Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004: Committee Stage (Resumed).

NEW SECTIONS.
Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:
"1.—This Act (other than Part 3) shall not come into operation until such time as the Commission established by Part 3 certifies that the other provisions of this Act are in accordance with the highest standards of transparency and accountability and safeguard fully the integrity and privacy of the voting process in a verifiable manner.".
— (Senator McCarthy)

The Minister of State's response to the amendment is disappointing. Given the level of confusion surrounding this debate and the general debasement visited upon the electoral system by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, it would be wise to consider the merits of the amendments, in particular amendment No. 4, a fine amendment tabled by Senator Quinn. It is vital that the integrity of the voting system is maintained as public confidence in the body politic is directly linked to the electoral system. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that no further erosion of public confidence takes place as a result of this issue.

A number of issues have affected the body politic in recent years, of which the electronic voting system is one. The introduction of electronic voting began as a non-urgent public relations exercise and developed into the political hobby horse of a Minister who would be better occupied in other areas of his Department. The matter was not urgent and the people were not shouting from the roof tops that they wanted e-voting.

While we all support the spirit behind electronic voting, given the history of the issue and the shambles into which it has descended, it is vital that the Minister of State responds positively to these amendments. His response thus far has been disappointing.

I am a fan of electronic voting but I want to ensure that it enjoys public confidence when it is introduced. While I accept that my amendment is not strictly necessary on this occasion, it would be healthy and good for democracy if it were accepted. I was, therefore, disappointed with the Minister of State's comment that he did not consider it likely that any Government would insist on using a voting system with which the commission was dissatisfied. While I accept it is not likely that this Government would do so, it would be much healthier from the point of view of democracy to stitch the requirement in the amendment into legislation to ensure no other Government could act in such a manner. This is a much better approach and I urge the Minister of State to reconsider.

As regards the second part of Senator Quinn's amendment to which the Minister of State referred, I still do not agree with the proposition that electronic voting can only be introduced once the commission gives it the thumbs up. That is a bizarre way to proceed. This matter can only be advanced when it receives cross-party support. I do not want to stray into another amendment but we are in effect handing over the introduction of an electronic voting system to a commission, albeit an important, independent group of eminent people, when it should be introduced on the basis of cross-party support in both Houses. The reason I disagree with the Minister of State's view is that once the commission gives the green light to a proposal on electronic voting, the entire system can be operated without recourse to the Houses of the Oireachtas and the major parties in terms of how it is advanced. That is a daft way to proceed.

I agree with the Minister of State's comment that we must await the commission's next report. The commission reported favourably on the use of electronic voting. Like Senator Quinn, I support electronic voting, particularly for reasons of accuracy in the vote and the counting of votes in elections. In response to Senator Bannon's point about obtaining different results, this is one of the problems we have with the paper system of voting and was particularly evident in the recounts during the previous general election.

Most people agree that the electronic voting system selected has much to recommend it. Voters and election officials were satisfied with the system's physical lay-out in the previous general election and the second Nice treaty referendum. One of the great benefits of electronic voting is that it avoids inadvertent voting errors. I hope we could be more positive about this issue and allow the commission to issue a further report.

Senator McCarthy referred to problems with privacy in an electronic voting system. Privacy is not an issue. Complaints were made about the possibility that people will be assisted to vote but that is already the case under the current system. One of the commissioners stated that if the machine made one beeping sound when a person was voting, it could somehow indicate to others in the vicinity of the polling booth the person for whom a voter is voting. The same could be true for a person using a ballot paper. While I do not agree with some of the conclusions of the commission, we should wait until another report is produced. I fully support the Minister of State's position.

It is important that the public has confidence in the electronic voting system which is chosen because confidence in the electoral system is the bedrock of any democracy. While the Fine Gael Party is in favour of electronic voting and has indicated that support on numerous occasions, we want a system that can be trusted.

I compliment the independent commission on its fine work. The commission was established in March as a result of pressure from the Opposition parties. Had the Government had its way, it would have ploughed ahead with the system. Without sustained pressure from the Opposition parties, the independent commission would never have been established because the Government was determined to proceed with the system. We brought the matter to the notice of the public and public opinion supported our position, leading eventually to the establishment of the independent commission. I have full respect for the commission but its findings should be presented to both Houses for approval. For this reason, I support the amendment.

We could have interesting debate on the origins of the commission but it is a separate matter. The question was asked as to why the electronic aspect should be included in the legislation. This is entirely prudent because virtually everybody agrees that electronic voting will be introduced and is desirable. The only question to arise concerns the accuracy or value of the system selected. It was noteworthy that the commission's report referred to minimum standards because, as the commission noted, the burden of proof is much greater as regards the adoption of the system than with regard to its rejection.

If the amendments were adopted, it would preclude subsequent debate or scrutiny of the matter by the Oireachtas. In other words, the amendments could result in the system being adopted without the matter first coming before the Houses. The political reality of the matter is that when the commission makes its final report, the terms of reference of which are, as the Minister of State noted, contained in the final Schedule to the Bill, it will be subject to considerable public scrutiny and debate.

The Bill is reasonable and will ensure that the matter is fully debated before the final system is adopted. The adoption of the amendments would not necessarily mean that once the commission had reported to the Ceann Comhairle that the proposed system was reasonable and good, the matter would not be referred to the Houses for debate. However, adoption of the amendments would mean the system could be introduced without such a debate taking place.

As with all legislation, the Bill is about planning for the future. I do not see why we should, as a country, bury our heads in the sand and feel ashamed of leading the way in a particular area. I am surprised that Senator Bannon claimed credit for starting the debate. As he is well aware, given that he is a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Mr. McCarthy and Ms McGaley started the debate and it was taken up by the joint committee.

Fianna Fáil did not listen to the advice given to the committee.

Everybody supports electronic voting and the framework for it must be put in place, for which the Bill provides.

If the commission makes a positive determination on e-voting and a report is submitted to the Ceann Comhairle, the legislation does not provide for a positive resolution by the Houses of the Oireachtas to accept it. If the legislation provided that such a resolution should be passed by the Houses, it would help to resolve this issue. People do not want a scenario where the Government will decide to introduce e-voting following the submission of a report to the Ceann Comhairle without recourse to both Houses. If the Minister of State said the system would be predicated on a positive resolution by both Houses, we could live with that, but that is not provided for in the legislation. Has the Minister of State given consideration to that point?

I have tabled an amendment that would resolve the issue raised by Senator Brian Hayes.

The wording of the amendment would set the commission an impossible task. For example, the amendment refers to "highest standards". Standards always change and the commission's report states the voting machines produced by the internationally accredited company, PTB, are constructed in line with the current general state of technology. This is fluid.

Reference is also made to secrecy and accuracy. The terms of reference cover the secrecy and accuracy of the Nedap-Powervote system and the procedures that surround the operation of the system are set out in the legislation. It is not necessary to outline every step, as that is a matter for the respective returning officers to address, in accordance with the principles of the legislative provisions.

Senator Brian Hayes referred to a positive resolution but neither I nor another Minister could give a commitment in this regard because that is a matter for Government. The commission may make a positive recommendation, given sufficient time. The commission report highlighted it was satisfied with the secrecy and accuracy of the count rules during the pilot project in 2002. If the decision is taken, the Minister will have to come to the House and the issue of count rules will be considered. It is not afait accompli. The Bill, hopefully, will be signed by the President on Thursday. This must happen if the commission is to be established on a statutory basis so that it can go beyond an interim report. All local authority members will also be affected. There are other factors but when the legislation is passed, e-voting will not be a fait accompli. If the commission makes a positive recommendation, the Minister will have to return to the House later with a short Bill relating to count rules.

Is the amendment being pressed?

In view of my expressed wish to obtain favourable replies from the Minister on later amendments, I will withdraw this amendment.

Something must be happening.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

1.-—The functions of the Minister under this Act shall not be exercisable in relation to an election by a holder of the office of Minister who is also a director of elections in respect of that election.".

The amendment is important in terms of conflict of interest. When the Minister responsible for introducing an expensive project that goes to the heart of our electoral system has such power, it is not good that he or she should be director of elections for his or her political party. We are all democrats and we all believe in participation in the democratic system. Events in recent years have brought politics into disrepute. Approximately 1,500 Deputies have been elected since the foundation of the State and all but a handful were good, honest, hard working and reputable parliamentarians. A few rotten apples corrupted politics for their own gain and brought it into disrepute. Ethics legislation has been introduced in recent years and the Standards in Public Office Commission was established as a result of a number of these scandals. The Houses of the Oireachtas have driven this change.

The Houses must lead the way in terms of adopting the highest standards in terms of how we do our business as practitioners of politics. It is important that potential conflicts of interest should be addressed. The primary objective of the amendment is to prevent a blatant conflict of interest involving the Minister as he confers upon himself significant power in this area while, at the same time, acting as director of elections for his party.

This issue has major legal and, more importantly, ethical ramifications. It has reverberations in terms of accountability and transparency in the political system. I appeal to the Minister of State to accept the amendment.

I support the amendment and I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senator McCarthy. The Minister is director of elections for Fianna Fáil and that represents a conflict of interest. Under the code of conduct for local authority members, they must declare their interests in absolutely everything before they even attend a local authority meeting. During the run up to the last general election, the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, was involved in promoting the public relations campaign for the new e-voting system in the Meath constituency, where he was also a candidate. Perhaps there was nothing wrong with that, but the public did not look on it as totally transparent.

We have two cases in four years where successive Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have been involved in something that the public sees as a little dubious. It is important that this amendment is accepted. I do not question the character of the Ministers involved but it did not look good in the eyes of the public that a Minister was involved in a public relations campaign while promoting himself as a candidate in a particular constituency. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was appointed director of elections by the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach was a little naive to appoint him director of elections given his involvement in promoting the electronic voting system. I am thankful this system has fallen and I am disappointed the Minister has not fallen with it.

Contrary to the perception that may exist, when an individual takes on the mantle of Minister, he does not automatically lose his other talents. Given that this Administration and its predecessor introduced what is probably the most stringent ethics code in the world, I find it unbelievable——

They are not abiding by it. They——

Deputy Cooper-Flynn——

We will not mention Mr. Lowry but keep going instead. As Senator Bannon has pointed out, the legislation has been extended to the councillors, which is only proper. If one examined the records I am sure one would realise it is not the first time a Minister, from either side of the House, has been a director of elections. This would be an interesting study to undertake.

Confidence in our electoral process is absolutely essential. One of the great hallmarks of our democracy since the foundation of the State in the early 1920s is that the electorate, irrespective of its views on party politics and politicians, has genuine confidence in the manner in which people are elected. One of the great advantages of the existing electoral system is its transparency. It can be seen in operation, it takes a long time to count the votes and, consequently, it is well covered by the media. Furthermore, one can enter the count centre. We should not underestimate these factors.

If a trade union wants to conduct an election, it hands over the operation of that election to an independent body outside its control to ensure the result is authentic and transparent. I cannot understand why the franchise section of the Minister's Department is not entirely independent. This is a very important point of principle. We have a commission on standards in politics, the Standards in Public Office Commission, and a long-standing commission responsible for the division of constituency boundaries for European and Dáil elections. I cannot understand why we cannot have an independent, stand-alone agency to run elections that is outside the control of a Minister. Ministers are elected in the same way as everybody else, they are members of a political party unless they are independent and they have a vested interest in the outcome of an election.

When this issue was first raised, I was astonished that the Minister, Deputy Cullen, allowed himself to be open to the charge, which the Opposition would inevitably make, that he was director of elections for Fianna Fáil. I do not know why he allowed this to obtain. So many aspects of our elections are already controlled by agencies that the franchise section of the Department should become a stand-alone section. It would obviously be accountable to the House through its various committees but should be completely independent from the arm of Government.

Some days ago I noticed the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government set the date for the European elections, which we all knew were to be held. As a matter of principle, this date should be set by someone other than the Minister, who is a member of a political party and who has a vested interest in the outcome of the election. This is the only aspect of electoral law we need to examine. Many other countries have independent, stand-alone agencies that conduct elections and which are responsible for the operation and results of those elections. We should adopt the same approach.

There is certain merit in Senator Brian Hayes's argument that there should be some sort of independent body to conduct elections. I had the privilege of meeting the election commissioner for India and I am grateful to the ambassador for India for circulating to the members of the Committee on the Environment and Local Government, if not all Members of the House, a document called "Celebrating Democracy in India: The World's Largest Democracy goes to Vote". One should note that India has an electorate of 668 million and that it uses electronic voting successfully. The ambassador was educated by the Irish Patrician Brothers. When I met him there was a discussion on electronic voting in Ireland and he could not understand why we did not have it. One of the questions frequently asked at the time I met him was how the machines would work if the power failed. He made the point that in many places to which the machines are brought in India, there is no power at all, and that the machines work quite successfully on batteries.

There is a valid point to be made on the disconnection of the operation of the elections from any political personage, not from any political influence. That is different from saying the date of an election should not be decided by a Minister. In general, this is decided by law in any case. The time at which local elections must take place, if not the precise date, is governed by law. The same applies to European elections. Obviously, it is the prerogative of Government to advise the President to dissolve the Dáil and hold an election. I do not believe anybody will suggest this might change.

It could be inferred from the amendment that the Minister's influence is very wide-ranging. However, there are very few references to the role of the Minister in the 35 sections of the Bill. One section talks about the coming into operation of the Act and states that the Minister may determine, by order, the days on which an election may be held, which is reasonable. In the areas in which the Minister has influence by way of making orders, the Bill delimits his powers fairly significantly. Section 5(6) reads: "A returning officer shall not be required or authorised by an instruction given by the Minister under subsection (5) to do any act (whether of commission or omission) which is contrary to the Act of 1993, the Act of 1994, the Act of 1997 or the Regulations of 1995." Even if the Minister was of a mind to interfere, the returning officer would be in a very powerful position to resist his interference.

Furthermore, the only other section I can find that refers to the role of the Minister is in section 30(1): "The Minister may provide, by regulations, for the provision, after the conclusion of the counting of votes in an election or a referendum, of statistical information on a specified proportion of the poll concerned, including detailed information on the votes cast and comprised in that specified proportion." We already had that in the sense that local authorities can provide voters with discs to show they have voted. These do not show how they voted but we can now know who voted. Political parties will regard this as useful; whether it is desirable is another matter.

To infer that the Minister has some really pervasive power that could manipulate the outcome of an election is mischievous. However, I take the point that, in the interest of avoiding accusations of interference, it would be preferable to disconnect the political office from the conduct of the election. In this context, there is merit in having an independent electoral commission along the lines of the Indian model or others.

This amendment, tabled by Labour Party and moved by Senator McCarthy, is not directly related to the Bill and does not represent a clear understanding of the role of the Minister in the conduct of elections. Each of the electoral and referendum legislative codes provides that the conduct of an election or a referendum is clearly the statutory responsibility of the relevant returning officer, in accordance with the legislation covering that poll. The Minister makes a poling day order setting out the polling day and hours of the polls. Very little discretion exists regarding European elections because Europe decided that the selection would take place during the weekend from 10 June to 12 June. Of course, most of the elections in Europe will take place on Sunday, 13 June. The change in the Constitution commits us to having an election every five years and it stands to reason that it should be at the same time as the local elections. This has many benefits. When the Minister discharges his responsibility to set out the polling day and the hours of the polls, he has no role in the conduct of the election except in the case of emergency. The European election is determined at European level and local elections, to a lesser degree, are determined by the legislation.

I referred to the Minister's role in the case of an emergency. The only instance when the Minister might have a role after the polling day order is made is to deal with wholly exceptional circumstances where a difficulty arises, such as a vacancy for returning officer, power cuts or other natural occurrences which would interrupt the poll and where a difficulty order might be required. The difficulty order is fleshed out in other legislation.

The role of the person appointed as director of elections, and in this case the director of elections for Fianna Fáil is the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has nothing to do with that person's ministerial duties under the electoral or referendum Acts. If I were devious, I would have conducted some research. However, I did not do so because it is unnecessary. Nevertheless, the Opposition might be aware that in the period 1994 to 1997, Deputy Howlin, who was a Minister——

I thought the Minister said he would not be devious.

It is interesting. Deputy Howlin had responsibility for the general election of 1997, the referenda in 1995 on divorce and in 1996 on bail, the local elections in 1994 and the European elections. I do not know if Deputy Howlin was the party's director of elections and I am not concerned about it.

The late John Boland, who was Minister for the Environment in 1986 and 1987, had responsibility for the referendum on the Single European Act and former Deputy Liam Kavanagh, who was in office from 1983 to 1986, was responsible for the European elections in 1984 and the 1984 referendum to give UK citizens voting rights in general elections. There was also a referendum on divorce in 1986 and local elections were held in 1985. All were decent, honourable people. I have not checked if they were directors of elections but even if they were, I would not have a difficulty with it. I accept that the Opposition has to make political points but, as Senator Dardis pointed out, few sections in the Bill give the Minister any authority apart from in the areas specified, particularly the case of exceptional circumstances.

Senator Hayes referred to the independence of the franchise section of the Department. In practical terms, the franchise section is as independent as it can be without legislation to confer that independence. Senator Hayes and Senator Dardis alluded to this but they appear to be thinking of a type of electoral commission. However, that is a debate for another day. It is a wider and deeper issue which could, presumably, be considered at another time. The Irish electorate has every confidence in the franchise section. That is not to say the Senator does not; he stated that he had confidence in the franchise section——

Absolutely.

I am not suggesting otherwise. The Senator probably believes the commission could incorporate the other commissions, such as the commission on electoral boundaries, the Referendum Commission and the Standards in Public Office Commission but it does not arise in the context of this legislation.

There is no necessity for this amendment. However, it is a matter for the House to decide.

Senator Brady first mentioned previous Ministers who were directors of elections. Fianna Fáil has been in Government for fourteen and a half of the last 17 years. He also said the party has led the way in many areas——

Does that not tell the Senator something?

——not least in some I mentioned in my previous contribution. Perhaps it is time it led the way in this area.

This House debated at length the merits and demerits of the abolition of the dual mandate. We were lectured by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, on a division of responsibility between Members of the Oireachtas and members of local authorities. The majority of people bit that bullet, regardless of how hard it was. The tenor of the Minister's argument on the dual mandate, an argument that he carried successfully in the face of huge opposition from across the political spectrum, was the separation of powers, the identification of two clear roles and the removal of one set of duties from the public representative. Hence, the abolition of the dual mandate.

Most Members have contested elections and have had to deal with the reams of paper from the Standards in Public Office Commission. This is another commission which works hard and does a good but tedious job. It went through between 40,000 and 50,000 pieces of literature following the last Dáil and Seanad elections. All Members, or at least 99.9% of them, furnished declarations within the prescribed time limit. It was tedious and laborious for the members of the commission and its secretariat to go through this information. However, the accountability and transparency of the system is commendable. It is a good feature of our democracy and could be used as a guide with regard to this amendment. The inbuilt accountability and transparency of that system should be extended to this Bill, particularly given its recent history.

We learn from our mistakes and some of the handling of this issue was mistaken. It takes a good person, not to mind a public figure, to admit he or she made a mistake. Ways can be mended in this context. There is sufficient will in that we sing from the same hymn sheet, particularly when one considers the contributions of Senators Hayes and Dardis about outside bodies handling various facets of the system. There is, also, a broad consensus in the House on electronic voting. However, the key issue in this case is the fact that the Minister is director of elections. I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to accept the amendment.

The Minister referred to a former Minister for the Environment who was a member of my party.

We are discussing the amendment.

That was an honest Government. It was a Government of integrity and decency and none of its Ministers ever came before an investigative tribunal. They were all decent, honourable men and we are proud of them.

I have nothing to add. The late Jimmy Tully, another man for whom I had great respect, was appointed Minister for Defence in 1981 when I was a new Member of the House. He was also a Minister from 1973 to 1977 but he was not a director of elections; neither were former Deputy Peter Barry or former Deputy Dick Spring. However, it is an interesting point and even if they had been directors of elections, there would not have been any opposition from our side of the House at the time.

I make no apologies to Senator McCarthy for being so long in Government.

The Minister neglected to mention one Labour Party Minister. That was TJ Murphy, who served in the inter-party Government from 1948 to 1951. He was never director of elections and I won his council seat five years ago.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 17 is related to amendment No. 3 and both amendments may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, before section 1, to insert the following new section:

1. —(1) No electronic voting system may be adopted for use in an election or referendum unless all parties in Dáil Éireann are in agreement on all aspects of the adoption and use of a particular system of electronic voting.

(2) Nothing in this Act or any other enactment shall permit the trial, implementation or use of a system of electronic voting in any election or referendum save in accordance withsubsection (1).”.

The Government must have forgotten that in June 2001 it promised that e-voting would not be introduced without all-party agreement. While some members may not have forgotten, the arrogance of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, forced the e-voting system through. Before legislating for e-voting in future, it is important that we get all-party agreement. The proposed new section provides that electronic voting cannot be used until there is all-party agreement. This amendment and amendment No. 17 are designed to make all-party agreement a prerequisite to the introduction of any new system of voting.

Amendment No. 18 seeks to insert "by order" after "may". This amendment reminds us that we live in a democracy. Since we achieved out independence we have tried to promote this issue. We must try to reclaim some of the respect we have lost in the intervening years. There is a general outcry and apathy among the electorate about the way politics in this country has gone over the years. This section proposes that the Fianna Fáil director of elections is to be empowered to give instructions to returning officers. In the interest of returning some semblance of balance to the system any instructions given by him must be by way of a ministerial order. Another amendment in my name proposes that a draft of such an order must be laid before the House for its approval. I hope the Minister will accept this amendment in the interest of total transparency.

What a load of nonsense. Every day in Europe we are being encouraged to have qualified majority voting and to eliminate vetoes. The Senator's amendment proposes to reintroduce a veto. This will give one party or perhaps a small group of Independents an effective veto. Our parliamentary democracy does not work on this basis but on the basis of a majority. This amendment would confer on a single party not just a veto on e-voting but a veto on all aspects of the system. This would cut the ground from under the commission, about which the Senator was very enthusiastic and for which he claimed credit. It might as well not exist because when it reports a party could veto its recommendations.

I support the amendment. In a previous contribution I stated that the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, chaired by Deputy O'Donovan, deliberated on the issue of land prices for ten or 12 months and after consultation with many interested parties and Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, came to a common sense conclusion. That model, based on all-party agreement should be used in the context of this amendment. It worked perfectly well for the issue of land prices and would have worked perfectly well for e-voting had the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, listened to the requests from Opposition politicians. There is nothing wrong with the spirit of the amendment or the amendment itself.

This is not the same kind of matter as was addressed by the committee on the Constitution.

I have no problem with the spirit of the amendment and much of what Senator Bannon has said is correct. I am somewhat concerned that it excludes Independents.

It refers to political parties.

It simply refers to parties.

It states "all parties".

It also excludes the Seanad and only refers to Dáil Éireann. The spirit is correct but the technical detail is not.

I can confirm that the spirit is very much correct and in a subsequent amendment the detail can be changed to reflect the point Senator Quinn has made. I want to take on Senator Dardis's dismissal of the points made by my colleague. E-voting is not like increasing the price of a pint or the tax rate, but represents a fundamental change to the way we operate elections. The Government must have all-party support to proceed as I said four months ago in this House. If one party in this or the other House opposes it, that party will become the focus of opposition in the country to the proposal. The Government has got this completely wrong. If, when the report was published, it had the good grace to admit it had made a hash of the entire procedure it had put in place to introduce the system, there would be considerably more sympathy for it. However, it has no sympathy because it never consulted anyone.

All the parties did sit down together at the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. Last Sunday, Deputy Seán Power, the Chairman of that committee, said the one great mistake the Government made was not to allow the committee do its work. The Government guillotined the debate and imposed a whip on all the members from the Government parties to take a certain line. Have we learnt nothing about the importance of committees? Such committees can take important issues like this out of the party political system and try to engender agreement so the Government can implement the committee's decision. In this entire debacle the Government never stopped to listen to the Opposition. If it had done so we would not be where we are today.

I thank the commission and I love its report. However, I want the Houses of the Oireachtas ultimately to make the decision. While I appreciate its work and expert advice, I do not want a commission to make such a decision. Ultimately such a decision should be made on the basis of consensus because the issue is so important and above party politics. I agree with Senator Bannon that we need consensus on this matter if we are to advance. Otherwise the integrity of e-voting will be questioned when it is introduced.

If parties in the House do not want to take the decision we should let the people decide whether they want e-voting. This is another classical example of the Government not listening to the people. At a time when many other priorities faced the country, in 2001 the former Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, landed this matter on people's desks. There is no great clamour for it. It is another example of disconnected politics. Ultimately e-voting does not matter and will not change the world. However, it is a sign of a Government that has run its course and is rummaging around for ideas. It picked up e-voting as some kind of fascinating way forward for mankind. The Government has had its knuckles rightly rapped as a result of this proposal.

If the Government has learned anything from this debacle, it should be the need for all-party agreement on the matter. It should listen to people more often. I have considerable sympathy for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen. This was landed on his desk by the former Minister, who looked for tenders for the system before either House of the Oireachtas had passed the legislation. In autumn 2001 the former Minister sent the system out for public tender without any Government decision, or at least no such decision had been debated in either House of the Oireachtas.

Who wanted this legislation in the first place? It was not the Government. A month ago the Government assured us there was no need for legislation and this could be done by order. However, this legislation, so ably defended by my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, is now before us. The goal posts have moved. The Government changes the argument whenever it suits and its credibility is pretty thin when it comes to electronic voting.

I join Members in complimenting the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government which has done a fine job in discussing this issue. I agree with Senator Quinn that this amendment requires a great deal of tidying up before we could agree to it. It fails to refer to Seanad Éireann. While have a Technical Group consisting of smaller parties and Independents, there are different views within it. The issue is who will make decisions in this matter. If the Government cannot make a decision without being subject to a veto from one person or a small party, it will be unable to make any decisions. For too long we have heard complaints about the number of agencies and authorities we have established which have somehow taken power away from the Oireachtas. It would be useful to return to a position where the Government makes decisions.

There is a current proposal that somehow the people should decide, presumably by way of referendum. It should be noted that the people have already decided to send Deputies and Senators to the Oireachtas. Asking for a further endorsement from the people would be a waste of time. The Minister of State and Senator Dardis both made the point that we must have an effective Government and that one cannot adopt a dog in the manger approach whereby one particular Member can hold up the work of both Houses. We should allow the current procedures to continue to obtain.

Former Taoiseach Deputy John Bruton alerted the Taoiseach to many of the issues, which became findings of the independent commission, as far back as 8 April 2002 in the run up to the last general election. If the Taoiseach had taken Deputy Bruton's views into consideration then and established an all-party committee, it would have saved the country a great deal of money. We are the guardians of the State's purse and it is important that our system is transparent and capable of delivering the best service to the people we serve.

I wish to clarify the reference to the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution of which I was a member. Senator McCarthy was correct that the committee produced a report on property rights which reflected a consensus. Nobody had a veto in that case and what emerged from the committee was a balanced view across all parties and independent members. That is not the same as what is proposed in the amendment before us. It proposes to provide one group with a veto which is why it would be wrong to endorse it.

When I was on the other side of the House, I had the experience of proposing an amendment to a previous Electoral Bill whereby pictures of candidates and party logos would be included on ballot papers. I proposed the amendment on the basis of an unfortunate experience of a shouted vote, which I thought was very unfair. If a person is illiterate, everything should be done to accommodate him or her in casting his or her vote in secrecy. The then Minister rejected the amendment, telling me that to accept it would be to introduce a beauty contest.

We should be very careful about getting into fraught areas. I insist that the amendment is much too restrictive in its references to all aspects of the voting system and all parties. It should be rejected.

It is abundantly clear that in passing the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, the Houses of the Oireachtas approved the use of the electronic voting system. I defended the original proposal in section 48 to provide the Minister with the authority to extend electronic voting to the other electoral codes. We took advice and the issue was compared to that of Carrickmines, which was debated in this House also. The Government decided wisely that if there was any question mark whatsoever, it would adopt a belt and braces approach. That is the primary reason we are back here.

It has been suggested that this legislation is rushed but we have had many hours of debate on it. Authority was provided through the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act to conduct sample tests with a view to preparing for electronic voting. We did not hear criticism at the time of the 2002 election. In Dublin West and Dublin South, 87% of voters were happy with the system. The public is disappointed, but we are where we are. I will not make a case for electronic voting as it is not going ahead.

The amendment before us is an unusual one for a Member of the Seanad to propose. It seeks to give more power to the Dáil but not to provide it to the Seanad. While it may be the result of a typographical error, its effect would also be to take power away from Independent Members.

It may have originated elsewhere.

It originated in the Oireachtas.

The effect of the amendment would be to ignore respected Members like Senator Quinn and assert that the major parties should decide these issues. That would not lead to useful legislation. Contrary to Senator Brian Hayes's suggestion, all legislation coming before the Houses of the Oireachtas is important.

General consensus is somewhat different to all-party support. If we must have the latter, we will never make any legislative progress. The system in place has served us well for years. It should be remembered that the Government is directly elected by the people. When it takes a decision, the people indirectly do the same. No one is seriously suggesting we should have absolute agreement from Members across the political divide, including Independents. If we adopted that approach, no progress would be made. While there may be some differences on the detail, all parties and Independents agree with the principle of electronic voting and printing. To require by law that an issue must have the support of all parties would be a recipe for disaster and ensure that change would probably never occur.

I have no doubt that if the public was asked by way of referendum whether electronic voting was required, it would be endorsed by a sizeable majority. No referendum outside a dictatorship will be carried by 100% of people. I have suggested on numerous occasions that if there was a referendum on going to heaven in the morning, a number of people would vote against the proposition. The Opposition cannot be serious about this as to do so would be to say that if it was in Government, it would abdicate its responsibilities. Government carries responsibilities and when we are in Government, we must ensure that we fulfil them in the best interests of the people. According to common sense, I cannot accept the amendment. It is a matter for Senators Opposite whether they agree to my suggestion that it be withdrawn.

In 2001, the Government promised it would not introduce electronic voting without all-party agreement. The Government reneged on that promise at huge expense to the State which is why I am pressing the amendment.

Amendment put.
The Committee divided: Tá, 15; Níl, 31.

  • Bannon, James.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Burke, Ulick.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Henry, Mary.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McDowell, Derek.
  • Norris, David.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Terry, Sheila.

Níl

  • Bohan, Eddie.
  • Brady, Cyprian.
  • Brennan, Michael.
  • Callanan, Peter.
  • Cox, Margaret.
  • Dardis, John.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Fitzgerald, Liam.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Kett, Tony.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • Lydon, Donal J.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • Mansergh, Martin.
  • Minihan, John.
  • Mooney, Paschal C.
  • Morrissey, Tom.
  • Moylan, Pat.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Rourke, Mary.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Scanlon, Eamon.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators U. Burke and McCarthy; Níl, Senators Minihan and Moylan.
Amendment declared lost.
SECTION 1.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 6, lines 1 to 4, to delete subsection (8) and substitute the following:

"(8)Parts 1 and 3 of this Act, together with sections 33, 34 and 35 and Schedule 5, shall come into operation on enactment. Part 2, together with sections 30, 31 and 32 and Schedules 1 to 4, inclusive, shall come into operation on such day as the Ministermay appoint by order, but only after the Ceann Comhairle has received from the Electronic Voting Commission a satisfactory certification of the proposed electronic voting system under the Commission’s terms of reference.”

With confidence that the Minister will reconsider the amendment overnight, I withdraw the amendment until Report Stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 are alternatives. Both may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 6, lines 5 and 6, to delete subsection (9) and substitute the following:

"(9) Where it is proposed to make an order under this Act, a draft of the order shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.

(10) The order shall not be made until a resolution approving the draft has been passed by each such House.".

Due to the breadth of the orders the Minister may make under the Act, this amendment proposes that all orders must be laid before the Houses in draft form and will not take effect until both Houses approve them. This is done in the interest of transparency, which has been talked about a great deal recently and to which my party and I adhere. I ask the Minister of State to accept this valid amendment.

I did not support Senator Bannon's previous amendment but I am happy to support him on this occasion.

The purpose of amendment No. 6 is to stress the paramount role of the Oireachtas in the implementation of this legislation. A sliding scale of importance attaches to ministerial orders. This is expressed by the way the orders are presented to both Houses of the Oireachtas. In matters of a purely routine nature, it is customary to require no more than that the order be laid on the table of each House. We see this regularly and that is what is provided for in this section. With more serious matters the custom is different. In such cases the order is not deemed to come into effect until a resolution approving it has been passed by both Houses.

There is an important difference between the two approaches. A matter which goes to the root of our electoral process is of such importance that the second approach is more appropriate. That is why I have tabled amendment No. 6. It provides that any commencement order shall not come into effect until after a resolution is passed by both Houses.

In proposing this I am aware that during every sitting week we pass a raft of resolutions of one kind or another which, by agreement among the Whips, are not debated in either Chamber and there is seldom any discussion about them. Nevertheless, there is an important reason for requiring that some matters be treated in this way whereas others are considered to be of such a routine nature that they do not even require the waiving of a resolution. This difference relates to the fundamental importance of the matter at hand.

By allowing an order to come into effect without a resolution approving it, we shout from the roof tops that it refers to a matter of routine unimportance. By requiring that an order go through the process of approval by the Houses of the Oireachtas we are saying it is not a routine matter but one which requires a level of Oireachtas scrutiny, even if it is only of the most cursory kind as is often the case.

The importance of a commencement order in regard to this legislation springs from the nature of the subject matter itself. As Senators Bannon and Brian Hayes have said, the electoral system underpins our democratic process. There must be no doubt about that and there must be confidence in the electoral process. If we consider democracy important, as I am sure we do, we must attach a similar degree of importance to the process by which we put democracy into effect. We must do so because the respect legislators show for the democratic process and all that underpins it affects, in turn, the respect of the general public for that very process.

In the course of debating the issue of electronic voting, both inside and outside the Houses of the Oireachtas, in recent months, much has been made of the need to maintain public confidence in whatever electoral system we use. We are right to be concerned about that issue and my amendment responds to that need. By passing the Bill in its present form we signal to the general public that commencement orders under the legislation are trivial matters which are so unimportant that they do not merit the few seconds it takes to waive a resolution in the House. We should not send such a signal to the public. Instead, we should send the contrary signal that we respect the principle of democracy and, by extension, the electoral system under which democracy works and that anything to do with changing that process is a matter of fundamental importance to the Houses.

There is a difference between the two approaches. Accordingly, I commend the amendment to the House. I believe it is important and that the Minister, when he considers the matter, will recognise the difference between the two approaches.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.