Tá áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an ábhar seo. Tá tábhacht leis an mBille seo. Caithfidh mé a rá áfach, go bfhuil roinnt rudaí sa mBille nach h-aontóinn leo agus go leór rud eile go n-aontóinn.
I welcome the establishment on a statutory basis of the Constituency Commission. This again raises the perennial question of our electoral system. There are many systems, some which I reject out of hand, but problems arise in our system that we do not take into account. I am totally opposed to a list system in any type of election because it gives pre-eminence to the parties, not to the people. The beauty of our electoral system is that in all circumstances the people choose their elected representatives, with the exception of Seanad elections. For that reason I dismiss the list system. I am also opposed to the single non-transferable vote. Problems arise in that system that are detrimental to our political way of life, for example under it one party could predominate in one part of the country and another in another part whereas under our system the bigger parties in this country have representatives in the Dáil from all parts of the country. This gives cohesion and balance when a Government is formed that is not normally present under the British system where huge areas are effectively excluded from Government by virtue of the fact that there are no MPs from those areas in the Government parties. At one stage I would have favoured the single seat transferable vote but I think it could give rise to problems, particularly the possibility of large areas having no representation in Government parties when certain parties are in Government. That would not be a good thing because parties could comprise predominantly TDs from the east coast with very few from the west coast or vice versa. It would not be good to have such fragmentation of the system and could lead to great tensions between different areas of the country.
I think problems arise in our system in the large five seat and four seat constituencies. It is fair to say that the larger the constituency the greater the tension and duplication. For that reason, even though there is no constitutional ban on it, we do not have six seater, seven seater, eight seater and nine seater constituencies, although they were a feature of our system of PR in the 1930s.
I wonder whether we should have constituencies of uniform size, for example a four seat or three seat constituency, because one cannot compare the difficulty of servicing a huge five seat constituency, particularly if it is one county, with a three seat constituency. There might be a case for making all constituencies the same size. It might pose difficulties with the county boundaries but it is worth considering because, by doing so, one would create uniformity, in other words equal work burdens as well as reducing the tensions and difficulties that arise in the larger multi-seat constituencies. I think the problem in relation to county boundaries could be dealt with if we were slightly more tolerant in dealing with constituency population.
We should examine the problem in terms of constituency size, geography and whether there should be uniformity between Deputies from different constituencies.
Because of our multi-seat constituencies system and the internal competition between candidates from the same party, there is much more contact with the people than there would be if we operated single seat constituencies. This contact is a good thing; if it were ever to disappear, Irish politics would be the poorer. However, such contact means more work and a need for extra facilities. We have not been willing to admit that the nature of the politics and representation provided by Deputies in the Dáil creates a need for much better facilities than are at present available. Some people who contributed to the debate seem to dream of a day when they can become legislators without having to have contact with the people, constituency clinics or Cumann in every parish. They envisage a nice cosy system where we can do what we want here without bothering about people. God forbid that we should ever arrive at the day when legislators work in ivory towers and have no time for ordinary people. Anyone who has travelled knows that the one thing most people abroad who have any idea of politics envy is the close bond between our politicians and the people. People often complain about politicians in general but most think their own local politicians are OK because they know them, and know that they work hard and respond at a most basic level to the requirements of their constituents. It is interesting that people who want to distance politics from the people are the ones who are most concerned about the influence of big business on politics. That, however, is a contradiction in terms. In my short experience in politics I have not been influenced by big business interests. We depend on ordinary people to elect us, and were we to lose contact with them our chances of getting elected, particularly in a rural constituency, would be very much reduced. The nature of our politics ensures that the will of ordinary people prevails. The quick response by Members of this House on issues that concern their constituents illustrates that we have a very responsive system.
I have no problem with providing resources to allow public representatives to function properly, but I have slight reservations about these provisions which give the impression that the money is not being given to political parties to enable them to function properly as Government, as Opposition and as political parties but to help run their organisations. We must not give that impression.
Some Members seem to look forward to the day when we will not have to take up national collections. I do not believe that day will come. There is no way money provided under this Bill to a huge organisation such as Fianna Fáil will filter down to cumann level to be used in the operation of its day to day business. Neither would that be a good thing. We want people to become involved in politics, and the strength of the two major parties in this House has been their involvement with ordinary people. A local branch of a party must have some function, some part to play. There is a saying that there are no votes without taxation. Likewise, part of having a say within a political party is one's willingness to become involved in national collections and fund-raising at local level. It is about participation, and participation must be a two way process. If local branches were not obliged to carry out such functions they would just sit and pontificate without being involved in the day to day running of their party. For that reason we must make it clear that this money will not be in substitution for the collections taken up by political parties. It is meant to substitute for major donations which are becoming few and far between, to prevent parties getting into debt and to ensure that from Oireachtas level down parties can perform more effectively. If the message is put across that this is what we are doing, that would not be a bad thing.
As well as cash funding we need increased resources in this House. When I was first elected to the Seanad, having been manager of a small rural co-operative, I was asked what I thought of Leinster House and of Dublin to which my quick reply was that it was technologically disadvantaged compared to rural Ireland. We had to share telephones, we had no computers and no access to fax machines. Photocopiers had to be shared among large numbers and one was lucky, in the Seanad, to share a secretary with two other Senators. As somebody who had worked efficiently with few resources in a small co-operative, I found the facilities here Spartan.
It is amazing that the elected representatives of the people under proportional representation, most of whom engage in a huge volume of work and belong to organisations with large branches which are the life blood of politics in the community, should have to operate a system like this. If a Deputy's secretary is in the constituency he has nobody here to answer the telephone or to look after constituents who come to see him in Leinster House, and if his secretary is here and a constituent at home wants to contact him that constituent is expected to telephone Leinster House. That is ludicrous in this day and age. It is ludicrous also how little money we provide to cover the cost of telephones, travel etc. Most politicians I know travel the country year in year out at their own expense attending meetings, functions and so on. We should not have to beg or be beholden to anybody for the money to cover the cost of such travel. It is part of our job to travel, particularly when in Opposition, although I did a fair share of it even when Fianna Fáil was in Government. Front Bench spokespersons travel literally day and night from one end of the country to the other and all we get is a constituency travel allowance which, in my case, does not cover the cost of travel within a constituency in a year, when the cost of getting to the islands is taken into account.
In fulfiling their functions as public representatives, many Members travel from one end of the country to the other and pay the cost themselves. Most Members do not wish to become millionaires from politics, but we would like to have enough money to rear our families and pay our monthly bills. We merely want to enjoy the comforts that those on similar salaries enjoy. It is farcical that a large proportion of our salaries goes on travel expenses. The true cost base of politicians must be reviewed to ensure they are not out of pocket. Otherwise, it will be too expensive for full-time politicians to carry out their duties. The number of such politicians is increasing.
The provisions relating to disabled voters are welcome but do not go far enough. Why must a disabled person place his or her name on the register when it is being compiled? People's health can change radically in a short period and that is particularly so in the case of the elderly. When a person over 65 years or a permanently disabled person is on the register they should not have to register again. Furthermore, there should be a facility to allow a person who becomes ill or incapacitated between the compilation of the register and the election to obtain a disabled person's vote. I visited the Ukraine last year and was very impressed by their voting system. As well as having a box in the booth on polling day, an additional presiding officer brought a polling box to houses in the area. The same could apply in cities here. In rural constituencies one box could be used to collect votes in five or six different areas and party scrutineers could ensure the vote was properly conducted.
I welcome the decision to hold the divorce referendum on a Friday. As elections are not held frequently, it makes sense to hold them on Fridays and to close third level colleges, thus maximising the vote.
When a census is taken, it is traditional to count the number of people at home on a Sunday night. Many people go to college and work in urban areas but rural Ireland is their home. As such people return to college or work on Sunday nights, the census should be held on either a Friday or Saturday night. This would lead to a correct balance in representation for urban and rural areas. It is important that those who call, say, Cornamona their home are counted for the purposes of a census. Having regard to strict tolerance levels in setting up constituencies such people would have a major impact on the size of rural constituencies.