Seanad Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2015

First Stage: 25 Nov 2015
Oireachtas Link:

Ivana's Contributions

Second Stage: 25/11/2015

Seanad Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2015: Second Stage

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Senator Ivana Bacik:   I hope to bring a little rationality and calm to the debate.

Senator David Norris:   I remain calm and eminently rational.

Senator Ivana Bacik:   As always.

  I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I commend Senator Wilson, in particular, on introducing it. It gives us an opportunity to debate an important issue regarding Seanad reform. As others have pointed out, the context for the Bill is the recent retirement of our good friend and colleague, Mr. Jimmy Harte - we all wish him well in his retirement - and the election of our great new friend and colleague Senator Máiría Cahill. I take the strongest possible exception to the insinuations made by Senator Norris about the candidate for the recent by-election. I welcome Senator Cahill who is already-----

Senator David Norris:   The Senator should give her reasons.

Senator Ivana Bacik:   ----- making a strong-----

Senator David Norris:   On what grounds does the Senator take exception?

Senator Ivana Bacik:   Senator Cahill is already making-----

Acting Chairman (Senator Paul Coghlan):   Senator Norris has spoken for six minutes. Senator Bacik is in possession.

Senator Ivana Bacik:   Senator Cahill is already making a strong-----

Senator David Norris:   She is not entitled to attack me and will not give her reasons.

Acting Chairman (Senator Paul Coghlan):   Order, please.

Senator Ivana Bacik:   -----and welcome contribution to Seanad debate and I know she will continue to do so in the months ahead. I also pay tribute our retiring colleague, Mr. Jimmy Harte.

  We have had many debates on Seanad reform over the years. I regret that we have not seen actual change in the external sense through legislation, but we have had extensive internal changes and improvements to our procedure in recent years in particular.

  Senator Keane referenced the extensive taking of amendments by Ministers, including amendments tabled by Senators from both sides of the House - Independent and party Senators. I have had amendments and even entire Bills accepted. I am delighted that our Bill to amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which started life as a Private Members' Bill tabled by me and the other Labour Senators in this House is now going through the Dáil and I hope will be law by Christmas to change and remove the potential for discrimination against LGBT teachers in particular.

  We have seen some very important legal reforms brought through. Senator Quinn has had Bills accepted by the Government. Just today, as Senator Keane said, the Government accepted a number of amendments tabled by Senator Barrett on the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill. We have had some good debates with constructive changes made to law in this Seanad, which is a mark of the sorts of reforms we have introduced.

  I should also reference our good friend, Senator van Turnhout, whose amendment on bringing forward, at last, a repeal of the defence of reasonable chastisement is very important in terms of children's rights. We have seen huge changes brought forward in the Seanad. We have seen changes in our procedures in terms of the public consultation committee and in bringing in outside speakers. That has been very welcome.

  Of course, we need bigger reforms - legislative reforms. I will address that bigger picture in a moment. I want to speak briefly on the very specific proposal for change made in the Bill before us, which, as Senator Wilson has said, is quite a modest proposal. It is a short-term or interim reform, simply relating to the filling of casual vacancy by way of Seanad by-election. Current law, as others have said, restricts the electorate to Deputies and Senators only. I fully agree with Senator Wilson on the need at least to extend the vote to members of local authorities. That is the simple change the Bill would make.  It makes sense and I hope we will see this reform implemented in due course. Clearly, bigger reforms are necessary. The Labour Party Senators' group has put forward proposals to the working group on Seanad reform and I have spoken about them before in this House. We believe there should be constitutional change, in particular a change made to the Taoiseach's power to nominate 11 Senators without any vote and, indeed, to the existence of the five vocational panels. We have stood for more extensive reform through constitutional change.

  Pending any decision on constitutional change, we have put forward four proposals for change that could be brought about through legislation alone. These include the expansion of the electorate for the university panel to all third level graduates. That is in the legislative programme of this Government but I accept it cannot be done in its lifetime and that we will not see that change brought into effect. However, I hope that it will be done in time for the next Seanad election.

  Our second legislative reform is for universal suffrage to the five vocational panels. We have proposed that all those entitled to be on the local election register, which is different from the electorate for Dáil elections, would be entitled to vote in the Seanad general election. Also, each person entitled to vote would have a separate vote for candidates on each of the five panels. University graduates could opt for a vote on the university panel instead of the national language and culture, literature, art and education panels. We think this is a practical way to resolve the difficulty of multiple votes and giving university graduates an extra privilege in voting. It could be done by way of legislation without constitutional change. In accordance with Article 19 of the Constitution, one of the panels - we believe that the public administration panel would be the most appropriate - could be reserved for city and county council members to preserve what I think all of us agree is a valuable existing link with local government. That really marks the Seanad as particularly distinctive from the Dáil in that there would be a representation of local authority members.

  The third and fourth changes that we have recommended are to extend the powers of nomination to the panels and that Seanad elections should take place on the same day as Dáil elections. I have spoken with various colleagues about the matter and believe it could be done without constitutional amendment.

  Article 18.8 states: "A general election for Seanad Éireann shall take place not later than ninety days after a dissolution of Dáil Éireann." We have suggested that legislation could provide that the Seanad election takes on the same day as a Dáil election. It would have to be by secret postal ballot because, clearly, that is required in the Constitution. We could, by legislation, prohibit a candidate from running in both elections which would break the direct link between the Dáil and Seanad elections. Again, this is something that many of the reports on reform have proposed, that is, that link should be broken and that the distinctive nature of the Seanad should be highlighted and strengthened.

  I welcome the opportunity to speak generally on Seanad reform. In particular, I welcome the specific and short-term reform proposed in this sensible Bill.

Acting Chairman (Senator Paul Coghlan):   I thank the Senator and call the Minister of State.