Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 10 March 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Electoral Commission: Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government
I thank the members of the committee for inviting me to discuss this extremely important topic. This is the beginning of a very important process. We have given ourselves a significant and important task, to set up an electoral commission in Ireland.
I will be brief in my opening remarks because I would be better off hearing from the members of the committee and starting the process of engagement. That would create more value from the time we have.
On 27 January last, I stood with the Chairman of this committee on the steps of Leinster House to announce the publication of the consultation paper on the establishment of an electoral commission in Ireland. I said then, and have repeated many times since this is an issue of the highest priority. I feel passionately about it because the establishment of such a commission is long overdue. I am here to listen to the views of committee members as parliamentarians and as practitioners with expertise in how the current system works. To be frank and to be fair, there is not necessarily a right and wrong answer to many of the issues here. It is about fermenting the collective view of all of us about how we should proceed, what we should proceed with and exactly what we are defining. We have to leave our political affiliations outside the door on this issue. This is about democracy and about elections, which are the ultimate tool of democracy. It makes sense to work together to bring about the reforms we all desire and need. There is a good and practical reason for the approach we are talking about today.
A key lesson from international experience is that significant changes in electoral governance ideally need to command broad political and public support. Quite frankly, there would be no point in the Government driving home an electoral commission. It would be a waste of time. Broad political and public support is needed from across the body politic. The people have to come with us. We have to see measured improvements in what we are doing. That is why everyone has to be involved in this. For those reasons, consultation is not just desirable - it is absolutely necessary. There is a fermenting process here. Over a good period of time, we will constantly return to issues and re-evaluate positions. We will need to do that. The role of this committee is absolutely central to this process. That is why we have gone down this route. It is important that we build and maintain momentum in developing and implementing the necessary legislation. Therefore, I welcome the priority the committee has given to this consultation paper.
I was in the Seanad last week to debate a Private Members' motion on the establishment of an electoral commission. I found our good exchange of ideas and views most helpful. Some of the Members of the Seanad who were present for that debate are here now. I hope they will get a chance today to elaborate further on their views. I hope those who did not get a chance to speak last week will get a chance to do so today. It is important to hear from all members of the committee if time allows. The consultation paper sets out 11 questions. As the members of the committee have seen them, I do not need to read them out again. I will summarise the significant issues that members are being asked to examine. First, they will need to consider what functions should be assigned to an electoral commission. Some or all of the responsibilities assigned to various bodies and office holders in the current system could be assigned to the planned new structure. We need to learn from the good models that are in operation elsewhere and are examined in the consultation paper.
The paper also reviews earlier proposals from Oireachtas committees, political parties, research reports and a myriad of other sources. There is a wide range of opinion on what exactly such a body should do and how it should work. It is clear that improving the electoral register is an important driving force underpinning the desire to establish an electoral commission in Ireland. I am sure colleagues will want to discuss this. The register of electors is probably the single topic that is most frequently debated and is most prominent in all the reports and recommendations we have. Most proposals see some form of centralised system of registration being managed by the new electoral commission. For example, it could assume responsibilities from the local authorities. One option envisages the new commission overseeing the work of local authorities, which could continue to have a role.
Most of the proposals made by other bodies to date involve the transfer of the operational responsibilities of my Department in respect of elections to the electoral commission. I would like the committee's views on that. I am fairly open to this. The role that is likely to be played by the current Dáil returning officers in a new configuration has been considered to a lesser extent. What do we need to do there? What role will there be?
We need to consider whether the electoral commission will take on the responsibilities currently performed by the Standards in Public Office Commission under the electoral Acts. The review of electoral boundaries and the role currently performed by the Constituency Commission are also identified as potential responsibilities. We need to do a great deal of deep thinking on this issue as the analysis shows that changes in population are going to cause issues continuously. It may be time we looked at this in a different way. Voter education appears commonly and prominently as a possible role. Another issue is whether the electoral commission would have an advisory role in respect of the Minister. I am open on this one, although I am not sure about it. The role would need to be defined, but is there a role at all? That is something we will have to debate. It is not self-evident what functions should be assigned to an electoral commission or how it should work. These are questions that we will have to answer.
Another issue is the cost of an electoral commission. A key reason for the creation of new public bodies lies in the scope to improve cost-effectiveness and efficiency in the use of public money. The costs associated with different aspects of the current system are set out in section 3 of the consultation paper. I ask members to examine them in their deliberations and consider them when they come to make recommendations. It cannot simply be assumed that economies will be achieved in setting up a new body. This is an important point. It cannot be assumed that just because we set up an electoral commission savings will be generated. We do not need to look 1 million miles back into history to know this. It is possible that net savings may not be achieved, especially if new and additional work is to be assigned to the electoral commission. Given the scale of expenditure in administering the electoral system and the cost of setting up a new body, financial considerations must be part of the debate. However, they are not the only part of it, but where do we draw the line? Is it about efficiency, democracy, or economies of scale? Of course, it is about democracy, but at what point do we say financial considerations and a more costly structure must be taken into account?
The next issue is the membership of an electoral commission. As the consultation paper shows, electoral management bodies internationally vary in their numbers of members. It has been observed, however, that those with large memberships are usually less effective. Different options are considered in the consultation paper. We could have a membership comprising various independent office holders or nominees, as we have currently with the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Constituency Commission. We could use a different model. A key issue is whether the commission should include members from a political background such as former Members of the Houses. There are very different opinions on this issue and they are set out in the consultation paper. I would really like to get the views of committee members on this point, on which I have a mixed view. I can see why one would use former politicians and practitioners, but I can also see why people might not want them on the commission. Whoever the members of the commission are, we need to ensure they will be selected or appointed in a manner that will seek to guarantee their independence as absolute.
Accountability, performance and audit are key and need to be achieved in a manner that is consistent with the independence of the electoral commission. The experience in other countries points to both the desirability and necessity of having accountability mechanisms linked with democratic institutions. These include, for example, formal reporting arrangements to a designated parliamentary committee; the identification of a specific Minister as a liaison with the electoral commission; independent audit arrangements, and the publication of documents against which performance can be assessed, including a statement of strategy, budget plan and an annual report. Do we want to replicate similar arrangements here or do we want to do something different?
I made it clear when launching the consultation paper that the task involved a significant job of work. From a timescale point of view, we need to do it as efficiently as possible, as well as doing it right. That is paramount. The establishment of an electoral commission will not take place before the next general election. It will take a number of years to establish it. The development of legislation is a necessary first step which we are now taking. Before the end of this Dáil, I intend to have the legislation in place. That is what I want to commit to. When the committee reverts with its views, I will proceed with the preparation of the heads of an electoral commission Bill and will not be found wanting in driving this work forward. I would like to discuss timescales with the Chairman here or off-site at some point.
I will be guided by the members regarding the timescale for reverting to me.
The lessons from other countries are worth heeding. Significant change takes time and requires planning. It took almost four years to amalgamate the current functions of the New Zealand Electoral Commission into one body. This was done on a phased basis between 2008 and 2012. The transfer of the electoral register was handled as a specific phase. Establishing the National Register of Electors in Canada took almost four years from commencement in 1993 to full implementation in 1997. It took a further three years after implementation for the changes to bed down, and there were teething problems.
In 2008, the preliminary study on the establishment of an electoral commission, prepared by the Geary Institute in UCD on behalf of my Department, considered the phasing of the task. It envisaged a two-stage process. The principle of adopting a phased approach in establishing our electoral commission is consistent with practice that has worked elsewhere. Do we need to do it here? Is our system less complicated, more complicated or suited to phasing? We need to make decisions on which functions are to be prioritised for inclusion within the electoral commission structure from the outset.
Having regard to the complexities involved in changing the system of voter registration, there may be a case for addressing this as a stand-alone project. It is a question of determining whether the system of voter registration requires a separate body of work. We will have to consider whether we need a three-phase approach rather than a two-phase approach.
There are many issues for the committee to consider and many choices to make. This is an open process. I must state quite clearly to all members present that it is a very open process for me. It is not about a Government approach but about one that encompasses all views across the political sphere and, eventually, the public sphere to ensure we can put in place a process for an electoral commission is a sustainable way, setting out clear functions from the beginning.
I look forward to questions and the two-way conversation we are to have. At some point, either today or at another time with the Vice Chairman and the Chairman, we will talk about the timeline for the committee to revert to us with its deliberations.