Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011: Committee Stage (Resumed)

Debate resumed on amendment No. 2:
In page 3, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:
"(2B) The provisions of subsection (2A) shall not apply where an election is due either—
(a) within nine months of Local and European elections, or
(b) within nine months of the date upon which Dáil Éireann must be dissolved, pursuant to the provisions of section 33 of the Electoral Act 1992,
provided that, in respect of paragraph (a) of this subsection, the Chairman of the Dáil (or, where he or she is unable through illness, absence or other cause to fulfil his or her duties or where there is a vacancy in the Office of Chairman, the Deputy of the Dáil) shall, as soon as practicable, direct the Clerk of the Dáil to issue a writ to the Returning Officer for the constituency in which the vacancy occurred directing the Returning Officer to cause an election to be held on the same day as the Local and European elections to fill the said vacancy.”.”.
—(Senator Diarmuid Wilson).

While I appreciate the reasoning behind this amendment, I do not propose to accept it. Senator Wilson is trying to take account of a situation where European elections or local authority elections might be held close to a by-election. We must bear in mind from where we are coming with regard to the proposed amendment of section 29 of the Electoral Act 1992. Up to now the position has been the filling of a vacancy in the Dáil was entirely at the latter's discretion. We are now introducing constraints on the discretion by requiring the Dáil to act within six months, otherwise it will fall automatically to the Chairman of the Dáil to direct the Clerk to issue the writ for the filling of a vacancy. As the Minster for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, outlined on Second Stage, this step is being taken in the interests of ensuring that people will be fully represented in the Dáil. People have a right to full democratic representation in the national Parliament. The outer limit in the holding of by-elections will be six months.

There is no suggestion that vacancies should be left open for a full six months; they can be filled within one or two months or whatever is most appropriate. Deferring the filling of vacancies, as has been done on several occasions over the years, damages the reputation and integrity of our political institutions and could be seen as undervaluing democratic representation. Every week and month of a Member's time in office is important and must be accorded due respect. For that reason, vacancies should not be left unfulfilled beyond a reasonable time.

The six-month timeframe provided for in the Bill is reasonable. I am not in favour of a proposal that would over-complicate or dilute that objective by stretching it to nine months in the circumstances proposed. The six-month period is intended as an outer limit, not a minimum. Notwithstanding the Senator's eloquent argument in favour of the amendment, I do not propose to accept it.

I accept the Minister's point. Nevertheless, the holding of a by-election a short time before a general, local or European election represents an unfortunate waste of money and there should be some reasonable attempt to address that in the Bill. I will withdraw the amendment, but I reserve the right to resubmit it on Report Stage.

Coming so soon after the court finding that by-elections are not discretionary, to be seen to extend the proposed timeframe from six to nine months would reflect poorly on Parliament. Even if it the holding of a by-election is inconvenient or expensive, the will of the people must be heard.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 2 agreed to.

Acceptance of amendment No. 3 will involve the deletion of section 3 of the Bill.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 3, before section 3, to insert the following new section:

3.—Section 6 (amended by section 9 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2009) of the Act of 1997 is amended by inserting the following subsection after subsection (1):

"(1A) Prior to the publication of the report referred to in subsection (1) the Constituency Commission shall produce an interim report that shall be published for public consultation for a period that does not exceed three months.".".

There is provision in the legislation for a three-month period of public consultation whereby the commission invites submissions in regard to proposed changes to constituencies and constituency boundaries. However, rather than the commission subsequently presenting afait accompli to the Minister for consideration by the Government and the Oireachtas, this amendment proposes that it should publish an interim report after the consultation period which would offer scope for further discussion. It is within the discretion of the Government to accept or reject the commission’s final report. The publication of an interim report after the three-month public consultation process would provide the public and the Oireachtas with an opportunity to respond to proposed changes.

I support the amendment. It is in the same vein as our proposal to delete the provision in the Bill which allows for the number of Deputies to be reduced to as few as 153. It is not acceptable that the number of Oireachtas Members is reduced without a corresponding enhancement of local government. I appreciate the Minister's point that local government reform is on the Government's agenda and will be tackled at a later stage. I accept that this Bill is intended to make several very specific provisions. However, we are putting the cart before the horse by proceeding in this manner. Reform of local government should take place in tandem with reform of constituency boundaries and changes in the number of Deputies. This is a fundamental issue for me as somebody, like the Minister, who was a member of a local authority for many years and who saw powers stripped away from councillors in regard to waste management and many other issues. While many promises were made by the previous Government in respect of directly elected mayors and various aspects of local government reform, such reform has been piecemeal at best, where it is forthcoming at all. It makes little sense to reduce the number of Dáil Deputies in the absence of serious measures to strengthen local government.

There is a question mark regarding the constitutionality of the Bill given that a reduction in the number of Deputies will not make the Dáil more accountable or enable people to participate more effectively in democracy. It will not, for example, provide for the involvement of more people from low-income or rural backgrounds, who are often voiceless in political debates and who depend on those who are elected to represent them. The Bill is more about the Government being seen to deliver on an election promise; it is about image rather than genuine political reform. Reducing the number of Deputies raises several issues given that a further population increase between now and the next census is likely. The minimum requirement under the Constitution is one Dáil Deputy per 30,000 head of population. On Committee Stage in the Dáil, the Minister stated that he did not accept there would be a further increase in population in the next two or three years, but the preliminary returns from this year's census show that the population is increasing at quite a rapid rate.

The Government has talked a great deal about reducing the number of quangos and unelected officials, as referred to by Senator Barrett. It drives elected representatives crazy to see the types of powers accorded to certain unelected individuals. Wherever one stands on the political spectrum — left, right or centre — we are all agreed that important decisions should be made by the people who are elected to make those decisions. The powers enjoyed by some quangos are entirely unacceptable. The Leader recently referred to the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, in this regard. While we all accept that the authority has a job to do — and a very difficult job at that — there are question marks over who sets the agenda in the health service. For instance, is it HIQA which decides whether hospital accident and emergency departments are closed or is that a matter for the Government as part of a broader regard for issues of health service provision? There are issues that must be addressed in this regard.

I am not convinced that reducing the number of Deputies is the best way to go. If it is a question of reducing costs to the Exchequer, the simplest way to do that is to reduce the salaries and expenses of Oireachtas Members. My party put forward legislative provisions on this issue some weeks ago in the Dáil but, unfortunately, they were not supported by the Government parties. If it is all about saving money, or giving an impression to the public that we are saving money in the current austere times, it would be far better to reduce allowances and salaries rather than reducing the number of Deputies.

A reduction in numbers, and all of the challenges it would bring in terms of boundary changes and so on, will only create unnecessary distractions from more pressing issues. I made the point in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion to the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, that if my own constituency of Waterford, which I share with the Leader, is to remain a four-seat constituency, parts of south Kilkenny may have to be brought into it. As the Leader will agree, that is a political hot potato in the area. Such unnecessary distractions are likely to arise throughout the State.

It might improve Waterford's hurling skills.

It certainly might. However, that is the point I am making — it then comes down to the issue of jerseys and the GAA rather than what is best for the country. This is being done in the context of the type of clientelist political system we have, whereby national politicians, unfortunately, end up having to watch their back in terms of other elected representatives in their area. The Minister said he has played the game himself. If that is the game to be played, we all have to play it. Nevertheless, there should be a genuine commitment from all political parties to move away from that type of system of governance. National politicians should have national responsibilities and local politicians should have local responsibilities. That is the point we are making in proposing this section and not wanting a reduction in the number of Deputies with local government reform. Reducing the number of Deputies by 30 or 40 will not end the culture of people coming to national politicians to sort out local problems and the nature of the clientelist system in this country. It seems ingrained in the political system in this country. All parties, including Sinn Féin, play that game and reinforce the system rather than challenging it. The Minister of State made reference to this as something that must change. All political parties must face up to the challenge and if we want to have a system of governance fit for purpose, where national politicians are legislators and do what they are elected to do and local politicians do what they are elected to do, it requires much more than what is contained in this Bill. For those reasons, I oppose this section.

The hot potato is the question the commission will grasp. The independent commission must make decisions on boundaries. Senator Cullinane wants the commission to extend the constituency boundary into the area of Kilkenny where he is living.

I am not that far away.

I do not think the Bill goes far enough. We should reduce the number of Deputies to 120 but I will go along with the provisions in the Bill.

Much of this debate is the reaction to a populist view. I could not help but be amused by, and agree with, my good friend and colleague, the Minister of State, when he talked about the man sitting in the bar who did not vote but was propounding on the issues of the day and criticising the elected Member. In recent months, in the course of attempting to introduce valid electoral reform, the Government has been sidetracked by political spin doctors who suggest that reducing the number of Deputies, abolishing the Seanad, reforming and reducing local government and other populist views will lead to an overwhelming response from the great and the good, including the man sitting in the bar in Ballynacarrigy. He will rise up and note what a wonderful democracy and a great republic we live in now that half of the Deputies are gone, the entire Seanad has been reduced to rubble and local authorities are being dismantled. We will have nirvana, the new Jerusalem and utopia when it is all put together. That is where the Opposition is coming from and our friends and colleagues in all political endeavours in both Houses would not disagree with the broad thrust of what I am saying.

I acknowledge the help of the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. Later I will speak on the boundaries. I refer to an article entitled Revising Dáil Constituency Boundaries: Ireland in Comparative Perspective, inAdministration, 55(3) 2007, by John Coakley, associate professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, UCD, which states:

For voters, being moved from one constituency to another is potentially confusing and disconcerting and may rupture long-standing ties with the community to which people are attached. This article argues that the political turmoil, popular upset and considerable expense (in time and money) that have been associated with the process of constituency boundary revision since the early years of the state have been unnecessary.

It raises the question of whether there is a need for a constituency boundary. He goes on to say "The Irish approach to constituency boundary delimitation is an example of Irish ‘exceptionalism': an eccentric Irish solution to a problem that is not Irish, but universal in the world of proportional representation — how to distribute parliamentary seats fairly." He says:

The resource needed for each revision is about half an hour of the time of a junior official in the Department of the Environment who can use spreadsheets; there is no need to take up hours of Dáil time [he does not mention the Seanad] or months of work by a high-powered, multi-member constituency commission.

This is food for thought.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
Sitting suspended at 1.15 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.