Dáil debates

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Electoral Representation (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage


2:30 pm

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)

Last year the Government moved swiftly and decisively to enact legislation which regulated, for the first time, spending and donations at local elections; all in all, that was a good day's work.

The programme for Government envisages that an independent electoral commission would take responsibility for electoral administration and oversight, implement modern and efficient electoral practices and revise constituency boundaries. The commission would take charge of compiling a new national rolling electoral register, take over the functions of the Standards in Public Office commission with regard to election spending, and examine the issue of financing in the political system. The commission would also be invited to examine and make recommendations for changes to the electoral system for Dáil elections, including the number of Deputies and their means of election. Issues to do with by-elections, such as how they might be triggered - and, indeed, the merits or otherwise of filling casual vacancies by way of by-elections or by alternative means - would be pertinent to such an examination. I will return to the issue of by-elections and electoral theory, as this is critical to the debate.

To assist in the consideration of the issues involved in the establishment of an electoral commission, I commissioned a report by an expert group from UCD, and I published the preliminary study for comment 12 months ago. I must say that the response to the consultation was somewhat disappointing. While the formal closing date for written submissions has passed, I still welcome and will consider any views and observations offered by interested individuals or organisations. I note that the Fine Gael Party did not make a submission to the expert group.

The preliminary study prepared for me by the UCD group gives an overview of the present arrangements for electoral administration in Ireland and an examination of the position in other countries. It suggests options for an electoral commission in Ireland and draws some conclusions.

The key findings of the UCD report are that the proposed electoral commission should be responsible for maintaining the register of political parties; it should also assume responsibility for the electoral register with a view to introducing a rolling, individual register; and the functions currently carried out by the constituency commission for Dáil and European elections should be transferred to the electoral commission. The study notes that current Irish arrangements for the administration of nominations, polling schemes, the polling process and the counting of votes have several distinct advantages. It states that the devolved character of the process is the key to its success and recommends that it should not be tampered with. Even with the establishment of an electoral commission, therefore, we could still be in a situation in which electoral administration would be the responsibility of a number of bodies.

The report recommends that, pending the outcome of a review of the law relating to the regulation of party and election funding, a single body should combine the functions currently performed by the Standards in Public Office commission and the registrar of political parties, and that the final powers and functions of the electoral commission with regard to party and election funding should be determined by the Oireachtas following a review undertaken by the commission and Oireachtas review of its recommendations in that respect.

The report recommends that an electoral commission be given the power to conduct and commission research. The report notes that the electoral commission would be independent in the performance of its functions, but that any such provision should not preclude an appropriate degree of accountability on the part of the electoral commission to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and to the Oireachtas. It recommends that certain specific policy-making functions should be reserved to the Minister; for example, fixing the date of polling, deciding whether to approve a specific form of electronic voting recommended by the commission, or proposing changes to the electoral system. In those specific cases, the role of the commission would be to advise the Minister.

The Government's commitment can be set out in two parts: the reform of electoral administration, and electoral reform. With regard to the former, it is intended that the new electoral commission will take responsibility for electoral administration and oversight and implement modern, efficient practices for the conduct of elections. It would become a standing constituency commission for the revision of constituency boundaries and would decide these boundaries. It would take charge of the compilation of a new national rolling electoral register, administer the voter registration process and run voter education programmes. It would assume the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission with regard to electoral expenditure and would be provided with enhanced powers of inspection.

With regard to electoral reform, it is intended that the new electoral commission will examine the issue of financing of the political system and recommend revised guidelines on the declaration of donations for political purposes. It will advise on mechanisms to increase the participation of women in political life, including the use of additional criteria for public funding which encourage more women and less well represented groups. In addition, it will make recommendations on the feasibility of extending the franchise for presidential elections to the Irish abroad and make recommendations on the possibility of extending the franchise for local elections to those aged 16 or over.

The establishment of an independent electoral commission is not an insignificant move, and new legislation will be required to establish it. For example, amending legislation will be required to transfer to the electoral commission a range of roles and responsibilities including those assigned to the Standards in Public Office Commission in electoral law, the roles and responsibilities of the constituency commission and the roles and responsibilities of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This will require changes to more then 20 primary Acts and to the associated regulations.

The UCD study recommends that an electoral commission should be established through the enactment of an electoral commission Act. This Act would amend and consolidate the law in this area, bringing together the law relating to referenda and elections to local authorities, Údarás na Gaeltachta, the European Parliament, Dáil Éireann, Seanad Éireann and the Office of the President of Ireland. This would be a major task and it is part of our considerations. However, while putting in place the necessary groundwork for the electoral administration remit of the electoral commission will take time, I do not want to see the electoral reform agenda delayed unnecessarily. For this reason I am now giving consideration to establishing an electoral commission on a non-statutory basis to report on the electoral reform agenda set out in the renewed programme for Government.


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