First of all I would like to welcome former Senator Manning to the Chamber and welcome this report, which is comprehensive and has put forward a number of compelling suggestions. Across the 80 pages of the Report of the Working Group on Seanad Reform, a number of recommendations have been made, and there are some which I would like to share my own detailed thoughts on.
Looking at the first recommendation, that 30 of the 43 panel seats be elected by popular vote on the principle of one person, one vote, I do agree that this would make the Seanad more representative for the public – however I would have two caveats.
Firstly, what would make this in any way substantially different from the Dail? Would it be the case that if one party were to take power in the Dail, that people would instinctively vote a different way in the public Seanad vote to bring about “balance”? In addition, how would independents function in such a system? The expense which would be brought about for candidates would be substantial, and this must also be considered.
My overwhelming concern with this though is that the electorate would function like a mini Dail election in effect, and I’m uncertain as to what benefit this sort of plurality would confer on either the body politic or the public at large. The substantive difference which is outlined in the report is that the vote would include citizens in Northern Ireland and holders of passports living overseas. This, in itself, while differentiating the electorate from the Dail, would seem like a costly undertaking: an entirely different electoral register would need to be retained, for one thing, and this would be impossible to put together in a short timeframe.
If we look at the difficulties of maintaining the current register, where 1% of voters were recently wiped from Dublin City Council’s register in the last 16 weeks, we can see that there is a serious issue around electoral register maintenance as it stands.
This work is considerable and – if it can’t be completed – my concern is that the implementation body will decide to pare this suggestion back and merely work off existing registers, in which case I would have to ask again: what is the benefit to either the public or the body politic if this was to revert back to effectively a mini Dail election? There is also still the outstanding issue of expense for those who choose to run in this system.
The Report itself, in order to circumvent some of the concerns on this matter, proposes an innovative system which would bypass some of these difficulties, with the proposal of a system of online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers for this election. While this would be an interesting innovation, again it must be acknowledged that the creation and maintenance of such a system would be both an administrative and financial burden that presently doesn’t exist. However, perhaps this system could be tied into a wider ranging package of electoral reform, as it is true that our current system of electoral registration is somewhat antiquated and we do need a more modern approach.
While I would have a modest concern over the prospect of potential fraudulent votes under this system, I would acknowledge that the constitutional requirement that the Seanad be elected by secret postal vote effectively ties our hands, and this is probably the most sensible way to approach any widening of the franchise.
However, one aspect of reform which I feel should be brought about urgently, and one which would both highlight our commitment to reform while also posing less logistical difficulty, is the franchise for the 6 University Seats being extended along the lines proposed by the Government in the General Scheme of the Seanad Electoral Amendment, Bill, 2014. This would seem like a sensible move.
Another proposal is that a citizen entitled to vote in the university constituency must opt to vote either for the university constituency or for one of the five panels from which 30 members will be elected by the popular vote. Practically, this would mean that an individual can’t have two votes and may only vote in one of the five panels or in the University constituency.
This is an interesting concept, though it would make me wonder if it would bring about strategic voter registration in order to confer advantage on a particular body or institution. It would also seem perverse to me that effectively all University graduates – even though they have the choice to vote in one or the other – could end up voting in a 6 seat panel while the rest of the country, including emigrants, would vote in a 30 seat panel. This strikes me as potentially unwieldy.
In relation to the powers and role of the Seanad, it recommends both that adequate research resources be available to enable the Seanad to carry out its functions of scrutinizing legislation, and that the Seanad, in its performance of its scrutiny role, give particular attention to North-South Ministerial Council proposals; secondary legislation of the EU; consultation with relevant bodies on legislation prior to second-stage debate; the investigation and reporting on matters of public policy interest; consideration of reports from regulators and other statutory inspectors.
This would seem like a sensible focus, especially around the secondary legislation of the EU and the consultation with relevant bodies. It is clear that the Seanad could truly provide added value here and I would welcome this reform.
Ultimately, there is no question that Seanad reform is necessary – however I do feel as though there is still a way to go before we can move towards implementing reform. We cannot rush into this. In saying that, I do welcome this report and think it shows the scale of just how much we can evolve the Seanad without moving a referendum. It is clear that the people have spoken on the question of Seanad abolition, and now it is up to all of us to move the conversation on about what sort of Seanad we would like to see in the years ahead. I welcome this report for having started that conversation.