Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Future of the Seanad

The debate on the future of the Seanad continued this week in the Dáil. Last Thursday the Taoiseach moved the 32nd Amendment of the Constitution (Abolition of Seanad Éireann) Bill 2013. It contains 40 amendments to the Constitution which will remove all references to the Seanad.

It is thought that the amendment will be put to the vote in a referendum in October. If passed the amendment will abolish the Seanad after the next general election and before the first sitting of new Dáil.

It will allow for some 75 deletions of the constitution dealing with the composition of the Seanad, and which cover relations between the Dáil and the Seanad in respect of legislation. 

The government intends pushing the Bill through its second and remaining stages by the end of the week.

In my contribution to the government’s plan to abolish the Seanad I said:

“The real starting point of this discussion should have been about how best we can organise our democracy and governmental system, and about how this could best be done in the context of creating an inclusive society on this island while reaching out to the diaspora.

The Ceann Comhairle will be pleased to learn I do not intend to set out a full critique of Irish society at this time; suffice it to say we live in a partitioned island.  Members present forget that.  That reality shapes society in all parts of the island.  

The institutions of this State are deeply partitionist.  They are also corrupt, as evidenced in the range of tribunal reports over recent years.  It goes deeper than that, however.  Partition created two conservative states, ruled by two conservative elites.  

The political culture was weighted against citizens' rights and both states have been characterised by economic failure, emigration, inequality and the failure to protect the most vulnerable citizens.  If we are to tackle these issues effectively then we need to have an all-Ireland view.

The most significant political reform since partition has been the Good Friday Agreement.  The impact of this is most obvious in the North but not so obvious in this part of the island.  None of the reforms, safeguards or checks and balances of the Agreement has been inculcated into our institutions here.  Why not?

The Government should be actively pressing ahead with the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, including those aspects that impinge on us here.  I refer to the creation of more areas of co-operation and implementation and greater harmonisation; the strengthening of the protection of human rights, including through a charter of rights for the island; and a forum for consideration of human rights issues in the island, as included in the Agreement.

The centenary of the 1916 Rising and Proclamation is approaching.  It is often cited by establishment parties in this Oireachtas as the foundation of the State.  The 1916 leaders are frequently described as the founders of this State.  The Proclamation was not the foundation of this State.  The leaders were not the founders of this State.  This State is the product of the counter-revolution that followed the Rising.  

The Proclamation, which sets out the ethos and principles that underpinned the objectives of the 1916 leaders is as relevant today as it was when it was written.  It guarantees religious and civil liberty and equal rights and equal opportunities to all citizens, and it contains a commitment to cherish all the children of the nation equally.  These words are a solemn pledge to every Irish citizen that she or he can share in the dignity of humankind, as an equal with equal opportunity, and that we can enjoy freedom, educate our children, provide for our families and live together with tolerance and respect for each other.  

That should be our starting point, and the process of political reform should be grounded on these core values and be about measures, structures and protocols that empower citizens and create a fully functioning, democratic, transparent, republican system of government that is accountable, citizen centred and rooted in equality, human rights and communal solidarity.  

It should also have at its core the imperative of actively seeking to fulfil the constitutional obligation of bringing about the reunification of this island and of its people, as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement.

Instead of this, however, the Government has decided to opt for cuts and greater centralisation of power.  Instead of creating a more effective, transparent accountable democracy, the Government wants to abolish the Seanad, cut the number of elected representatives in the Dáil and in local government, and centralise even more power and authority into its hands.  

That is not real reform; it is power grabbing.  It may be a very democratic coup but it is a coup none the less.  There is more power for government, less accountability and democracy and fewer checks and balances against political abuse and patronage.

The cuts agenda that dominates this Government's thinking do not bring efficiency, as we have seen from the austerity policies.  They lead to hardship, inefficiency and more inequality.

The Constitutional Convention has been considering the reform of aspects of the political system.  However, the Government chose not to include the future of the Seanad in its considerations, despite the commitment in the Labour Party's pre-election manifesto.  This is another broken promise to add to its growing list of broken pledges.  
The Constitutional Convention could have played a very constructive role in reforming the political process.  Instead, this has been stymied by the Government, which has significantly restricted the convention's remit.  

Over the past two weekends, the convention discussed the Dáil electoral system.   I attended last week's deliberations.  The citizen delegates were enthused and focused but limited in what they could discuss.  They could consider only the very narrow agenda of Dáil electoral reform?  Why did the Government not trust the Constitutional Convention to discuss political reform?  Was the Government afraid to allow citizens to have their say on these matters?  Was it afraid they would advocate substantial reform of the Oireachtas, including the Seanad?  

It would have made sense to address the issues of how we do our business and govern ourselves and what is wrong from the citizens' perspective with these institutions, and to ventilate all the ideas of reforming the Dáil, Seanad and local government.  

Instead, the Government, which promised a democratic revolution and claimed to be committed to the radical reform of an outdated system, has failed yet again.  Its approach to political reform has been piecemeal, minimalist and all about reducing the number of elected representatives.  It has been more about spin than substance. In addition to getting rid of 60 Seanadóirí, the Taoiseach plans to reduce the numbers of councils, councillors and Deputies.  He has cut numbers but brought forward no real, positive, progressive change. 
He has done nothing to rebalance power between central and local government, nor has he done anything to rebalance power within the Oireachtas or between the Executive and Legislature.  

He risks missing an opportunity to create historic political reform and leaving behind a mess for a future Government to clear up.  

This State has one of the most centralised systems of government in Europe, based entirely on the British system, and a weak system of local government that has been hollowed out by successive Governments.  This concentrates too much power in hands of the Executive and the two Houses of the Oireachtas, which are not fit for purpose in 21st-century Ireland.

The flaws evident in the Seanad are reflective of a broader malaise at the heart of our democracy and this institution.  The Seanad has not been reformed because successive Governments refused to reform it.  On 12 successive occasions, reports have been produced proposing reform of the Seanad.  Not one has been implemented.  
In 1979, the people voted in a referendum to broaden the franchise to all graduates of institutes of higher education.  This was never implemented.  No Government was prepared to allow further scrutiny of its work.  As a consequence today, we have a Government that is increasingly unaccountable, arrogant and apparently oblivious to the impact of its policies on low- and middle-income households and disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens.  This is a Government that is abusing its massive majority to force through legislation.

In the words of the Chief Whip, the Government's record on Dáil reform has been deplorable.  More than half of the Bills introduced to the Dáil since the coalition came into office in March 2011 have been rushed through or guillotined.  Do Members remember the promise that this practice would occur only in the most exceptional circumstances?  

Up to mid-March, 52 out of 90 Bills were guillotined.  Rushed legislation will invariably end up with flaws that will be challenged in the courts.  

The legislation to provide for the family home tax was rushed though the Dáil before Christmas and had to be amended in the new year.

Another pledge, and one of the major planks of the reform programme, was that senior Ministers would make themselves available to deal with Topical Issue debates.  Instead, they have failed to appear in the Dáil three times out of four, on average, to respond to Topical Issues.  In addition, the system of ordering Dáil business is not agreed through a system that is fair, inclusive and transparent for all parties.

The Friday sitting was presented as a means for the Dáil to pass more legislation and to be more efficient.  It has failed on both counts.  There are no votes or questions to Ministers.  It is a farce.  Leaders' Questions, as the Taoiseach has acknowledged, has become a source of huge frustration for Opposition parties.  It serves no real purpose in its current format and is in no way holding the Taoiseach to account.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is not inclusive of all the parties in the Oireachtas and its decisions frequently exclude Sinn Féin and others.  There is no access to media facilities for Opposition parties, unlike Government parties.  If they want to do a press conference, Opposition parties can chose between the plinth or, if the weather is inclement, huddle under the portico.  How is that indicative of an efficient political system at work?

The Government also lauds its decision to allow Dáil committees to question newly appointed chairs of State boards, but these committees have no power to do anything about these appointments.  Sinn Féin believes a case can be made for a second chamber that is democratic, relevant and fit for purpose, and is part of a wider reform of the political system.  
Any reform of the Seanad must be underpinned by clear principles of democracy, accountability and efficiency in its role, and has to be on the basis of the universal franchise and direct election by the people.

Sinn Féin rejects a Seanad whose Members are hand-picked by county councillors, university graduates or nominated by a Taoiseach.  Those who serve in any part of the Oireachtas should be elected by the people.  A radically reformed Seanad should also give a voice to citizens in the North.  It should be a genuinely national institution.  There is currently no provision for the participation of those citizens who live in the North in the political life of the State.

The Seanad should be elected by universal suffrage of the 32 counties of Ireland by citizens over the age of 16.  Citizens in the Six Counties should cast their ballot by postal vote.  The diaspora also should be represented.  It is astonishing that a Government which so regularly looks to the Irish diaspora to help with the economic crisis then denies the very same people the right to have a voice in the Oireachtas.

Sinn Féin believes that it is possible to have a Seanad that is an elected forum for civic society, particularly for those sectors not adequately represented in the Dáil and the more marginalised sections of our community.  This is the kind of real reform we should be debating.  Let us look around the Chamber.  It is mostly male, all white and mainly middle aged, Catholic and heterosexual.  A reformed Seanad should address this imbalance.
There is no voice in the Dáil for ethnic minorities, whether they are Irish Travellers or the myriad other ethnic minorities who have come to this country in recent years.  A reformed Seanad could change this.  A reformed, democratically elected and accountable Seanad could serve our democracy well and act as an important counter-balance to the political party dominated Dáil.  

A reformed Seanad could, for example, further scrutinise domestic and, in particular, European legislation.  We have seen in recent years the results of the failure to properly implement or interpret European legislation.  Waterford Crystal workers had to take their fight for pension rights to the European Court of Justice due to the failure of the system here to properly implement the insolvency directive.  
The sugar beet industry was decimated by the closure of the Carlow and Mallow sugar plants which, it later emerged, should never have been closed.  A second chamber, elected in a different manner, and with a less constituency focused membership, would be better placed than the Dáil to discuss technical and complex policy issues at length, perhaps along the lines of the hearings on the X case.

The Taoiseach has spoken about comparisons with other EU states which function with a single chamber.  In EU states with unicameral or single chamber systems there are much stronger systems of local government.  There is also a very clear separation of the executive from the legislature and sufficient checks and balances within the system to hold the executive to account.  

This is clearly not the case in this State and the Government seems to have set its face against any real rebalancing of power between local and central government or between the Legislature and the Executive.

When I heard the Taoiseach recently criticise the Seanad for failing to hold the excesses of the last Fianna Fáil Government to account and blaming it for the economic crash, I was amazed.  The reality is that the Taoiseach and his party were as much a cheerleader for the Celtic tiger and its excesses and lack of regulation as the Fianna Fáil politicians who ran the State into the ground.

Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil were part of a cosy consensus in this State for decades.  It was Sinn Féin who argued during those years for the wealth of the Celtic tiger to be redistributed and invested in public services, infrastructure and sustainable jobs.  

It is the establishment parties which failed to act as a brake on the Celtic tiger and to ensure that the economy was properly managed and invested, and the corrupt activities of the golden circles confronted and exposed.  That continues under the Taoiseach's watch.  The cosy consensus is still there.
To point the finger at the Seanad for the mess that all the other parties made of the situation would be laughable if it were not so serious.  They collectively failed to legislate for the banks, developers and speculators, and when it all went disastrously wrong they still could not hold them accountable but chose to make ordinary citizens pay for the greed of the golden circles.  The Taoiseach now seems intent on proceeding with a decision taken on a whim at a Fine Gael annual dinner, without proper discussion, analysis or scrutiny.

Citizens should not be rushed into further curtailing the Oireachtas without looking at the consequences or without any serious consideration of the alternatives.  A referendum should not be limited to abolition or retention.  Why does the Taoiseach not give citizens the option of voting for root branch and reform?  Would that not be the decent and democratic thing, and part of what he promised in the election?

One of the reasons offered for the abolition of the Seanad is its cost.  Sinn Féin has consistently argued for the need to reduce high salaries in the public sector, including for politicians, Ministers and their special advisors.  If the Government wants to reduce costs in the Oireachtas it should cut the salaries of Ministers, Deputies and Senators, reduce allowances, cut the salaries of special advisors and stop breaching its pay caps.

The Taoiseach proposes to reduce two dysfunctional Chambers to one dysfunctional Chamber without giving the people the option of voting for an alternative.  

Successive Governments had the opportunity to reform the system and all failed to do so.  
The Government is now papering over the cracks and presenting this abolition Bill as reform.  It is not.

Sinn Féin put forward a reasonable proposal that the Constitutional Convention should look at reform of the Oireachtas.  There is still the potential to do so.  It could properly tease out all these issues with the aim of achieving the best checks and balances and the most democratic outcome for our system of government.  Why rush things?  

Why not give people a number of choices and put in place a reform package which is meaningful, sustainable, democratic and effective?  Sinn Féin would support the Government in such an approach.  We will not support this amendment.

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