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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 12 Oct 1995

Vol. 456 No. 8

Electoral Bill, 1994: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

I welcome this Bill for many reasons. Since I was elected to this House in a by-election approximately 15 months ago there has been one scandal after another. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the general public has lost confidence in politicians who have been receiving such a bad press?

This Bill will impose limits on election expenditure by political parties and candidates. For too long democracy has been tainted by gross over-expenditure at election time. I conducted my by-election campaign on a shoestring budget whereas other parties threw money around like confetti. The electorate are very intelligent and are able to make up their own minds on voting day. There is no need for the political parties to squander money in this way. Most election literature ends up in car boots, garages and offices and following elections money has to be raised to repay the debts incurred.

Once this Bill is passed the political parties will no longer need the support of the big subscriber and backer who will not have to be repaid by offering them the chairmanship of a State board. It is wrong that large sums are spent at election time when those on social welfare are living on the breadline.

I plead with the Minister — I raised this issue last week during European Literacy Week and I intend to raise it at every opportunity — to allow the photograph of each candidate to be carried on the ballot paper. It is wrong that people who cannot read or write have to be accompanied by the returning officer and two election agents when entering the polling booth. This is degrading and one of the main reasons they decide not to vote. I tabled a question for reply yesterday, but failed to receive a satisfactory answer. There is no point in introducing legislation if we are not prepared to look after the weakest members of society.

It is proposed to set up a commission, consisting of a High Court judge, the Ombudsman, the Clerk of the Dáil and the Clerk of the Seanad following the taking of each census. I do not wish to be disrespectful but it is typical of the Civil Service. I do not understand why a former Member of the Oireachtas is not asked to sit on the committee. Such a person would have relevant experience. Judges do not know what it is like to serve constituents.

People think I have a team of researchers and every facility available to me. My eyes were opened when I was elected to the Dáil a short while ago. I have an office in my constituency and a great secretary to whom I must pay tribute. It is impossible for her to do all the work she has on hands. We do not treat ourselves with respect. We drive up and down our constituencies and work hard for the people but we are not respected. What happened in the House today does not do us any good. The public say we are all the same. We must put our house in order.

I do not have a secretary in Leinster House. If I want a script I write a letter and fax it to my secretary. She types it in the constituency office and sends it back to me. As a public representative in 1995 I do not even have a fax machine in my office. If I want to use a fax machine I must go elsewhere. That is crazy. We should have a secretary, a personal assistant and a researcher.

I was in touch with various Departments today and my telephone did not stop ringing. I was asked to speak on this Bill and carried out my own research. I do my own script writing, prepare my speeches and answer my post. A Deputy would have too much work for two secretaries.

My office is located away from my home. While I do not have to pay for 75 per cent of my telephone calls I pay the full rental. I am subsidising the State. I do not pay for the telephone calls I make in Leinster House. If the Civil Service want us to have constituency offices it must provide the appropriate facilities. I should be given a full allowance for my telephone. My business telephone is a separate issue. If I rent an office I will get that money back from the State but I do not receive anything because I have my own office.

People go to Mass on Sundays to pray and not to be preyed on. On one Sunday a church gate collection will be held for Fianna Fáil, on another it will be held for Fine Gael and on the next Sunday it will be for Democratic Left and so on. Church gate collections for political parties should be outlawed.

As regards the photograph on the ballot paper——

If my photograph is on the ballot paper I will probably lose my deposit.

Deputy Kenny would look better than Deputy Treacy.

The Deputy, without interruption.

I do not take a bad photograph myself when I am dressed up. This is a serious issue. Ernie Sweeney was illiterate but he educated himself. I cannot understand the resistance to putting a photograph on the ballot paper. If Deputy Coughlan's photograph were on the ballot paper it would be worth 2,000 or 3,000 extra votes for her.

Acting Chairman

I ask the Deputy to refrain from making personal comments about the Chair.

The commission should examine the possibility of taking the census when those attending third level education are living in the country. This would avoid distortions. I am a newly elected Member. Those who elect us expect us to do a good job for them. There have been many unsavoury incidents in the House in the past 15 months and I hope today has seen the last of them. It does not do us any good. I hope the next Bill to come before the House will deal with our entitlements and the way we are treated.

Is cúis áthais dom cúpla focail a rá faoin Bille seo. I empathise with and accept much of what Deputy Ring said last week but I cannot accept everything he said this afternoon. As citizens it is a privilege to serve the nation at this level. Hopefully, we will all live peacefully in retirement no matter how we serve our country. We should not deny the people their traditional means of political support.

I have many reservations about the Bill and will not yield the right to anyone to question my integrity. This Bill goes down that road and I do not like it. The money provided under the Bill is to fund modern political parties. Deputy Ring spoke about the meagre facilities available to us and I endorse that. I was elected to the Dáil 13 years ago. The office which I provided out of my own resources was better than the one I have in Leinster House. I represent my party on a subcommittee which is trying to improve facilities for Deputies. Office facilities for Opposition Deputies and backbenchers are pathetic. We have small offices, limited copying facilities and no fax or research facilities. Compare that with the position in other countries, such as the United States of America where Senators can have up to 50 administrative staff, paid by the state, working for them. Senators can also have up to 100 research staff working on their behalf.

As politicians serving this country, we meet organisations and individuals who have ideas and proposals. They are committed to their country and want to make a contribution to it in a specific way. They put proposals before us and the only thing we can do to evaluate them is to use our intelligence and experience in deciding what to do. We cannot have them evaluated by an independent third party organisation or back-up staff because those facilities are not available. It is vital to recognise our duty to maximise the opportunities of our people — the citizens who are consumers of the public service. It is also vital that the wherewithal and resources are provided so that parties in a modern State can serve the country to the maximum extent for the benefit of the people.

Each American Senator has a back-up computer team comprising three people. The entire computer back-up staff, serving both Houses of the Oireachtas in this modern nation which is linked to the European Union, consists of four people. In America, three computer specialists work for each Senator. We expect four people to serve us and deliver a service to the nation. I welcome the proposals in the Bill that allow the State to support the necessity to provide facilities for modern political parties from Exchequer funds. This will enable us to give the best service possible to the State.

I am proud to be a practising politician. I am totally committed to my profession and to political life. I am proud to be a member of a political party and I admire its record of service since it was founded in 1926. I also admire the contributions of other constitutional political parties on all parts of this island to their country.

The Bill has been introduced supposedly to create and legislate for equality of opportunity for political parties but that is not the position. It legislates for the political parties in the House but does not take cognisance of the fact that the Labour Party has over the years, consistently and traditionally, been in a position to receive funds independently from the unions by way of a levy. It receives a contribution each year from unions.

Mr. O'Sullivan

How many unions contribute? The Deputy should check it out.

Some unions contribute. The party has that facility and I have no difficulty with it. However, other political parties do not have it. If the Bill is to be equitable and fair, levies cannot be placed on members in organisations to direct them to pay their funds to a particular political party. There must be a level playing field and the Bill must be examined to ensure it is equitable in that regard. I do not consider it is equitable. I do not take exception to the position of the Labour Party; I am only making a comparison.

Deputy Ring mentioned the abolition of national collections. However, such collections provide an opportunity to people to make a contribution in public outside the church gate or at their houses to collectors from various political parties. Collections provide an opportunity for people to indicate their preference for or acknowledgement of the work being done by political parties. They are a barometer of the support available to parties and should not be abolished.

Each political party in the House has administrative headquarters in Dublin. The offices of the headquarters of the two main parties are within a few metres of each other and each party pays at least £100,000 annually in rates to Dublin Corporation by virtue of the fact that their offices are located in the city; I cannot account for other parties. There cannot be a situation whereby the other resources available to parties to fund their staff, administration, management and organisational regulation costs are cut off. This work takes place in the headquarters in the capital city and supports the maintenance of democracy in this country. People should not be denied the opportunity to become involved in political parties.

I expect the funds which become available under this Bill will be used for research and back-up facilities and to provide modern resources, mechanisms and machinery to enable political parties to match those of the professional organisations, lobby groups and interest groups. These groups are armed with vast resources from their membership of various bodies. For example, corporate entities must make major contributions to become a member of various organisations. Farmers make contributions at all the livestock and processing outlets to various farming organisations. This allows the organisations to employ professionals to provide documentation for them, produce scripts and prepare questions for their meetings with politicians when they come to make their cases. This is their right.

Politicians are elected by the people and we are the only group ultimately answerable to them. Every citizen is answerable to the laws of the land but politicians are the only people answerable to the national jury which decides whether we are fit to continue to represent them. They do this by consensus and democracy by deciding who ought to be in Government. This is democracy at its best and we have an excellent Constitution. Ireland's democracy is probably the broadest in the world and many people forget that ultimately power rests with the individual and collectively with the people of the nation. This is as it should be forever and it is why our political system has been so successful over the years.

As a small nation, with just over three million people, we run one of the most modern countries in the world. Our standard of living is comparable to any other country despite some differences in standards and services. We always work to achieve goals which would improve everybody's lot. Ireland is a young nation which only achieved freedom this century and it has come on in leaps and bounds as a result of the ingenuity, commitment, resilience and resourcefulness of each individual in the country. This applies across the world and Irish people, no matter where they go, have the ability to respond to opportunities. They take pride in their survival, commitment and standards. They make a contribution to themselves, their families and ultimately to their country or adopted country. Such people are the reason for our success.

I listened with great interest to the contributions of Deputies Molloy and Quill and Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. Deputies Molloy and Quill were worried about small parties. They were members of a large party at one stage and they would not have to worry about such aspects if they had remained members of it. It concerns me that the Bill appears to be designed to enable a critical analysis and audit of the performance of the large political parties. It is also designed to ensure that Independents receive a contribution on a pro rata basis with other parties. If an Independent Deputy receives a cash resource from the State to support him or her in their efforts for re-election and to survive in politics, that individual will receive more benefits pro rata than the collective contribution a large amount of money will make to a large political party. The advantage of the Bill tilts in favour of the individual and not of the political party, this is worrying.

I smiled at the response of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte which he made in a serious, measured and gracious way. He was also a member of a large political party. When he entered third level education, he got involved in Sinn Féin, the Workers' Party. He entered the Dáil as a member of the Workers' Party and he is now a member of honourable Democratic Left. He certainly has made a number of leaps during his political career. He is happy in his present cosy position, although I do not know what his future options will be. I was interested to hear his contribution and comments on this Bill. However, he might have made a different statement if he was in Opposition. The Bill is not advantageous to practising, full time professional politicians. It refers to auditing the expenses of a political party during an election campaign and puts certain limits on what can be spent. It falls short for those who may have the resources to go forward for election but may not be elected. The Bill is harsh on people who will subsequently be elected and will weaken those who may not be elected.

I fought six elections in 13 years. I fought my first by-election in July 1982 and was elected to represent Galway East on 20 July 1982. I was shocked by the bills I had run up. I had not expected the election to cost me anything like it did. The total bill for that by-election, which had to be paid out of my pocket came to in excess of £8,000. I was busy during the campaign and had a number of people canvassing for me. I told them I would look after the bills and signed my name to them. I did not have the money to pay.

I was elected to this House during the recess but when I was about to make my maiden speech, as an innocent young backbencher, the then Chief Whip of my party, Deputy Bertie Ahern, told me I could not do so because the Dáil would collapse in an hour. The then Minister for Finance, Deputy MacSharry, would be the last to speak. Having been in this House for one day, I was out contesting another general election. Within three months of being elected, I was fighting my second election and again, I did my best to survive. When the bills came to me at the end of that election, I did not have the resources to pay them. I had an overdraft of £9,000 to pay the earlier bills. My second election campaign cost me in excess of £4,500 and I had to go back to the bank again. Unfortunately, my bank account is not in any better shape today. In fact, it has deteriorated. These bills were for personal expenses such as food, petrol and other things any family would need during a time when a large number of people were working for me on a political campaign.

Will I be asked to account for those items in the future, apart from my political party being asked to account for its publicity, advertising, printing etc? This is where I see major difficulties in this Bill. Nobody can block the rights of an individual. There are serious implications for individual politicians, especially full-time politicians. What about the big business person who has vast resources, a huge staff and a big empire who may want, to become a Member of the national Parliament? He can use those resources to bolster his campaign and ensure election. He can have election expenses accounted for through a corporate entity. How will he be made accountable and how can we, as people committed to the political and democratic system, compete with that?

There is a grave distortion and serious consequences, inequities and a lack of transparency in the Bill. It is bordering on the undemocratic to ensure that some people have to account while others, because they are in a different position do not have to account in the same way. This Bill falls far short on that matter.

I am not happy that full-time politicians should have to go through this process. We are elected in trust by the people. They trust us to perform and represent them and to work for the common good. They are the jury. If they feel we are good enough to represent them, they will continue to trust and reelect us. If not, they will make their decision carefully and cruelly by removing anybody they feel is not discharging his obligations on their behalf. It is an invasion on the rights of the professional politicians to subject them to these parameters in their efforts to serve their people and be re-elected. I welcome a number of measures in this Bill, such as the independent commission. I am proud to be from the first Irish political party to have introduced an independent commission. The former Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, was the first to propose one. The commission has been expanded under this Bill.

The people involved in this political process have no track record of being elected. I agree with Deputy Ring and I have no difficulty with public servants because we have an excellent public service at all levels. We are fortunate to have them but people who have gone through the system, who understand its exigencies and difficulties and the geographics and demographics of proper representation should be involved in a proposal like this. If that is not possible, I would like to see the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, or former holders of those positions on the Commission. I welcome the independent commission.

There has been a great demand for voting rights to emigrants and we should recognise the role they can play. They have a great interest in our country. For example, Irish-Americans have made, and are making, a great contribution towards ensuring that the peace process succeeds. We must consider representation for them while we cannot allow our democratic structure to be distorted. We could consider a Seanad electorate Bill that would allow the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia to have a representative. Something along those lines would be good for international and foreign relations and the link to our emigrants. That is the road we should take.

I hope my points will be taken into consideration by the Minister and that he will allay my fears. He should ensure there is no distortion or inequity between those committed to professional political representation and those who have an interest in it for other reasons.

I would like to have discussed in detail the many matters of concern in our political structures and organisations but as my time is limited I will comment briefly on the contributions of my colleagues and make some points.

I concur with much of what Deputy Ring and the former Minister, Deputy Treacy, said about the lack of facilities for Members of this House. I was a member of the parliamentary delegation which visited Australia some weeks ago and it was a revelation to see not only how Australian politics work and the country itself but also the facilities available to members of its Parliament, the respect in which they are held, the salary scale they enjoy — which is something we should not ignore — and how a political system could and should work. Comparing that system with ours brought it home to me that we are almost in the second-hand place and that is a problem that must be addressed.

The formal matters dealt with by the Bill are weighty and worthy of attention. They include the establishment of a statutory body to revise Dáil and European constituencies, payments for political parties, disclosure of donations, limits on expenditure, voting arrangements and so forth. These matters are of great importance for the political system. However, they are only part of a much bigger picture — a picture we are failing to address.

At a time when — after adding unemployment figures and the numbers on social employment schemes, short term work and so forth — 300,000 people do not have full-time employment, as has been the case for many years, we must admit that our political system is not and has not worked for many people. We have a system and style of party politics that has outlived its usefulness. Our electoral system does not always attract the right people to politics and it produces a political system and Dáil that does not work as they should.

Politicians receive much criticism from constituents and the public at large about the system and what we are and are not doing. However, in a sense, our political system is letting the public off the hook. We do not fight elections on the basis of what policies will be implemented in Government and what parties will do the best job. We fight general elections as if they were 41 local elections with a personality beauty contest in each constituency. That is what passes as a general election and it is not the right way to elect a Government. It certainly is not a system that has worked and we urgently need to look at that.

What is not provided for in this Bill and must be provided at the earliest possible date is a review of our electoral system. While all of us can congratulate ourselves on being elected in multi-seat constituencies by the PR system, we should ask ourselves in all honesty if it is the correct system for Ireland in the 1990s. Is it the correct system to produce Governments that will work? Is it the correct system to force the electorate to decide what policies it wants implemented in Government?

It is not the system we should have. It lets all of us off the hook. It allows a politician to represent a party yet receive support from people who might be opposed to the policies of that party but who will vote for the candidate because he or she can lead them to believe that the potholes were filled or the council door was replaced or the grant was received because of political intervention. While that system elects us and gives us our seats in Dáil Éireann it is not producing the results that the Ireland of the 1990s and beyond requires.

Sadly, if one wishes to become and remain a Member of Dáil Éireann there is only one sure way of doing so — by being an expert in local politics. It is sad but true that the more time one spends debating points of policy, talking about how the country should be run and being away from one's constituency, the less chance one has of being re-elected to the Dáil to make a further contribution to running the country. The electoral system is not correct or fair. It has not worked and is not working. It must be examined and changed.

I believe in the PR system. If a party or group can achieve 3 or 10 per cent support from the electorate it should be represented in this House on a proportionate basis. However, a multi-seat PR electoral system is not necessary to produce that result. There are many other electoral systems we should consider which would give a proportionate result and ensure that new people — and in many cases, perhaps, better people — would come forward and produce better political parties and better Governments. The electoral system should be about electing the best people and the best Government to run this country. When one looks at the proportionte systems that operate throughout Europe, such as the list and single seat transferable vote systems, one must consider the possibility that they might be not just different but better than what we have at present. They are producing better results, better Governments and a better system for constituents.

While this Bill is important and deals with important issues, the overall situation is not being dealt with. We cannot allow it to continue. When so many people have no jobs we must recognise that we are not working as we should and address that issue.

I welcome the decision to formally establish a commission to revise Dáil and European Parliament constituencies. It was an aspect of Irish stroke politics in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to have the Minister of the day with responsibility for the Department of the Environment design or redraw the Dáil constituencies as he thought fit from his party's political perspective. It did not always work but there was a political input and that was not the appropriate or proper way to do such things. The independent commissions that reviewed constituencies in recent years redrew them in an impartial manner. It is appropriate to put the independent commission on a sound statutory basis.

Many Deputies referred to the size of constituencies and their boundaries. Most of them would either add to or substract from their constituencies to eliminate the geographical difficulties. Despite fears to the contrary the constituency commission which reported some months ago recommended no major changes although some Members have been adversely affected by them. Deputies elected to represent, say, Mayo West and Mayo East will experience difficulties when the county is made one constituency and there is one seat less. Given our large multi-seat constituencies, future commissions will probably recommend similar changes. I hope they will not simply consider adding a seat in one constituency, taking a seat from another constituency and making minor changes to boundaries but will also consider establishing restructured constituencies.

I welcome the proposal to make some formal payment to political parties. Deputy Noel Treacy outlined the advantages of politicians and their supporters collecting money at church gates on wet Saturday evening and Sunday mornings. There is nothing more demeaning for politicians or their supporters than to have to beg for money outside church gates. Admittedly this is the only way political parties in most constituencies can collect significant funding but politics should be above this. It is only proper that political parties should have a different source of funding and I welcome this start.

There will be major debates about the amounts to be given to political parties and on what basis the calculations are made. Nevertheless the new system can only be better than the present one. Deputy Treacy said that collecting money outside church gates was an ideal way for politicians and their parties to judge their support in a particular town, village or townland. However, I regard this as a poor form of opinion poll which puts unfair pressure on people. This is not an aspect of political life which I enjoy and it should have nothing to do with the political process. The sooner the new system is introduced the better.

This new system will quickly lead to taking note of the donations received by political parties. I do not know how substantial these donations are — various figures are given from time to time — but it is obvious from reports in the media that all political parties are broke.

Debate adjourned.