I would like to welcome An Taoiseach to the Seanad and thank him for coming today. The Seanad contributes to democracy in a big way and discourse and, throughout my three years here, I think it has come to the fore on a number of issues, submitted a number of meaningful amendments and, on the whole, proven both its worth and its potential.
I believe that the Taoiseach, contrary to what some media commentators might say, should be congratulated for being the first Taoiseach to grasp the nettle of political reform and tackle the issue head on with a referendum which was always going to prove divisive. You promised you would put the question to the people, and you followed through on that promise. By doing so, you have started – in my opinion – the most meaningful national conversation on political reform in our lifetime. I know the Taoiseach, I know Fine Gael, and I know our commitment to political reform is genuine and for the right reasons and it needs to be.
The suggestion of having the issue of Seanad reform referred to the Constitutional Convention of which I’m a member nominated by yourself is flawed fundamentally as clearly the Convention’s function is to make recommendations to the Government as to whether certain issues should be put to the people to be decided upon by referendum which, of course, has already happened.
Two weeks ago, I was very happy to hear that the Taoiseach was acting decisively and immediately on the issue of the Seanad and has started the process of implementing the will of the people as set forth in the 1979 referendum on third-level voting rights in the Seanad. I recently heard of one Fianna Fail councillor who attempted to spin this by saying that “it was actively reinforcing the elite nature of the Seanad”. I shake my head at this kind of nonsense and spin.
For 14 years, Fianna Fail passively reinforced the status quo, and actively ignored political reform. Like it or not, in two and a half years, we have undertaken more political reforms across the board than the Fianna Fail-PD Government did during its 14 years: in terms of wages, in terms of gender quotas, in terms of reducing the number of Councillors from 1600 to 900, in terms of reducing the number of Junior Ministries and so much more.
I believe that when considering Seanad reform, we have to talk about political reform and in the context of that, and when talking about political reform, we need to assert some facts. Enda Kenny will now be paid 47% less than Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen were at the peak. During Fianna Fail’s time in government (1997-2011), the Taoiseach’s salary increased by just under 105%), while under the Taoiseach’s leadership, it has decreased. During this same time Ministers’ salaries increased by €94% (€107,000-€212,000). These have decreased by 26% in the lifetime of the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition.
During Fianna Fail’s 14 years in office, TDs salaries increased by 119%. Since the peak under Fianna Fail in 2007, they have decreased by 14.3%. In the context of reform, Seanad reform is absolutely the next step, and I know that the Taoiseach is making the right decision by opening it up and enacting the result of the 1979 referendum.
Like I said, two weeks ago I was happy to hear that An Taoiseach had seized the initiative and started the ball rolling on Seanad reform, but now we have to discuss the next steps: do we want to reform the Panel systems? If so, what scale of reform do we wish to see? I think it’s time to, at the very least, reconfigure the focus and outlook of some of the panels, or perhaps divide them a little more finely: a culture panel, an NGO panel and a technology panel would be some examples of panels which I think would allow the Seanad to acquire an expertise that it otherwise may not have. I would have no difficulty with voting being open to the entire voting public but it seems we are constrained by our Constitution in this regard.
This Seanad has been well served by the calibre of Taoiseach’s nominees this time, and they have lent this particular Seanad a rounded, worldly expertise which otherwise the Seanad and, indeed, the Oireachtas, would not have in such abundance.
Perhaps we need to think about what kind of panel system would give us an outcome where Senators like some of the current Taoiseach’s nominees could be elected. Subsequently, if that change in panels were to take place, you could then consider scaling back the number of Taoiseach’s nominees in a renewed Seanad, and perhaps reducing the number of overall Senators, and certainly working to further reduce the cost.
In all, I welcome the Seanad Reform set forth so far, I welcome the implementation of the decision taken by 91% of people in the 1979 referendum and I welcome the presence of the Taoiseach today as we debate what steps to take next as we seek to reform the Seanad in a meaningful way.