I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, and invite him to make his contribution.
Electoral Commission: Statements
I thank Senators for giving me the opportunity to contribute on this issue. When I was a Member of this House and merely a backbencher in the other House, I spoke about this issue on many occasions. I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on the proposal for an electoral commission, a matter which will have a significant impact on the electoral process in Ireland in the next few years. I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and answer questions Senators may have on this very important matter.
The Government is committed to the establishment of an electoral commission which will broadly bring together under one umbrella the functions and responsibilities of the electoral system. A number of important steps have been taken to advance this commitment. I will give Senators a potted history of progress so far and then outline the next steps to be taken.
In January 2015 the Department published a consultation paper on the establishment of an electoral commission in Ireland. The paper set out a series of issues for consideration, including, for example, which functions should be assigned to an electoral commission; what roles should those involved in electoral management continue to perform; the cost implications, as well as membership and accountability arrangements. Based on the consultation paper, a public consultation process on the establishment of an electoral commission was undertaken by the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht. In January 2016 the committee published its report on the consultation. The report contains a series of recommendations for establishing an electoral commission. It proposes that the commission take on functions such as managing elections and referendums; maintaining the register of political parties; undertaking research on electoral matters; voter education; and the transfer to the commission of the regulation of political funding and spending which are currently under the control of the Standards in Public Office Commission and local authorities.
Importantly, the Oireachtas committee's report found that there was a relatively high level of trust in our electoral system and that that trust should not be undermined by the introduction of any new electoral management arrangement without adequate time for bedding down. The report, therefore, recommends a phased approach to establishing the commission and that the change should happen gradually. A big bang approach is not favoured by the report.
The report refers in some detail to an issue that exercises many of us, namely, the modernisation of the electoral register. The report makes recommendations on how that might be addressed. However, rather than waiting for an electoral commission to commence this work, and on foot of a Government decision to put the extension of the franchise for presidential elections to the people in a referendum, work is now under way in the Department on scoping potential improvements to the electoral registration process. In some local authorities, people have to fill in up to 23 documents to join the register, seek a postal vote, change address or so forth. The Department's work is being done with a view to, among other things, facilitating the registration of voters resident outside the State should the referendum regarding presidential election voting rights be passed.
The electoral register modernisation project is considering a range of possible improvements, including recommendations made by the Oireachtas. General issues regarding the governance of a revised registration process, including the potential role of the electoral commission, will also be considered as part of the project. Key proposals being considered include a single national register, continuous registration and online options for public interaction.
Given the importance of the electoral register in our democracy, the process being planned includes a significant public consultation element and the overall process is anticipated to take some two to three years. Technical consultations with registration authorities and other bodies, including the political system, will also form part of the deliberations. Those consultations are under way. Given the nature of our electoral system where there are always elections around the corner, it is important that the integrity of the register be protected when being updated.
Meanwhile, work is ongoing in the Department on the preparation of an electoral commission Bill. In the first instance, the Department is preparing a regulatory impact analysis, RIA, for the Bill. This RIA will identify and compare a number of policy options for establishing a commission. Each option will set out a possible range of functions together with membership, accountability mechanisms and timelines for establishing a commission. The RIA will analyse the cost, benefits and impacts of each option. The completion of the RIA, which will happen relatively soon and involve a public consultation later this autumn, will inform the drafting of the heads of an electoral commission Bill. There is a considerable amount of work involved in each of the steps I have just outlined, but we are well on the way to progressing these matters. I look forward to hearing Senators' views.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This is a progressive step. As elected Members and having served in different forms as politicians, we all know that many elements of the register of electors could do with being streamlined. For example, changing address on the register is complicated. Fianna Fáil welcomes the steps being taken by the Minister and wholeheartedly supports his proposals, which we look forward to seeing in more detail. I thank the Minister of State.
I apologise for missing some of the Minister of State's welcome contribution. We have had some discussions on this matter previously, but it is worth pointing out that just eight people - I am open to correction - work in the franchise section in the Custom House. They effectively run every aspect of a referendum. That number may be higher or lower, so the Minister of State might clarify. Regardless, that situation is not sustainable. The importance of ensuring independence and accountability has been mentioned. I am not suggesting that there is not independence or accountability in the system within the Custom House, but if the whole process is really to be independent, this issue must be considered.
We must increase turnout and participation rates in the election process. Educating people on the democratic process is another important function. The Minister of State might touch on the RIA. When is it expected to be completed and published? It would be important.
I welcome this significant initiative. It is one of many initiatives involved in the issue of electoral reform. For example, the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, recently published a report and asked that we consider legislating to address the issue of political campaigns that were financed from outside the State. I do not want to rehearse the relevant politics of the past few months, but SIPO has recommended that we consider legislating to deal with digital campaigns as well as the issue of people outside the State trying to effect change within it.
Many challenges will arise in this work. I wish the Department and the Minister of State well with it.
I welcome the Minister of State back to the House, a place with which he is familiar. He has discussed this topic numerous times. He has a depth of experience from local authority level, the Seanad, the Dáil and his current role as Minister of State that he will use it to steer these necessary reforms through his Department and the Oireachtas. The reforms will improve and enhance the integrity of the electoral system. In a democracy, the fundamental franchise of the vote is critical, so we should recognise that there are areas in which we could have done better if we were to have a modern electoral system that had the confidence of the Irish people. For this reason, I welcome the inclusion of an electoral commission's establishment in the programme for Government.
Consultation has already taken place on the commission's design and structure, how it should work and its responsibilities over the management of elections and referendums. The commission should also be involved in ensuring that the information made available to our citizens in a referendum is distributed in a robust, fair and objective way. Issues of political funding and expenditure and how parties are registered also need examination and, where necessary, reform.
Will the Minister of State clarify the situation regarding the modernisation of the electoral register? For years, local authorities have been charged with keeping the register up to date. While the majority of people exercise their franchise, there have been instances of people who, when going to vote, discover that they have been removed from the register unbeknownst to themselves. It is one of the worst things to witness. I have seen such people being turned away from their local polling booths many times. They are devastated. We must devise a structure that eliminates this mistake.
The Minister of State might clarify whether modernisation entails continuing with local authorities as the bodies that are charged with keeping the register up to date or giving responsibility to the new commission. How will it work? Speaking as a representative, I am open to it lying with the commission just so long as the situation improves. We are utilising outdated mechanisms to keep our electoral register up to date. Reform of the voter registration system is necessary and new technologies and methods of identifying people should be utilised. There are many ways to do this that would ensure the requisite levels of confidence and integrity.
We must do away with duplication and inaccuracies. When people die, many remain on the electoral register for years. That is unacceptable. To be honest, when we as politicians write to people using information contained in the register, we find out that some of them have, unfortunately, passed away. It is not a nice thing to happen.
A number of agencies have electoral responsibilities. Local authorities are over the electoral register. The courts, through registrars, and the nomination process for elections and referendums also play a part.
As the Minister of State has said, the Standards in Public Office Commission also plays a part in the areas of regulation and standards. With a new commission there are opportunities to streamline all of these areas to bring them under one area of responsibility. I suggest it has the teeth to act because there is no point in establishing an electoral commission unless it has the powers and the sanctions to enforce what it is we want to achieve. I ask the Minister of State to elaborate on that and to explain what his plans are in that area.
I remember years ago as a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht visiting the electoral offices in the North or Ireland. We could learn from our neighbours in the North of Ireland about how they managed to improve the integrity of the electoral registers. There were issues in the past in Northern Ireland, which are on record, whereby the voting system, unfortunately, was abused. They now have a very successful system to ensure integrity and confidence in that process. There is a lot of work still to be done. We should always evaluate all systems in our Departments but this area is in the interests of integrity, confidence, public awareness and education on voting rights, Much work has been done in schools with various civic educational programmes, and I am aware that many politicians visit schools to try to enhance that experience. It is very important that we educate the next generation on the franchise to vote, on what it means in terms of a democracy, on what it means for local, national, regional and European politics, and on what it means for the fundamental constitutionalism in the State through referendums. We need to continue enforcing that idea.
I am not being ageist, and I know colleagues will say this, but I have always found that older people have put a lot of emphasis on the vote. In my community and household when I was growing up I was always told about the importance and the significance of the vote. I sometimes fear that, given the tough years Ireland has been through, politics has suffered and, as a result, democracy has suffered. There is possibly less respect now for the politician and less respect for the vote. In the interests of democracy we need to reclaim that ground. Leaving aside party politics and all policies, we need to educate our young people on the importance and the significance of the vote. The reform of the electoral system and the establishment of an electoral commission is an ideal opportunity for the Minister and for us as colleagues to promote the idea that the vote is critical and fundamental in a democracy. I look forward to the improvement that will be made in this area.
I welcome the Minister to the House. When we speak about people engaging with an online system, Estonia has one of the highest levels in Europe of citizen engagement with the state using online platforms. Ireland is quite a good deal lower down the list. There seem to be many documents that are produced by the Minister's Department that are unavailable on the website. It was most frustrating recently when the mayoral issue for Cork and Dublin was in the news. A previous Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, had produced a Green Paper on the issue, which is unavailable, as are many other documents on that website. I do not believe this is good for transparency.
We can only achieve a thriving democracy when all of our society has a stake in that process. The activism and involvement of young people in the referendum for civil marriage equality and the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment is evidence that, when engaged, young people demonstrate an interest in mobilising and participating in the political process. This is despite the obstacles that exist, including a lack of formal education. I have, however, heard very good reports about the politics module from those who are on the pilot programme. There are also issues around promotion and difficulties in registering to vote.
The processes by which people register to vote and where active citizenship is promoted has not changed in decades now. Calls for changes in how our institutions engage with younger people and first-time voters, including my own proposals, have always been batted away - this happened especially around the time of the repeal referendum - with promises and commitments on the establishment of an electoral commission. It is very welcome that the heads of the electoral commission Bill are being prepared and that considerable work is being done on that front. It has also become apparent, through the work of the Seanad reform implementation group, that the Department does not have enough resources. We are now dealing with the next presidential election and the next referendums. More resources are needed for the Department and for the staff working in the area of reform.
The establishment of an electoral commission was first raised in the Oireachtas in 2004 and has been in programmes for Government since 2007. With regard to the functions it could have, online voter registration facilities could be part of that. It is a glaring omission from our registration process. Galway County Council has online voter registration but it is up to individual local authorities. There appears to be a lack of instruction or guidelines from the Department in this regard. Voter registration by paper hard copy is no longer the norm. It is an exception around the world now. According to some responses we have received to parliamentary questions, there are no legislative barriers to bringing the process online. As I have said, local authorities such as Galway County Council have rolled out their own process. Registration windows could be on a one-month rolling basis and the register could be centralised.
The role of the electoral commission could also be to collect data. For example, the CSO collected data on voter turnout during 2011. When we hear that young people do not vote, we should be conscious that in 2011 the overall turnout was 69.9% and the turnout among 18 to 25 year olds was 62%. It is not entirely true to say that younger people do not vote. There are no such data on the recent referendums on marriage equality and the eighth amendment but I suspect that the younger voter turnout was much higher than the 62% from 2011.
We need to target those areas of our society where there are minorities such as prisoners and people from working-class communities where voter turnout is lower. That is our responsibility. I accept that people are distracted by the struggles of their everyday lives. That should be taken into account. It is not just about confidence in politicians. We need to target the demographics.
I welcome that legislation is forthcoming. It is important that we remember Ireland is 137th in the world for voter registration processes. We need to be very ambitious about rectifying that and I look forward to engaging with the Minister of State in the future.
I thank the Minister of State for his time and his statement on proposals for an electoral commission. I welcome that this issue is gaining traction in the Oireachtas and I would like to express my strong support for the establishment of an independent, empowered electoral commission with broad responsibility and remit across our different elections.
We are lucky to live in a country where public trust in the electoral system and elections is relatively high, but the turnout in different elections and referenda varies wildly and is on an overall downward trend. I would welcome the creation of an electoral commission that was specifically empowered not only to regulate, oversee and manage elections but also to play an active role in electoral outreach, fostering political engagement and spurring democratic innovation.
There is much research and work to draw from in this area in the Irish context such as the Report of the Committee on the Consultation on the Proposed Electoral Commission 2016, the August report from the working group in the Department of the Taoiseach, and Deputy Lawless’s 2016 legislation, all of which I hope will inform our discussions on the commission’s role.
When looking at the roles, responsibilities and functions of such a body, it should be ambitious. Ireland is a small country where administrative hurdles to electoral reform are low and we could easily pilot major reforms, with Ireland becoming a world leader in democratic innovation, a reputation that has started with the successful Citizens’ Assembly initiative.
I would like to see an electoral commission with strong regulatory and oversight powers, that administered the register of political parties, and that dictated rules on spending in all elections and referenda.
The functions of the Referendum Commission in respect of elections should be transferred to this new body, as should the responsibilities of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in respect of elections, in order that strong, fair and comprehensive rules on media balance can be assembled and issued. Posters and the regulation of poster content should also be placed within the commission's remit.
The regulation of online advertising, the tackling of proliferated disinformation and financial transparency must be crucial functions of the commission. Election tampering has moved on from the days of stuffing ballot boxes or rigging counts. One only needs to surreptitiously target undecided voters with false information via social media to swing entire elections. The integrity of elections are under threat across western democracies, especially in the light of extraordinarily advanced techniques used in the US presidential election. The commission needs to safeguard citizens and their democratic choices against these threats.
The current ad hoc local authority electoral register system is a mess. It should be consolidated and managed within the new electoral commission and major reforms implemented to simplify and modernise the registration process. It should be possible to register online without cumbersome administrative barriers such as the requirement for a garda signature to make a simple change to address. The many forms for different categories should be consolidated in one simple online form. I am sure the Minister of State, who is responsible for e-Government, can see the obvious value in my suggestion as it is obvious, doable and possible once the required security safeguards are developed and in place.
The electoral commission should be responsible for running national information campaigns around the electoral process and registration deadlines. It should also collect national data on registration and run targeted campaigns aimed at communities with low democratic participation. I would also love to see a commission that helped tackle the lack of awareness of the roles of the different elected officials and bodies. I would like explanations of the role of a Member of the European Parliament or a councillor's responsibilities on a local authority to become commonplace running up to election time.
In terms of the voting process, the commission would need to investigate methods by which we can make it easier to vote. Access to postal votes for those away from their place of residence on polling day should be expanded, as should options for voters overseas, whether through Irish embassies or other means. We should also introduce early voting as exists in many US states and consider options for limited voting accessibility in the days before elections to allow for greater flexibility. A commission could examine the feasibility of synchronising elections with public holidays or weekends to promote higher turnout and engagement.
Furthermore, an electoral commission is not the only electoral reform coming down the pipeline. As the Minister of State will be aware, his Government has committed to a referendum to extend voting rights in presidential elections to Irish citizens abroad. Moreover, here in the Seanad, the implementation group for the Manning report will shortly publish its report and draft legislation that will allow for a significant expansion in the Seanad electorate. Critics of these two proposals always cite practical and administrative barriers to their implementation. If we had a developed and experienced electoral commission that relied on best international evidence, it could start the policy development process immediately, with the view to being given responsibility to administer these elections once they are held. We have an opportunity to get in front of and prepare for these big practical changes now and I urge the Minister of State to take it. The current Seanad electoral process is also in dire need of reform, especially the university seats. I hope the electoral commission will make quick and minor changes that would greatly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the system, such as the introduction of a supplementary register.
I would like the electoral commission to monitor and seek inspiration from international developments in electoral reform and democratic innovation. For example, the growth of the international fact-checking movement, especially in the face of the proliferation of fake news, could be easily adopted by a commission empowered to fact-check claims made in election and referendum campaigns. This would be a valuable public service offered to voters as they make their electoral decisions. If a referendum commission were empowered to issue a balanced and fair analysis of the voting options before a referendum campaign, it would only be a small extra step for it to provide such analysis during a campaign.
In more general terms, other countries have responded to issues with voter turnout and democratic engagement in new and innovative ways from which Ireland could easily draw. These include the compulsory voting system used in Australia, online democratic innovations in Europe and the use of public petitions to trigger parliamentary debates in the United Kingdom. An ongoing and continuous role in recommending legislative and constitutional change in a similar vein to the reports produced by the Standards in Public Office Commission would be a valuable and important function.
I have outlined electoral reforms that are in place in other countries. None of them is impossible and all of them could easily be incorporated into an electoral commission's functions. I wish the Minister of State well in his efforts to establish the commission and hope he will be as ambitious as possible when deciding its roles, functions and powers.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I do not intend to repeat all of the points that have been made because Senator Ruane has covered the vast majority of issues that need to be raised.
The first memorandum on establishing an electoral commission went to Cabinet in September 1996. That gives us an idea of how long this matter has been knocking around. It got caught up in electoral cycles and recessions so there has not been time to proceed with the proposal. I urge the Minister of Minister to press forward with reform because we all agree on the need to reform and improve the electoral system.
One measure that would greatly benefit the various commissions in future is the complete removal of the Minister from having any hand, act or part in the electoral process. I do not suggest that anything untoward has happened. However, if we want openness and transparency, we must ensure that electoral candidates or potential candidates do not play any role in overseeing elections. I hope legislation on this issue will pass in both Houses in this term. We have an opportunity, with all-party support, to press ahead with legislation to modernise the electoral system and get an independent commission in situ.
As I walked up the stairs to the Chamber someone mentioned to me the role played by the Minister. We will send observers to the forthcoming mid-term elections in the United States. The flaw in that system is that a candidate can play a role in an election. For this reason, I propose that the Minister and all elected representatives step away to make sure proceedings are transparent. As I stated, I do not question anything that happened previously because all Ministers have acted properly in the past. There is a flaw in the legislation that could be exploited and, therefore, we must remove it from the legislation. I pledge my support to facilitate legislation going through both Houses as quickly as possible once drafting has been completed.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, and thank him for his opening statement on the proposed electoral commission. I am glad that we are finally making a move on this important issue.
As democracy faces challenges across the world, Ireland is a beacon of reason and toleration in the face of waves of hate and disruption but we cannot take for granted that this will continue to be the case. We must move to strengthen the institutions that ensure the long-term health and fairness of our democracy and avoid what is happening in previously solid democracies, such as the United States. The Green Party was the first political party to advocate for a fully independent electoral commission almost two decades ago. In government, our Ministers initiated work on the establishment of such a commission. I want to see a body that is independent and operational with broad responsibilities and accountability to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It should assume all of the existing responsibilities for election management such as constituency boundary reviews. Such reviews should be more transparent, with the reasoning and responses to submissions explored in greater detail.
The commission should be independent of the Government and not reliant on a specific Department for resources. Such resources must be guaranteed by law and provided by the Oireachtas. For a commission to do its necessary work, it must be given statutory powers to put its decisions into practice. The commission needs to examine how we can effectively regulate election campaign spending in a time of dark Facebook advertising and external interference in domestic political campaigns.
The disparity between online and other media regulations has become glaring and it is difficult for a non-independent body to correct it.
The commission needs to have the power to consider the franchise and whether it would be possible and appropriate to expand it to include those who are currently excluded. My colleague Senator Lynn Ruane has mentioned the campaign to enable young people to vote at 16 years. I specifically mention the plight of those who have recently emigrated. This is one of the few democracies that does not facilitate postal voting for this significant cohort. I am not talking about the descendants of the diaspora or passport holders but those who are denied a vote in their country of residence as well as in their own. This disenfranchisement is indecent and unfair and I hope it could end with a properly resourced commission. I want to see any commission examine the possibilities for automatic voter registration, thus putting an end to the exclusion of people, especially first time voters. We have seen the need for such a strong body with these extensive powers as democracy seems to weaken across the western world.
We need to see a strong independent commission to ensure the renewal and strengthening of the electoral system in order that it can maintain the confidence of citizens and ensure the long-term health of elections, our society and democracy. As a member of the Seanad reform group, this is an area in which we would like to see the concept of one vote, one person. Perhaps the commission could look into it once it is established.
I wish the Minister of State the best of luck in drafting the heads of the Bill and hope it will be brought to the Dáil as soon as possible.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus fáiltím roimh an deis an cheist seo a phlé leis. The Minister of State is most welcome.
Like other colleagues, I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important proposal. I note that during the course of his remarks, the Minister of State referred to the important preparatory work under way within his Department to implement any potential outcome of next year's planned referendum on presidential election voting rights. I am glad and acknowledge the impetus that there seems to be in that regard. I know that it has been a complex and laborious process, but we are now in the final furlong and it looks like there will be a referendum, please God, next May. That in itself logically warrants the establishment of a commission that will be fit for purpose and meet the ever changing and bespoke arrangements that will be required to provide for this change in the electoral architecture and also for all of the reasons outlined by colleagues across the Chamber with regard to the outdated nature of what has been in place previously.
While, for obvious reasons, I have stressed the issue of presidential election voting rights for people resident outside the State, other potential changes, to which colleagues have alluded, are coming down the line. When the Taoiseach was before us earlier in the year to discuss Seanad reform, he laid out clearly that, politically, for him and the Government, he wanted to see a universal franchise in Seanad elections. It would include citizens across the Thirty-two Counties and I assume those qualifying within the global diaspora such as those who have recently emigrated. Another perhaps unusual but, given the legal advice presented to Ms Martina Anderson, MEP, very doable proposal involves the allocation of two additional seats following Brexit to represent the North. I do not know if this has featured in considerations related to the commission, but I am sure it has featured more broadly. If it has not, I commend that legal advice and recommendation to the Minister of State that the two additional European Parliament seats be utilised. How the mechanics of the election would work is something to be looked at, which is why the legal advice is important. It gives us the potential to do something different and positive which would be inclusive. It would give people the most basic right and entitlement - the right to vote.
Has the Minister of State looked to the North and the electoral commission in place there? I am not saying it is perfect by any stretch, but much of what has been called for and proposed by colleagues in the Seanad is happening just up the road. There may be an opportunity to engage, share best practice and look at existing best practice. As we know, the commission operates entirely independently from the Executive and the political structures in the North.
I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to say a few words on this important topic. I note from the Minister of State's observations in his statement that he favours the local authorities having a big say in compiling the electoral register. I believe they should have a role to play, but there should be oversight. A number of years ago pressure was put on one of the Minister of State's predecessors, Dick Roche, to do something with the electoral register which was in a very poor state. He provided a sum of €100,000 for all of the local authorities to make a special effort to get the register up to date, to try to get everybody who should have been on it on it and to get people who should not have been on it off it. It required a big effort on the part of the local authorities at the time to do this and, in fairness, they responded.
The electoral register is ad hoc in nature because many people contribute to how it is formed. There are rate or rent collectors, political parties, gardaí and ordinary citizens involved. In the long run, it is left up to people to sign on. In some cases, this can be quite cumbersome because one has to go to a Garda station which may, in some cases, be 20, 30 or 40 miles away. There is, therefore, a big onus on the citizen to travel in order to register. The process should be simpler. The electoral commission should be the basis in having some oversight of local authorities.
In the last part of his statement the Minister of State said the Oireachtas committee's report found that there was a relatively high level of trust in the electoral system. He went on to refer to the setting up of the commission, the bringing forward of the heads of the Bill and the Bill. The best way for him to proceed is by putting a Bill together and bringing it to this House. He can have a very responsible debate on it in all sectors of society, with Senators across the political divide and backgrounds. Even if he was to make many changes to it before it went to the Dáil, it would be a very worthwhile exercise and a way of moving forward on the issue.
On Seanad reform, I believe there will be a second register, probably bigger than that for general elections to the Dáil, because one may have people from Northern Ireland, America, England and countries all over the world on it. The way forward is the way the Minister of State is proceeding, with local authorities having a say in compiling the electoral register, with oversight by the electoral commission. If the Minister of State brings forward a Bill, he will receive a great response and there will be a fabulous debate in this House with all and sundry.
The next speaker is Senator Higgins, who has five minutes. I note that for the next four weeks, the election will be very much part of her life.
I welcome the Minister of State. We spoke on these issues previously. I think it was in December 2017. I thank the Minister of State for his statement. The proposal for an electoral commission has been on the table for a very long time. We have had not one but perhaps two new generations of voters who have grown up while this issue continued to be considered. As such, I really welcome progress here.
The Minister of State said in his speech that he did not want to see a "big bang" approach and that he wanted it to be gradual. Let us not, however, have that graduality around the establishment of the electoral commission. Rather, let us move ahead and establish the commission. It may then be, absolutely, that the Oireachtas and Government will choose to expand or enhance its powers as matters develop. We cannot, however, go into our next election with just another report on the table or piling up on the shelf for consideration. I notice that the Minister of State is developing legislation and I would really like to see it progressed. Even if each decision around the specific powers involves a cautious or expansionary approach, we will at least have legislation and be able to move more swiftly whether by statutory instrument or debate to expand those decisions.
An electoral commission is necessary to ensure we have an ongoing understanding of democracy and how it works. Democracy and everyone's participation is not something that happens every now and then in an election. It is not something we call on citizens to be part of every now and again. It is a permanent and ongoing thing in which everyone has a stake. An electoral commission would give ongoing clarity around the rules of engagement and how we conduct our elections. At the moment, for example, we see a patchwork of measures. In the recent referendum, there was a debate around who regulates billboards and where billboards come in. All of these questions arise. That patchwork of measures and the different timings in the arrival of rules for each vote could be addressed by a permanent electoral commission. It would give clarity and an equality of participation for all those who put themselves forward or seek to participate in any way in an electoral process, whether a referendum or an election.
A key matter I have spoken about in the House on many occasions is the regulation of online advertising relating to elections or referenda. Political advertising is an area in which Ireland is being looked to increasingly to give a lead. We are one of the places and one of the locations where this debate has happened. Ireland was looking at these issues at the same time that they were being looked at in the US Senate. The measures which have been piloted and tried in Ireland are likely to be rolled out elsewhere and, in fact, have been rolled out in the Mexican elections. That points to one of the ways in which an electoral commission will be so powerful. It will not be tied to our electoral moments, but will be able to look at electoral best practice internationally, drawing on it and noticing problems and opportunities as they arise in other countries. That would be very important. For example, one looks at the issue of e-voting, which was something that was lauded as a wonderful thing but has now been rolled back in other countries. An electoral commission would allow a constant monitoring of good practice so that at the moments when we call on the public to make crucial decisions, they are fully informed and we know a good system is in place.
From the outset, it must be recognised in the philosophy informing any electoral commission we put forward that its role is not simply one of oversight. It should also be to inspire. Its role should not only be to ensure we have accountability in our democracy but that we actively seek engagement. This is the centenary year of suffrage and I have been very proud to be part of the Vótáil 100, a cross-party Oireachtas group to commemorate the expansion of suffrage to a number of women. However, it is an ongoing process. After millennia of different forms of power, we now have democracy as one of the greatest ways to ensure that all are engaged and involved. We need a mandate of enthusiasm not simply to ensure correct registration but to drive and encourage registration and the act of voting.
Key areas which need to be addressed include voting at 16. I was concerned to hear the Minister of State refer in his speech to one referendum which is planned to be held to expand the franchise abroad in that many are expecting that there will also be a referendum on the right to vote at 16 next May or June in line with the European elections. Can the Minister of State confirm that such a referendum will take place? It is something our young citizens have been very active and passionate in pushing for. If people vote when they are young, they are more likely to continue to vote throughout their lives. I am glad the Minister of State referred to the role of public education. An electoral commission could have a very active role engaging with CSPE programmes and with young people in school around democracy and their participation in it.
Postal voting is very important for people. Ireland is unusually restrictive in this regard. For example, tomorrow is the last day for students to be able to register to vote. People face huge obstacles. A number of solutions have been outlined eloquently by my colleague, Senator Ruane, around flexibility in voting data and making postal voting more accessible. There are many things we can do about postal voting. The supplementary register also raises issues of concern. Often, people who believe they have registered have, in fact, fallen off registers.
I was an advocate of Seanad reform long before I came to the House or even thought I might do so. It is very important and I understand proposals are to come forward. However, we cannot wait for an electoral commission on either voting at 16 or Seanad reform. These are issues on which we must advance apace even while we are working separately to develop an electoral commission. I am sure we can create space in a Seanad reform Bill, which we should pass in the current term, to ensure a future electoral commission will be able to engage with it in an appropriate way. We must ensure these things move in parallel and that one is not used as a reason to delay another. We need a universal franchise for our Seanad. That is the mandate we were given and we must deliver on it following the referendum on the Seanad.
I welcome Deputy Eamon Scanlon and his guests in the Gallery. I call the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan.
I thank the Senators who have contributed and will try to refer to as many of the issues they have raised as possible. To take the last issue first, I note that the formation of a commission will have no impact on Seanad reform legislation. Several Senators raised this matter. We have committed to the implementation of meaningful Seanad reform. As Senator Paddy Burke pointed out, a commission would have a role to play in future regarding what the register of electors for the Seanad elections will be. It will be a significant function.
Senator Davitt expressed his support and that of Fianna Fáil. Senator Boyhan spoke about when the RIA was due. The original intention was that it would be published at Hallowe'en and we remain on course for that target. We will not publish it in advance of the presidential election. It is important to keep things separate and to protect the integrity of the voting process that will be engaged in at the end of October. Immediately following that, however, it is our intention to publish.
Senator Boyhan and others also spoke about possible outside interference in elections. That is certainly a matter I envisage a commission having a role in in future. Senator Coffey referred to the modernisation of the register. In fact, every second Senator referred to that. Something always strikes me about election turnout. I was in a discussion this morning on local government in other parts of the world, in particular in Britain where local authorities have more functions. Whether they operate better is arguable but turnout for local elections in Britain is abysmal. Our turnout for local elections is quite good, however. The accuracy of the electoral register varies nationally.
I think we could add on between 5% to 10% in turnout for most elections and referendums in this country fairly easily because of people who are incorrectly included or even excluded, as Senator Coffey said, from the register.
Senators Coffey and Paddy Burke and others mentioned the role of local authorities. The commission, as I envisage it, would be responsible for the electoral register. As for being on the ground, as Senator Burke said, rate collectors are a rarer breed now than they were, but it is interesting that in my local authority area, where the rate collectors are still on the ground, the register is more accurate. The commission will have an oversight role but the local authorities will still have a very important function.
There are other functions. Senators Warfield and Ruane referred to online voter registration, which exists in many other parts of the world. It is our intention, as I outlined in my opening comments, that, following the presidential election, that renewal process, which will take a number of years, will allow for online registration into the future and the elimination of the 23 forms that currently exist in favour of one standard form, as Senator Ruane said, be it in electronic or paper format. There are people who will still want the paper form. This matter is very much still on course and will be part of the commission's responsibility.
The single identifier is the issue when it comes to online registration, whether it be the PPS number or other options. There is still work to be done in this regard to decide what route we will take. We must avoid the duplications and exclusions of people and the inclusion on registers of people who are deceased. What is particularly prevalent in Dublin city is that there might be ten people on an electoral register at one address but some of them have not lived there for ten years. To avoid these kinds of situations in the future, there will need to be some kind of identifier.
Several Senators spoke about the need for this body to have teeth. It absolutely will, including some of the teeth that may reside with the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Referendum Commission, when it is established for referendums, along with additional teeth.
I emphasise what the two Senators at the back said - I am like a teacher now - Senators Higgins and Ruane, about being ambitious. I am very ambitious. I have wanted this myself for a long time and I see the merits in it. As someone who has observed elections all over the world in my anorak capacity - in another life, if you like - I see the benefits of this. It exists in many other countries. What happened with the electronic voting fiasco of 20 years ago was a kind of top-down "this is what we are going to do" approach, and the public rebelled against it, so we must protect the integrity of what we have. I think this will, as Senator Higgins said, mean that other functions and roles will be bolted onto the commission in the future but I assure the House that there will be no delay from the Government's perspective in getting the commission up and running. This is why there has been a renewed impetus in recent months.
Senator Humphreys expressed his support for the proposal and spoke about the first memo for Cabinet in 1996, which is a long time ago. He spoke about the removal of the Minister and the Department and he is right. This commission needs to be independent. Currently, the eight people who occupy the franchise section in the Department, who are exceptional civil servants, become the commission at election time, whether it is a referendum or an election. Many of their functions will be moved to the new electoral commission once it is established. As I think Senator Humphreys emphasised, there have never been any questions raised about the roles of the franchise section. They are the most dedicated bunch of civil servants I have ever dealt with. Like me, they are a little anoraky, so to speak, when it comes to elections.
Senator Grace O'Sullivan spoke about Ireland being something of a beacon of democracy in the current world and she is right. I agree with her fully. This is where some differences will emerge because there are so many issues for which people believe the commission should be responsible. Senator O'Sullivan said the commission should be responsible for boundary commissions. Ultimately, while I believe the Oireachtas must still retain responsibility for establishing the terms of reference for boundary commissions, the commission should receive the report and should be responsible for ensuring that the committee reviewing the boundaries is established and that it is independent and separate. We cannot, however, remove from the public, whom we represent, the responsibility for drawing up the terms of reference under which such boundary reviews operate.
Senator O'Sullivan said automatic registration is important. Again, this is part of the review of the registration process that will happen following the presidential election.
The Seanad reform group wants one person, one vote. I myself do, and I await any development in this regard with interest. I know Members here have contributed greatly to the workings of that committee over recent months. It was our intention at the start to have a report sometime around Hallowe'en, and I think that is still pretty much on target.
Senator Ó Donnghaile acknowledged the current impetus for the referendum on voting rights next May. The reason this referendum was mentioned is that it is specifically about registration and how registration in the future might need to change dramatically to facilitate people outside of the State. There has been no change in Government policy such that the referendum on the minimum voting age would be held at the same time.
I was here when the Taoiseach spoke in the Seanad about his interest and desire to see reform of the Seanad. This is one of the reasons it will happen.
Senator Ó Donnghaile also spoke about the allocation of the two MEP seats to the North of Ireland. The two seats were allocated on Monday to the Dublin and South constituencies. There is one thing that always strikes me. Yesterday we had a debate on town councils in the Dáil in which Deputies referred to the fact that people from certain towns are no longer the mayors of those areas. Anyone can stand for election anywhere in Ireland. We have had a fine tradition in this House and especially in the European Parliament of Northern Ireland representatives being elected in constituencies here. We cannot under the terms of the Belfast Agreement and so many other terms have a European Parliament constituency for Northern Ireland but we can have, have had and should have into the future Northern people elected here. Senators Ó Donnghaile and Coffey spoke about looking at the Electoral Commission in the North. That is very much part of our considerations.
Senator Warfield expressed disappointment that the website of the Department does not have information on directly elected mayors. I came here from a meeting of the Cabinet at which the matter of directly elected mayors was discussed. The Department gets blamed for many things, by me as well as others, but it cannot put up information that has not been agreed by the Government. I suspect that that information will be put up once the Cabinet minutes are done. Senator Warfield did, however, welcome the establishment of a commission. He urged that it have more resources. He spoke about online registration, CSO data and targeting demographics. He cited an interesting statistic that Ireland is 137th in the world on voter registration. I would like to know under whose measure that is the case. We have problems with voter registration, but 137th seems quite extraordinary.
Senator Ruane spoke at length of her support and the importance of fostering outreach and involvement. She is absolutely correct. We have, by international standards, high enough participation rates in elections but they vary a lot across the country. I see one of the key roles here being to tell people what their local councillors do. The Senator is right to make that point. Sara Moorhead, senior counsel, is conducting a review of the role of councillors and their remuneration. It is the first time anyone has ever looked at what councillors are doing, what we think they should be doing and whether they should have more functions. The education aspect the Senator talks about will be an important part of the commission. She spoke about compulsory voting. It works well, I am told, in Australia. I do not like compulsory anything myself. I like the idea of it but I still think people should have the option. Sometimes people choose not to vote for reasons that are legitimate or valid or whatever word one wants to use, and that is a protest in itself. I am not sure about compulsory voting.
Senators Ruane and Higgins spoke about limitations on postal voting. We have done a little work ourselves in this regard.
There is more to be done on the categories of Irish people who are overseas who are currently entitled to vote. Diplomats are entitled to vote yet if one works for Enterprise Ireland in an embassy overseas, one is not entitled to vote, which is extraordinary. I hope we will be able to do something in the course of the next few months to extend it somewhat. The commission will have a role in that regard into the future.
Senator Paddy Burke spoke about councils and also about bringing the Bill into the Seanad first. I have no problem with that and think it would be the right thing to do. We would have more time to discuss it and have a less politically charged shouting match about what should and should not be in it.
Senator Higgins referred to the debate last December and spoke of the importance of establishing the commission. It might be a gradual process and that is why we are where we are.
I have already spoken about turnout. On the issue of postering in general, there are two very different frames of thought, with some people who think we should ban election posters, most of whom are incumbent politicians. We should at least look at what is done in large parts of the Continent and elsewhere, where there are places where posters should be located and places where they should not. This would also be fair in terms of cost because posters are costly and people with deep pockets can afford more than others. However, it is an inherent injustice to new candidates if they cannot put their face up and let people know who they are and what they are about. Nonetheless, the free-for-all that currently exists is an issue the commission should look at.
On another note of discord, which is the issue of who regulates posters, advertising and billboards, notwithstanding the recent referendum when some fairly horrific posters were erected, I have reservations about anyone deciding what can be put on a political poster other than the people putting it up. My reservations are connected with free speech but, in fact, I believe grotesque posters like that serve to damage the cause for which they are erected, as they did in the last referendum. They might not have done that in the past but I think people are more open nowadays than they have ever been and I do not think they accept things word for word. I have historic posters in the hall of my house. One is the old Cumann na nGaedheal one, "Keep the Red Off Our Flag", from the 1932 election. Another is "The Shadow of the Gunman" poster, which is another Cumann na nGaedheal poster. Those posters probably would not be allowed nowadays but they were in the 1920s and 1930s, when there were many gunmen around. Now, they are historic artefacts of a kind.
People are often the best judge. I would not be comfortable with deciding who would judge the content of what should go on posters, although the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland has some role in ensuring they are not obscene and so on. If people go down that route ultimately, I believe it would be counterproductive to their electoral prospects in any case, but that is a job the commission should have. I look forward to it having that role. When we have the legislation, I will certainly endeavour to make sure it is in the Seanad first.
Thank you. The Minister of State is always welcome in the House.
I want to wish the Minister of State a happy birthday. I believe he enters his fifth decade today and I am sure the Acting Chair will join us in wishing him a very enjoyable day. He was one of our youngest politicians at one time, but no longer, unfortunately.
He will be glad to be eligible to stand for the Presidency. When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Wednesday at 10.30 a.m.