Radical Seanad Reform Through Legislative Change: Statements

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 217 No. 7

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Radical Seanad Reform Through Legislative Change: Statements

Senator Maurice Cummins: Information on Maurice Cummins Zoom on Maurice Cummins I suggest Senator Quinn, as one of the co-authors with Senator Zappone, lead the debate.

Acting Chairman (Senator Marie Moloney): Information on Marie Moloney Zoom on Marie Moloney Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information on Feargal Quinn Zoom on Feargal Quinn I thank the Leader for enabling me to initiate the debate. I hope the debate will stimulate not just a debate today but in the months to come because it is an important area. I came into this House almost 20 years ago. I remember coming into the House and realising that I did not know anything about legislation and I wondered how I would go about doing it. As I was a grocer all my life, I began to look for the customer in each piece of legislation. I found when I looked for the customer I was able to come up with changes or issues that had not been considered previously. The case for Seanad reform is similar. Having a debate on the future of the Seanad is important. There is a public disillusion about politics and parliamentary institutions. That includes both Houses. Many people say our system is not working. I would love to think that we in this House could enable it to work better. The public want change. They want reform of the institutions. It is imperative that we do not respond to that wish by the abolition of one of the Houses, which would make matters worse. I hope the debate today will initiate a discussion. That is the whole reason for this paper of 28 pages, which we hope will give enough reason for people to debate it.

  Abolition is wrong. It would give rise to a number of errors, but the first one is that it would require 75 changes to the Constitution. The Constitution has served us well since 1937. I have listed the amendments on five pages. The Constitution has worked very well for us for 75 years yet we are suddenly going to do away with it. It would be a shame to do so because the concept de Valera had when he introduced the Constitution, in particular when he introduced the Seanad, was to enable the State to have a second opinion and view on all legislation going through the Oireachtas. The Seanad provides checks and balances. Just as we seek a second opinion if we go to see the doctor and we are told we need an operation, we go to another doctor to get a second opinion. It is the same with the Seanad. We have the chance to examine every piece of legislation and to give a second opinion. That is the onus on us. The Seanad provides a second opinion and its abolition would sweep very important safeguards away. It would be very difficult if that were to happen. Over the years I have been a Member, thousands of amendments have been made to numerous Bills in the Seanad. The legislation has been improved no end as a result. It would be a shame if that oversight were to be done away with.

  The consultation paper is worth examining. It argues that the Seanad is cost effective. The suggestion made at the time of the proposed abolition is that the Seanad was costing approximately €25 million a year. The figure currently quoted is that the cost is €10 million a year. That has been confirmed by other figures as well.

  Reform is necessary without the need for any new powers. In other words, I am not seeking a stronger Seanad. I am looking for a Seanad that will perform better but to do so the public will have to own it. The consultation paper sets out how to achieve that ownership, namely, by one person, one vote. The citizen does not have a vote, and some citizens have two votes. The reform can be achieved without any constitutional change by giving every citizen a vote, but only one vote. We have five panels. That cannot be changed because the panel system is in the Constitution but the system of voting can be changed. The consultation paper explains how that could be done. It would be very effective if we could manage to have ownership of the Seanad because that it is the main aim. In general, citizens at the moment do not have a right to vote for the Seanad and therefore they do not feel ownership.

  I call on the Government to park the proposal to abolish the Seanad and allow time for a Seanad reform Bill to be considered. Such a Bill is capable of being put together after the consultation has taken place. If we use the next few months to consider the alternatives, look at what we can do, then the reform Bill could be introduced as early as January. If we introduce such a reform Bill as early as January we will be able to give a real alternative to abolition because it is not what we want. The paper is called "Open It, Don't Close It".

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