Wexford): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
The purpose of the Bill is to consolidate, with amendments, the law relating to the taking of a referendum. When enacted, the Bill will provide a comprehensive procedure for conducting a referendum, extending from the appointment of the polling day through the taking of the poll and the counting of the votes to the possibility of questioning the result by means of a referendum petition.
The Bill represents a continuation of the programme of electoral law reform which commenced a few years ago. The programme has already resulted in the amendment and consolidation of the Dáil electoral law in the Electoral Act, 1992 and similar treatment of the law relating to presidential elections in the Presidential Elections Act, 1993.
The existing law on the taking of a referendum is contained in eight enactments, the principal of these being the referendum Act, 1942. It is interesting to note that the 1942 Act was not used at all during the first 16 years after its enactment. The first referendum on a proposal to amend the Constitution was not held until 1959. In the 25 years since 1959, 16 referenda have been held. On average, therefore, there has been a referendum virtually once in every 18 months over the past quarter century. It is not, of course, possible to say whether this relatively high incidence will continue in the future. What can be said is that the referendum code is relevant and important and should be maintained in an up-to-date and fully operational condition.
In relation to the 16 referenda held to date, 11 of the proposals were approved by the people and five were rejected. In addition to the 11 amendments to the Constitution effected by referendum, two amendments took place during the transitional period allowed for in Article 51, within which the Constitution could be amended by ordinary law without a referendum.
In this Bill we have adopted the same approach as in the Presidential Elections Act, 1993. The provisions relating to Dáil elections, set out in the Electoral Act, 1992, which are common to all polls, are applied with necessary modifications. These provisions include the rules relating to postal and special voting, polling on islands, procedures in polling stations as well as arrangements for counting the votes and electoral offences. These core provisions will, as far as practicable, be identical for all elections and referenda, and will be supplemented by provisions unique to each individual code. In this way it is hoped to eliminate minor, and occasionally irritating, procedural differences that have crept into the different codes over the years.
The Bill introduces a number of worth-while improvements in referendum law. For example, under existing law a recount of votes at a referendum may be demanded in individual constituencies but there is no provision for a complete recount of all the votes cast. At a referendum voting might appear clear-cut in individual constituencies but the overall vote, when aggregated, could be very close. In that situation the only recourse for a person wishing to question the accuracy of the count is by means of a referendum petition to the High Court.
The Bill addresses this situation and includes a provision to enable the referendum returning officer to order a complete re-examination and recount of the votes cast in every constituency, if he or she considers it necessary. This procedure will be in addition to the existing right of any agent present at the count in an individual constituency to demand a recount of the votes in that constituency. The new provision could be an important mechanism in certain circumstances and would obviate the necessity for a referendum petition, with its associated delay, inconvenience and expense.
The Bill repeats the requirement in existing law that the proposal which is the subject of the referendum must be stated on the ballot paper by citing, by its short title, the Bill containing the proposal. The Bill will enable the Minister for the Environment to provide, by order, for the entry on the ballot paper of a descriptive heading to indicate the subject matter of the proposal. Where two or more referenda are taken on the same polling day this arrangement would assist electors in distinguishing between the separate ballot papers which would otherwise look very similar. Descriptive headings were included on referendum ballot papers in 1978 and again in 1992 when a number of referenda were taken on the same polling day. On each occasion, special legislation was enacted to provide for the inclusion of the headings on the ballot papers. An order providing for headings on ballot papers, pursuant to this Bill, will require approval in draft by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas. It is envisaged that an order would be considered only when two or more referenda are being taken together.
Under existing referendum law, an elector who is unable to vote at his or her normal polling station because of employment by the local returning officer, may be authorised to vote at another polling station in the same constituency. The provision restricting the exercise of this facility to the constituency for which the elector is registerd will be removed by the Bill. It will be possible to authorise an elector, employed by a local returning officer, to vote in the constituency in which he or she is so employed. This will bring the referendum law into line with the Presidential Elections Act in this respect.
The law in relation to the questioning of a referendum by means of petition is being tightened up. Under existing law, leave of the High Court to present a petition must be sought within ten days of the publication of the provisional result; under the Bill this is reduced to seven days. The period allowed in the Bill for the presentation of a petition after the grant of leave by the High Court is three days; under existing law a petition may be presented within 21 days of publication of the provisional result. The objective of those changes is to provide adequate opportunity for challenging the result of a referendum while, at the same time, ensuring that the coming into force of a constitutional change, which may be urgent, is not unduly delayed.
The Bill effects a number of changes which, while minor in themselves, together constitute worth-while improvement in referendum law. An example of the kind of change involved is that the consent of the Minister will no longer be required for the appointment of a deputy local returning officer or for the selection of a counting centre which is outside the constituency concerned.
It should be noted that the Constitution provides for two types of referendum. Article 46 provides that every proposal for an amendment of the Constitution, having been passed or deemed to have been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, shall be submitted by referendum to the decision of the people.
Article 27 provides for the reference of a Bill, other than a constitution amendment Bill, to the people by referendum. This is referred to as an "ordinary" referendum, even though in practice, such an event would be quite out of the ordinary and no such referendum has yet taken place. Under that article, a majority of the Members of the Seanad and no less than one-third of the Members of the Dáil may jointly petition the President to decline to sign and promulgate as law any Bill which is deemed to have been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, on the grounds that it contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people on the Bill ought to be ascertained. The President may, after consultation with the Council of State, decline to sign the Bill unless and until the proposal has been approved by the people at a referendum or by a resolution of the Dáil following a general election.
Although the circumstances contemplated in Article 27 appear remote, the procedures in the present Bill will apply to "ordinary" as well as constitutional referenda.
As I have indicated, this Bill represents a further instalment in the continuing programme of electoral law reform. The objective of the programme is to update each of the separate electoral codes and, as far as practicable, consolidate each code in a single statute. The opportunity is taken to effect desirable amendments and, as far as practicable, to bring procedures in each code into line with one another.
This is a worthwhile exercise, given particularly, the special importance of electoral law and its direct relevance to each citizen. I hope that the Oireachtas will enact the measure as soon as possible. I commend the Bill to the House.