Dáil debates

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Electoral Representation (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage


2:30 pm

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

With the permission of the House, I will share my time with Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan, David Stanton and Jim O'Keeffe.

The purpose of this Bill is to ensure that the citizens of the Republic of Ireland are fully represented in Dáil Éireann. The Bill will prevent any Government from blocking the filling of vacant Dáil Éireann seats as a tactic to protect its own narrow majority. The people in every constituency in the Republic of Ireland have a right to full democratic representation in their national parliament. That is what Deputies are elected to do at general elections. It is incumbent upon us, on all sides of the House, to look to the future rather than seek precedents in the past. We must take this situation out of the realms of party political consideration and move to give the people in any constituency an opportunity to be fully represented within a defined period of time. Fine Gael proposes that period should be six months.

Preventing full democratic representation damages the reputation and integrity of Irish political institutions. This is a wrong that could be put right by the acceptance of this legislation. The Bill will ensure the relevant writ will be moved by the Clerk of the Dáil, on instruction from the Ceann Comhairle, in any by-election where the vacancy has existed for six months.

There is a more important reason to have an electoral mandate in those constituencies. The Government, which is made up of Fianna Fáil, Greens, Independents who were Progressive Democrats in their former glory and those who were elected as Independents, has no popular mandate from the people of Ireland. This grouping of parties and Independents was never put to the Irish people. It was cobbled together in the aftermath of the 2007 general election by a Taoiseach who is now recognised as having brought this country to its knees, Deputy Bertie Ahern. Those who caused the economic collapse of the country are not those who will get us out of it. There is no mandate for the Taoiseach, who predicted that we would have a soft landing and that the temporary economic dip would be short-lived. The response to the banking crisis, in particular, has the potential to cause lasting economic damage for generations. The banking bail-out scandal will end up costing the State €73 billion and includes bailing out zombie banks such as Anglo Irish Bank. These banks will most likely never recover and the taxpayer will never see its money again.

Our national debt is spiralling out of control, leaving a huge burden for future generations and leaving the country vulnerable to international speculators, but massive Government tax increases and cuts in investment in recent budgets are not the solution. At more than 14% of GDP, Government borrowing will be the highest in Europe this year, partly because of the huge bail-out for Anglo Irish Bank, and the national debt is likely to break through €100 billion by the end of this year. This is almost a four-fold increase since 2007 and does not even include the additional €43 billion bail-out by NAMA for the banking system. Unless we fix the public finances, within a decade Ireland will end up spending twice as much on debt servicing as on education.

By adopting policies that are destroying jobs, this Government is chasing its tail. The 16% increase in taxes in 2009 made Ireland a less attractive place to work, to invest and to do business. That is why tax receipts fell by €10 billion and are expected to fall again this year. The €4 billion in cuts announced in December will be offset by higher debt servicing costs and welfare payments to the unemployed.

We cannot go back to the well this year to look for more tax increases or cuts in the capital programme, social welfare rates and public sector pay. This will not help the disposable income required to contribute to national recovery. Before the last budget, Fine Gael put forward constructive suggestions for the creation of employment. We are the first Opposition party to put forward €4 billion of choices we would have made, unlike what Fianna Fáil did when it was in Opposition during a time of national crisis in 1982-87. I am sure the Minister will acknowledge this. Old style politics changed some time ago. We recognise that but, unfortunately Fianna Fáil did not do so when a similar situation arose in the 1980s and since.

Eighteen months into the credit crunch, the Government's policy of "writing whatever cheques are necessary" to bail out delinquent banks like Anglo Irish Bank is not fair, not prudent and not working. It is making the recession here deeper and longer than in other countries. Because of the Government's mismanagement, the Irish crisis has been longer and more expensive than in almost any other country. The bail-outs announced to date will double the national debt and are equivalent to adding €50,000 to every family's mortgage. The credit crunch continues here, long after it has ended elsewhere. The Minister knows that lending to small businesses decreased from €33.6 billion in February 2009 to €32.7 billion in September 2009, or by 2.6%, according to the Mazars report of December 2009. A recent UCC study estimated that 60% of small businesses have been refused credit by the banks. This flies in the face of what the Minister for Finance has been continually telling us, that the reason for the bank bail-out and for the National Asset Management Agency is to get credit flowing again and to make sure businesses got the necessary financial resources to keep people in employment and to create new opportunities. That is not happening. The repeated claims by Government that these taxpayer bail outs are necessary to finance new lending to Irish businesses are false. Seventy-five percent of the money the Government is proposing be used to recapitalise our banks is now going to Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building society, dead banks that will not get one cent of new credit flowing or finance a single new job.

AIB and Bank of Ireland have faced down the Government and have been given until the end of the year to raise new capital. Bank of Ireland is making progress but AIB has made no progress. In the meantime, these banks will be hoarding their capital and squeezing their customers to try to protect their independence while the uncertainty regarding the ultimate taxpayer commitment to these banks will go on. The truth is that an incompetent and complicit Government has been strong-armed by the banks into bailing them out at massive long-term risk to the taxpayer, without any benefit in terms of supporting Irish businesses and households and without any mandate from the people.

Through all of this we have not heard one word from the Government about job protection or creation, except for the odd scheme here and there that, as we discovered in recent days, are not working or, in some cases, have not even been implemented. Bailing out our reckless banks is the only priority. A book-keeping exercise to keep the EU Commission happy is the Government's priority. It seems bailing out the 440,000 people unemployed in our country is much less urgent.

These are the issues which should be put to the people in a national election. However, we are long enough in politics to know we are unlikely to get a national election in the near future. The Government of Fianna Fáil, the Greens and Independents will cling on as long as it can to ensure it will not have to face the wrath of the electorate.

The Government does not have the necessary mandate to take the type of decisions and to make the choices that are essential to give us hope for the future and to tackle the underlying problems. The public want the opportunity to make that judgment. In a recent poll in The Irish Times, 80% of people indicated that they wanted to see an election and the by-election seats filled.

If the Government does not want to give the people a national election, it should at least ensure full democratic participation and representation in each of the 43 constituencies in which the people voted in 2007. The constituents of Donegal South West, Waterford, and Dublin South, where there are vacancies, are entitled to have their seats filled at the earliest possible opportunity. By-elections in those constituencies would give the Government an opportunity to put its policies to those electorates, see what their verdict will be on its economic policy and prove that it has a mandate to carry on. If the Government is confident that it is moving in the right direction and making the right decisions to deal with the country's economic and social difficulties, it should have no difficulty in asking the electorates of the constituencies where vacancies exist to cast their judgment on those policies.

I ask the Green Party to back up its recent public musings on by-elections. It will have an opportunity tomorrow night to vote for a Bill that will reform our political and electoral system. There was much in the party's manifesto prior to the last election, in the subsequent review of the programme for Government and in various national conference speeches by the leader of the party, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to the effect that he would force Fianna Fáil to introduce unprecedented electoral and political reforms. These include banning corporate donations, changing the system of local and national government, changing the way in which we raise money locally for local government and giving autonomy to local councillors to implement those changes. Although the Government has been in office for three years, we have still not seen the promised White Paper on local government reform. In the same period, we have not seen any ban on corporate donations, except another promise to ban them in the revised programme for Government. Three years into the Government's term in office, we have not seen any electoral commission established or any electoral reform proposed by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. He talks the talk but does not walk the walk. Either he is not able to get his policies through the Cabinet or Fianna Fáil is deliberately blocking their implementation. When he gets an opportunity, he should state which is the case. As somebody who has talked a lot about electoral reform, he has delivered very little.

There is a vacancy in Donegal South-West since 5 June 2009, 11 months and 21 days ago. There has been a vacancy in Dublin South since February and in Waterford since March. Although these vacancies exist, we should look to the future by establishing in the legislation a finite period in which by-elections must be held. Six months is reasonable but if the Government proposes another period we will be certainly glad to hear it. However, we are hearing nothing from the Minister on this issue. Perhaps during the course of this debate, he will give us not just his musings on the matter but also his thoughts, hard won through the Cabinet.

The Minister mentioned a mayoral election recently and actually wants a Super-Tuesday-type election in the autumn. According to this model, the mayoral election to be held in Dublin, the by-elections, and even the referendum will have to be held on the same day to ensure cost-effectiveness and efficiency. Consistent with this view, I take it the Minister has no principled opposition to what we propose on this side of the House tonight. The by-elections will inevitably reduce the Government's slim majority but it will still have a majority of three. A Government with a majority of one soldiered on from 1973 to 1977 and was very successful. There was low inflation. Even the leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, Mr. Jack Lynch, acknowledged it was a very successful Government, obviously when the next election was over. He proceeded to wreck the country with the 1977 manifesto, which he implemented.

The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, stated recently on RTE that he would prefer all elections to be held in the autumn of 2010. Perhaps he will support this Bill in the House.

The most important Green Party musing is that of Senator Dan Boyle, chairman of the party. He stated on radio the by-elections should not be held as they would undermine the Government's mandate. The Government has no mandate, nor does the Senator. He was rejected by the people of Cork and got in through the back door as one of the Taoiseach's 11 nominees under the list system that we have called Seanad Éireann. He is now deciding what Government policy should be on behalf of his party. What does he mean by saying the by-elections would undermine the Government's mandate? The people of the constituencies in question are entitled to full representation. Neither Senator Boyle nor anyone in the Green Party should be in a position to prevent the people of Dublin South, Waterford and Donegal South-West from having full representation in the House.

The Dáil arithmetic may be difficult for the Government but it will still have a majority if the by-elections are held. The fundamental principle of what we are trying to enshrine in this Bill, and in respect of which we are seeking support in the House, is that there should be a finite period in which any casual vacancy that arises in a constituency must be filled. I ask the House to support this measure as a modest electoral reform.


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