliaments in the world whose orders of business account for 25% of sitting time.

The Order of Business is an opportunity for Members to raise topical issues. However, as Senator Norris stated, it is a bit much that we do not have a more structured and realistic way to have regular daily debates than engaging in the fiction of having them on the Order of Business. It does not make sense. This is a matter we could consider but we just do not seem to be capable of doing so or want to do so. It ought to be considered.

Since we resumed six weeks ago, we have not had any Government legislation at all. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. It is pretty extraordinary, therefore, that the Minister of State asked about what the House could do to become more efficient. Many people have questions to answer.

One possible answer to the question of Seanad reform, which will not be very popular, is that rather than panicking about sitting three days per week and trying to ensure we fill the time with business every day to take away the bad look, we should sit less often. This should have a financial implication for Members. Members should be paid for the time they sit here. I propose this for consideration.