Dáil debates

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Electoral Representation (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage


2:30 pm

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)

I am glad to support the Bill and I congratulate Deputy Hogan on bringing it before the House.

Article 16.7 of the Constitution puts forward the proposition that casual vacancies of Dáil seats will be filled and this shall be regulated in accordance with law. We want to bring forward a law to ensure such vacancies are filled within six months. It is anticipated in the Constitution that they would be filled and by-elections would take place. The Government or any other government cannot put off by-elections indefinitely. If the legislation is accepted, it will ensure in future that governments of any hue will be obliged to hold by-elections within six months.

Article 28.4.1 of the Constitution states, "The Government shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann". I remind Ministers of this. I examined the role of the executive and the role of parliament throughout Europe and I found that Ireland and one or two other countries have the weakest parliaments in Europe. The Government controls the Dáil almost completely. The Executive decides what is debated, when it is debated and how it is debated. It can guillotine legislation and it sets the agenda, except in regard to Private Members' Business, although it even has the power to regulate that or take it back if it wishes. This is not the case in many other European parliaments and it is a dangerous scenario. This is highlighted by the fact the Government can decide whether by-elections are held. Setting the agenda in a parliament is important. For example, the parliament determines the agenda in the Netherlands while in Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, the president of the parliament, following consultation with party groups, decides the agenda and that cannot be challenged but in Ireland and the UK the government decides the agenda.

With regard to the legislative process throughout Europe, there is either a great deal of government control or little government control. This is interesting because in Ireland, Spain and the UK, a plenary session of parliament decides on principles before committee debate and this leaves little room for substantial change. In other words, the government brings legislation before the parliament and there is little room for debate afterwards. That is not the case, for instance, in other countries such as Austria, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland where committee debates are held before a plenary session presents a final solution. In our Parliament, the Government has huge control and that is not right. We need to redress the balance regarding powers of the Executive and the Parliament.

It has been proposed that the three by-elections, the Dublin mayoral election and the children's rights referendum be held on the same day in the autumn and I agree that should be the case. Some people say that will be a distraction but it would be the opposite because it would focus minds. We have a discerning and sophisticated electorate. Let us give the electorate the opportunity to have their say. Democracy is about rule by the people. When I go into classrooms to talk to students the first comment I make is, "You are our bosses", and we must never forget that. I am concerned that Fianna Fáil has forgotten that the people rule supreme in this State and by denying them their say it is acting like a pseudo-dictatorship, which is serious.

I ask the Government parties to take this legislation on board and in their almost all-powerful position in this Parliament to go along with this for the sake of democracy, which is a fragile flower in any country. It is only right that the people should have their say. If the Government parties believe their policies are right, just and fair, they should not be afraid to put them to the people in the by-elections. That is what democracy is about and the people can decide whether they agree with them. If the Government parties win any of the by-elections, they will have a mandate for their policies. Ultimately, this is what it is about.

Sooner or later the Government will have to face the people. My challenge to the Government is to do it sooner rather than later. Let us do it this year, in the autumn, before the weather gets too bad to enable people to canvass and so on and especially if we are to have the all-important children's referendum, which should be held at the same time.

I have been talking about Dáil reform here for quite some time, including reform of the procedures of the House. That is another angle to this. The Government has been talking about this since I came here, 13 years ago, but nothing has happened. Even the Taoiseach throws his hands in the air quite often and says the Dáil's procedures should be changed. It is in his hands to work with us to change the procedures in here, to make the House work better and make it more efficient and effective for the people we all serve. We are the servants of the people, not their masters, and Fianna Fáil would be very wise to remember that.


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