I will pick up where I left off on last day. The fact donations to parties and individuals will be more than halved in some instances may lead to other beneficial reforms. With less cash to spend, perhaps costly posters, which are environmentally and aesthetically problematic, might be reduced. When I was coming to the House this morning, I noticed a large number of posters campaigning for a "Yes" and a "No" vote in the upcoming referendum but what surprised me was to see the mugshots of Socialist Party members, who are MEPs, on posters. They are campaigning for the next European Parliament elections. Those people do not reject the large salaries, expenses, etc., they get from Europe. Hopefully, at some future date, the Minister will ensure candidates cannot promote themselves for local, general or European Parliament elections at referenda. Apart from party leaders, mugshots of people should be omitted from posters. I nearly tripped over when I saw a poster calling for a "No" with the mugshot of someone who will offer himself to the electorate for election to the European Parliament at the next election and will draw down a huge salary with expenses, etc.
I hope the legislation will lead to the setting up of an electoral commission as a matter of urgency. As a member of the committee that proposed the setting up of such a commission, the Minister is only too aware of the extent of the legislative provisions needed to bring about a total overhaul of our electoral system. The committee proposed that commission would be established through an electoral commission Act, which would establish an electoral commission with its own corporate legal personality; chief electoral officer, as the commission's chief executive; a staff who would be civil servants of the State, where appropriate transferred from Standards in Public Office Commission or the Office of the Ombudsman; and with it own assets and liabilities and a budget.
It was envisaged that such a commission would encompass an independent role in the maintenance of the electoral register. We have all witnessed the mayhem at election time. Particularly memorable was the 800,000 errors that appeared under the watch of the previous Government. An electoral commission was promised by the last Government but failed to materialise. There is a strong need for a single independent body to increase public confidence in the democratic process. I am hopeful that the necessary legislation will be brought forward by the Minister, Deputy Hogan, who I am pleased is present in the Chamber for this debate. He is progressing electoral reform, which is very welcome. I have with me a copy of an electoral document that I drafted. It calls for the safeguarding of electoral integrity through the setting up of an electoral commission and the maintenance of an accurate electoral register. While the debate on identity cards is fraught with opposing views, an electoral identity card with photographic identification would eliminate fraud. We should strongly support the introduction of such cards as part of the overall revamp of the electoral process and as a valuable tool in the drive to complete registration. Obtaining an electoral identity card would necessitate prior registration.
It is positive that this Bill will impose a penalty on political parties that do not adhere to quotas in respect of female and male candidates. Across the spectrum from education to employment, a trend has developed in which women and girls outperform men and boys. I am struck by the thought of how many years will pass before it will be necessary to introduce legislation to ensure equality of male representation.
One of the greatest challenges to democracy globally is women's participation in politics, both as councillors and parliamentarians. Gender equality must be our society's aim and should be a central element in the development and progress of democracy. Quotas are controversial and many women resist such a move. One of the great opponents of gender quotas is a former Deputy from my constituency, Mrs. Mary O'Rourke, who has gone on to a new, bright career in the media. However, it is only through certain duress that the under-representation of women in our Parliament will be addressed. The diversity of needs within a society cannot be adequately met by a mere 50% of the population. Equality of gender requires equality of representation. I am proud of the fact that Longford-Westmeath, particularly its Fine Gael element, has always been the main driver of progress in terms of gender equality. For example, Deputy McFadden and I equate to 50:50 representation.
It is interesting to note that, in 2003, Wales became the first country in the world to have a legislative body with equal numbers of men and women. Thirty women were elected that year to the 60-member Assembly. The Welsh First Secretary stated that Wales was setting an example for the world. His wife, an MP, rejoiced that the mould had been broken. By 2007, the number of women in the Assembly had decreased to 34.88%. Last year, female representation stood at the slightly higher level of 40%.
We must ask ourselves a question. Does the electorate choose its candidates of preference regardless of gender? If so, while it is necessary that there should be equity in terms of candidates put forward, their eventual election is dependent on a number of variables at any given election.
On a name and shame basis, Ireland's record is poor and I am glad that something is finally being done about it. I must acknowledge the fact that Ireland had two exceptional female Presidents in Dr. Mary Robinson and Mrs. Mary McAleese. I also acknowledge their great contributions to society in Ireland and elsewhere. They were a credit to themselves, Ireland and women around the world.
The UK, which has a 22.2% rate of female representation in Parliament and is placed 50th out of 188 countries worldwide and 12th out of 27 European countries, has seen a small but significant rise from the 2001 figure of 18.2% of women elected to the House of Commons. This increase followed considered remedial action. The use of positive action strategies by political parties is the decisive factor in increasing women's representation in national parliaments.
This Bill will ensure that women are not discriminated against at the short-listing and nomination stages of the electoral process. It is up to the Government to encourage parties to adopt forms of positive action in order to increase the number of female candidates they select to meet the statutory requirements. I do not doubt that the Minister will see this done. It is recognised that the balanced participation of women and men in the decision making process leads to the achievement of a truly democratic society. Only when the gender balance of the Dáil reflects the gender base of our society more accurately than it currently does will there be real integration of equality issues into Government policy making.
While I am aware of what could be perceived as the "make haste slowly"modus operandi of the political sphere in terms of equality, the Minister, Deputy Hogan, has taken the bull by the horns as regards female candidates. The next step is to consider the contribution to be made to our legislative process by ethnic minorities. We have only to consider the input of many “new Irish” citizens to their local communities to realise what an asset their representation would be in the national arena.
Given the name of this Bill, I hope that it will fully address the issue of political funding. The Minister will welcome Opposition amendments to foster the integrity of and public confidence in the democratic process and to regulate party and election finances as the foremost considerations. That is Government policy. This legislation ensues from a commitment in the agreed programme for Government to take responsibility for electoral administration, to implement modern and efficient electoral practices in electoral spending and to deal with the issues involved in financing the political system. To date, the Government has only partly fulfilled its commitment by removing the influence of large political donations and promoting gender equality. The establishment of an electoral commission is conspicuously absent. Such legislation is long overdue. When will it be introduced? It is apparent that an electoral commission that would centralise all matters pertaining to the electoral register would fill the void created by the decentralised, multi-agency approach. An accurate register of electors is essential to an open, transparent and fulfilling voting process. Although local authorities have done the best job possible in the circumstances, the care of the electoral register is not within their remit and has placed an undue burden on their staff and resources, particularly among smaller local authorities. Currently, 34 registration authorities are legally responsible for preparing and maintaining the register even though it is not a core function for local authorities. This undoubtedly means that maintenance of the register is not given the priority it deserves.
While it is not productive to hark back to the mistakes of the previous Government, it is evident that the register was woefully neglected in the past. The previous Government's apathy culminated in the discovery of 800,000 errors. This is completely unacceptable because every person who is entitled to vote must be able to do so. Citizens' confidence in the accuracy of the electoral register was eroded during the last general election. As a politician in a busy constituency, I was asked to find out why one individual was left off the electoral register despite living in the same area for 60 years. This situation should never have arisen.
I have every confidence that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, will bring forward legislation to deal with the issues I have outlined. Parliaments mirror our societies and they aspire to respond to everyday reality. In doing so, parliaments are constantly evolving and modern parliaments are places in which people aspire to recognise themselves and find answers to their questions. I have no doubt the Minister and his colleagues in Cabinet will ensure these aspirations are achieved.
The abuse of political power in the past was shameful and has come back to haunt us. I hope action is taken against those who wrecked our country. It is annoying that the people who ruined the country continue to walk about and receive huge payments. I have every confidence that the Government will address this issue. People are waiting for this legislation to be enacted and when I go out to meet people on walkabouts at the weekends, when they visit my clinics or in general conversations they ask me, as a Member of this Parliament, why certain individuals continue to receive massive payments when the country is bankrupt. It is inexcusable. I do not doubt the Minister will introduce legislation to punish these individuals for wrecking this fine country for which our forefathers fought. Our forefathers would turn in their graves if they saw what happened to this country at the turn of the century. They took nothing and they entered politics for the good of the country.
We should build the entire system anew from town councils and local authorities to the Dáil and Seanad. The Taoiseach has promised to reform the Seanad and I hope proposals will be made in this regard in the not too distant future.