Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)

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

At the outset I thank again the Technical Group for affording me some of its speaking time on this Bill, which deals with two key areas of political funding and the chronic under-representation of women in the political system. We must make strong efforts to bring about improvements in these two areas because of their importance to the system as a whole.

This Bill is a blunt instrument in achieving gender balance. Any reasonable measure to improve gender balance is right and proper but we must look behind the numbers at the reasons so few women offer themselves for elections in the first instance. We must also scenario-test the 30% figure. What if a political party does not have the required 30% of women offering for selection? Politics is a career and lifestyle choice for women and men, and we must look behind the statistics to see how we can address the structures of a political career and open it for women. Should we penalise political parties which do not nominate women candidates? It may be that women do not offer to stand in the first instance.

There is a fundamental question about the lifestyle and career demands and constraints of this job. Women bring their own special and particular perspective to politics and life, not necessarily because of innate talents but because of life experience. Women are more likely to be carers and, unfortunately, the majority of lower-paid workers are female. Females are more likely to be close-knit in the community. The poor gender balance in this Oireachtas has been an historical problem and I would welcome any move to address it. We must be careful that if this Bill is introduced, it should not make matters worse. Simply having token female candidates just to comply with legislation could possibly be the greatest insult of all to the mná na hÉireann. Instead of improving matters, we could make it worse with tokenism. That would be completely wrong.

As I noted at the outset, we must look beyond the numbers to ask why so few women take up opportunities to stand before the public for election to political life. Why are women not choosing to become career politicians? Throughout our history, women who have gone forward for election have been great public representatives and very successful. They have made a big contribution to Irish political life. Nevertheless, there has not been proportionate representation over the years.

Are the workings of this House and politics in general so out of touch with the concept of family life that they affect the decisions made by women? As a rural Deputy I am away from home three nights every week, and even when at home, the 166 Deputies are completely immersed in constituency work. It is a strange irony that as we debate this issue of gender balance, the role of politician remains the only job where somebody does not receive maternity or paternity leave. I suggest that we consider in more detail the reasons women are not putting themselves forward for election. If we can establish what are the barriers, we can rectify the problem, and with natural progression, the number of female Members will rise. I would welcome that.

Much money is required to become a public representative. Nobody in this House would deny that, and the funding must come from either the candidates' resources or political donations and fund raising. We require an open and transparent method of showing where the money comes from. I agree fully with that principle. Over the full length of this country there are community groups which must provide audited accounts on a yearly basis to the Companies Registration Office or friendly societies. This same principle should and could apply to all political parties, with audited accounts to be submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas on an annual basis. In the raising of funds, the public wants politicians to be open and straightforward about where the money comes from.

There is nothing wrong with normal fund raising for political campaigns. Once the process is transparent, there can be nothing wrong with it. We must be careful not to bring elitism into politics; this would happen if only people with the resources to run a campaign could become candidates either in local or national elections. The fact that money is required to run a campaign should not be a barrier to people going before the electorate.

With the House of Lords or the system of representation in America, massive sums of money are required and only wealthy people need apply. That would be awful. If we consider the people who have represented constituencies at local and national level, we can see examples of great politicians coming from a background of limited means. If those people had to fund their own campaigns without the benefit of normal fund raising, they may never have been elected to represent constituencies in the first instance. We should be acutely aware of that issue and we should not go down a road where the only people who could run as politicians are those who would have personal funding for campaigns. I know one thing from past experience: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party all have a common denominator. They would like it to be increasingly difficult for Independent candidates to get elected. It is well known the larger parties would be much happier if Independent candidates did not exist at all. There is, however, a place in Irish political life, locally and nationally, for representatives who are not tied to a party. I have the utmost respect for the party system, the parties themselves and the way they are run, but there is a place in political life for Independent candidates. That has been proven over the years by Independent Members of this House and of local authorities who did great work locally and nationally for their electorates. I never want to see a situation where, because of funding, larger parties could squeeze out Independent candidates at local or national level. It would not be good for democracy or society. The extra competition and pressure from Independent Members can be seen daily in the Dáil where there are a variety of Independent Members from completely different backgrounds who all bring their own special contribution to this House. That has worked and I would always want it to be possible for Independent Members to be here, because that is good, right and proper.

I compliment the registrars of electors on the work that is often done unnoticed in every constituency. They do Trojan work, especially in recent years with so many people coming to Ireland from other countries and registering to vote in local elections. These people also enjoy the democratic right to cast a vote. The registrars and enumerators who check who is who are all to be complimented in a special way because they are a key part of our electoral system.

When speaking about the right to vote, I must point out it is ridiculous that referenda and local and national elections are held at times when it is difficult for students to get home to vote. I cannot see what the hang-up is for the present Government and previous ones in allowing for voting to take place on a Saturday. The public buildings are available and the schools that are used as polling stations are closed. It makes no sense. Is the Government afraid of allowing young people the democratic right to exercise their vote? Does the Government wish to exclude them from the system? Is the Government afraid of a backlash from students? What is the rationale behind holding elections when students cannot cast their votes? It is questionable and I would like a direct answer to that query. It is an issue that arises continually but about which nothing is ever done. Last week voting took place on a Thursday which deprived young people of the right to vote. That is wrong and I am completely opposed to it.

Putting in place a gender balance commitment for political parties, where there will be fines and possible media ridicule if the correct number of female candidates is not run, is the wrong way to go. I would like to see more women involved in the political system but we cannot force people to do something they do not want to do. In my local authority, I have seen ladies who were there before my time being joined by younger women and they all made a massive contribution to those local authorities. They were exceptionally hard working and dedicated to those they represented. I knew them personally and none of them could have been forced into politics. They went into politics because they wanted to do it and it was in their blood. They wanted to be public representatives and had what it took to be good public representatives. Forcing parties and coercing people into a way of life in which they might not be interested is wrong.

The imposition of fines on parties is ridiculous. It is the wrong way to go about it. The political system itself and the way the Oireachtas is run is one of the reasons people with young families would consider politics a difficult way of life. Undoubtedly, the law of averages dictates there are more women in Ireland today who would be excellent public representatives if they wanted to do it, but it is impossible to make someone go into a way of life he or she does not want. We must be careful about what we are doing with this legislation. I do not want to pass a Bill that will make the situation worse, and there is nothing worse than tokenism.

I am friendly with people who work in the political party system and I have heard the amounts raised by national collections are falling all the time. The days of the golf classics, where political parties could raise massive sums, are also gone because people do not have spare cash to support political parties in the way they did in the past. We must still be able to do that. It is not beyond the realms of possibility to come up with a system that will be fair to the parties and the Independents while the public will be able to see what is being done is all above board. Of course, bad things happened in Ireland in the past, as happened in every country when it came to political funding. We want to get away from that. I want to ensure this Bill will be acceptable to the public and as we move forward from here, funding of the political system is open, fair and transparent.

I compliment the work of the Standards in Public Office Commission because a new system was introduced in recent years. I know this from my time as a director of elections on numerous occasions. One must account for everything in the running of a campaign, including what comes in, what goes out and what happens in the middle. We were grappling with this in the late 1990s when the new system was introduced. People are getting better at it because they are getting to know the system better and understand the rules. I acknowledge, on behalf of politicians and, particularly, directors of elections who are responsible for accounting for the money, the assistance and guidance we received which we needed as we were coming around to a new system.

I thank the Technical Group for giving me time to contribute. We have to be careful to avoid tokenism to ensure we end up with a system that will be fair to women who want to enter politics and that will not be worse than the current one. Political funding must be open and transparent. At the end of every year community groups must provide audited accounts; there is no reason, therefore, that the funding of politicians and political organisations should not be transparent and open to scrutiny because, at the end of the day, when people do their business right, they have nothing to hide or be worried about.

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate. First, the House must acknowledge the level of political apathy in Ireland. My constituency had the highest turnout in the recent referendum, but the figure did not even reach 60%. When such a high proportion of the people are so disconnected from politics that they do not even show up to vote, it highlights the fact that we have a serious problem. This is most evident in local elections in which often a candidate can be elected with a few hundred votes and have extensive rezoning powers. We have had a long discussion about various tribunals and the inappropriate use of powers by local authorities. When examining how we can address the issues of political reform and the funding of political parties, we have to look fundamentally at the disconnect between the public and the political system. The local government reform proposals that will, I hope, be brought before the House will address this because the connectivity between the taxes people pay and the representation they receive is hugely important. The dynamic in local elections is completely different from that on the doorstep in a general election. Even at this most fundamental level of our governance system where politics start, we are not making that connection properly. People do not see the connectivity between their vote, the representation they receive, the services provided and the accountability they require. If it breaks down at local level, it makes sense that the connectivity between the public and politics in a general election will be similar.

The level of voter turnout is a problem in poorer areas, while the lack of political participation is a particular problem among younger age groups. I wonder about the validity of people only being allowed to vote once they reach 18 years of age. I acknowledge this issue will be up for discussion in the constitutional convention which I hope will be assembled shortly. When a young person turns 18 years, it is potentially the first time he or she will be disconnected from his or her community and live away from home. It is the first time he or she will have the opportunity to vote. The education system has responded by introducing a new civics course, CSPE, but I am informed by student bodies that it is not extensive enough. Some strides have been made in the education system to awaken political interest among the student body, but a lowering of the voting age allied with local government reform and making a connection between voting and the responsibilities of local government could change voter and political apathy. However, there is a sense that there are strokes and corruption in politics. Comments are made to Members and councillors all the time about brown envelopes and so on. Anybody who visits the Chamber realises it is particularly dysfunctional and not representative of society. It reminds me of going to UCD on my first day as a young student and realising some people walked around as if they owned the place because, effectively, they did. I get the same feeling walking into the Chamber because generations of certain families have served in the House and these Members feel like they own the place. When I consider that 87% of the membership is male, it makes me realise something is wrong. Only three Members are openly gay, which is unrepresentative of the people we are trying to represent. Almost every Member is exclusively middle class and 100% of us are white. If we are serious about addressing the issues in the country, the Oireachtas must be more representative of those we are trying to serve.

I attended a report launch yesterday by the integration centre. The speakers referred to the integration of new communities in Ireland, the stresses and strains in communities and the positive impact sport could have. They spoke glowingly about the fact that one only had to be resident in Ireland for six months to have a vote in local elections. That is a positive development, but it is clear that even though 13% of the population are not originally from Ireland, nobody in the Chamber comes from that background.

Debate adjourned.