Thursday, 12 March 2009
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2009: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 3, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
"(b) in subsection (1)(b) by inserting the following after subparagraph (ix)—
"(x) expenditure incurred in preparing or publishing material on the internet, where the material was published prior to the period during which election expenses are to be calculated under this Act.".".
The purpose of this amendment is to deal with what might be termed either an anomaly or an oversight in the Bill. I am of the view that expenditure relating to material published on the Internet would have to be either included or excluded during election periods. A situation might arise where the costs relating to an entire website might be inappropriately included in a candidate's election spending. As the Minister is aware, many websites of this nature have been in operation for years and contain massive archives of material, which would relate to matters far more wide-ranging in scope than elections. I ask him to consider accepting the amendment in order that candidates would not be obliged to pay huge sums of money which might prevent them from seeking election.
I thank the Deputy for tabling this amendment. As he stated, it relates to material published on the Internet and would effectively exempt any material published on the Internet prior to the coming into effect of the spending limit period from being counted as election expenditure. I appreciate the intention behind the amendment, but I do not propose to accept it.
It might be of assistance if I was to clarify what are considered election expenses for the purposes of making a spending declaration at a local election. Section 6(1) of the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 defines election expenses as meaning "all expenditure for electoral purposes incurred on the provision of property, goods or services for use at an election". This definition relates to expenditure incurred during the spending period. Under the revised provisions being introduced in section 4, the election period will be set by ministerial order. This period will commence between 50 and 60 days prior to polling day and end on that day.
The Deputy has tabled further amendments on this matter in respect of newspaper advertising. The 1999 Act lists election expenses as those expenses relating to advertising — whatever medium used — publicity, election posters, other election material, office and stationery, transport and travel, market research and campaign workers. Use of the Internet as an advertising medium would currently come within the definition of what are considered election expenses. In its guidance to candidates before the 2007 general election, for example, the Standards in Public Office Commission listed website design as a typical expense reported in returns by candidates under the heading of advertising. Other office related costs associated with the use of the Internet in election campaigning would also count as an expense. These might include, for example, the purchase or rental of office equipment or telephone costs. These are mentioned again the Schedule of the 1999 Act.
If I understand the Deputy correctly, the objective of the amendment is to ensure that material which has long been available on the Internet in advance of the election and continues to be available during the election spending period is not automatically counted as election spending. Obviously, there is some merit in that view but the amendment might allow too much of an exemption. There are some very sophisticated websites putting out archive material and material that, perhaps, has been distributed throughout the constituency. That undoubtedly must count as advertising. It is often difficult to calculate the monetary value of that. I have discussed this with my officials. It is fair to point out that if the website has been constructed and designed before the spending period, that is a normal cost that has been incurred before that period.
What we are discussing here specifically is, for example, a candidate who has significantly revamped his or her website as an election campaign tool in the days before the spending limit period commences and has tried to avoid having that included in his or her spending declaration. That person could publish a wide range of electoral materials for use in active campaigning over the election period and avoid having to declare the expenditure. A similar point could be made about uploaded material for broadcast on the website. The effect of the amendment also would be to create a significant difference in the definition of election expenses for local elections as compared to election expenses for Dáil and other elections. There are difficulties with this and, therefore, I cannot accept the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his extensive explanation and I thank his officials for taking the time to examine this matter. I realise that a website can be put in place specifically for the election period alone, which could be costed entirely as election expenditure. However, where there are previous press releases or even the loading of current press releases during the duration of a campaign, this creates certain anomalies. I would be happy to withdraw the amendment if the Minister and his staff were prepared to give this matter further consideration when the Bill is brought to the Seanad. Nobody in the House wants a situation where an oversight or something that happens during the election campaign creates a cost that was not intended in the first place.
I am happy to accommodate the Deputy in that regard. However, perhaps we should address this issue through guidelines on the implementation and interpretation of the legislation. It is clear that many candidates will want to know exactly what they can and cannot do. My Department will work on those guidelines and ensure there is clarity in that regard as far as candidates are concerned.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, between lines 6 and 7, to insert the following:
(c) by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (11):
"(12) Where a political party incurs expenses and payments under this section as amended by the Electoral (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2009 on a local election to which that Act applies and in particular to which Part IIIA of this Act as inserted by that Act applies, then for the year in which such local election is held and in each year until the following such election, that political party may not accept any donation exceeding €4,000 per year from any one donor and shall declare any donation exceeding €2,500 per year from any one donor.".".
This is a significant amendment. While amendment No. 1 was ruled out of order and questionably ruled outside the scope of the Bill, this amendment is certainly within its scope. The motivation for the amendment came from the Taoiseach's address at his party's recent Ard-Fheis. He spoke about reducing the amounts and disclosure limits for political parties. He said the Government, and I assume he was referring to all parties in the Government, wishes to go further as part of the ongoing reform programme which the Government is undertaking in this area. He said the Government would be proposing a major reduction in both the levels at which donations to national political parties must be disclosed and in the maximum allowable donations. Specifically, he said it would propose the halving of the declaration limit from just over €5,000 per year to €2,500 and the maximum allowable donation would fall from roughly €6,500 per year to €4,000 per year.
The amendment tabled by me and Deputy Tuffy carries out the intention of the Taoiseach's statement that evening. To assist the Minister and to keep the amendment in order, we drafted it to limit it to donations to parties that contest local elections, but that would cover the substance of the Taoiseach's commitment. If the Minister wishes to broaden its coverage to all parties, an instruction to the Dáil in committee could be passed to allow this. However, that is the Minister's prerogative; it is not in the gift of the Opposition.
This suggestion has been made by the Taoiseach and the Labour Party agrees with it. The Taoiseach, when he spoke, gave the impression that he was speaking on behalf of the Government on this matter. The Bill is before the House today and I do not see any other mechanism by which the Taoiseach's intentions can be turned into legislation. The Labour Party has facilitated the Taoiseach and the Government with this amendment and I seek the support of all parties for it.
The Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 fixes a limit of €6,349 as the maximum donation that may be accepted by a political party in any given year from any one source. The Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides that political parties must disclose donations of more than €5,079 in any given year. The Labour Party amendment is intended to reduce these amounts to €4,000 as the maximum permissible donation in the context of local elections and €2,500 in respect of disclosure.
As the Deputy pointed out, the Taoiseach made comments on this matter at his party's Ard-Fheis. He also will be aware that I made specific commitments at my party's Ard-Fheis. Both of us are speaking for the Government. It is absolutely necessary to overhaul the legislation and to provide legal clarity on these matters. This Bill emanated from a commitment in the programme for Government. It was not a very clear commitment but we said that the Green Paper would examine these matters. Some doubt was cast on my commitment to delivering the legislation before the House today but we are now delivering it. The Deputy said he would welcome this legislation——
——and we have delivered it. What I promised last weekend will be also delivered. It will be radical legislation. What we are discussing today is legislation that stems from legislation produced by the Deputy's party when it was in Government. We are now going further than that and we will go further again. That will be separate legislation because we are examining not only the amounts that can be given to parties but also what can be spent between elections and the source of those donations. Should we be taking money from the big corporations? The answer is "No". I said that at the weekend. I want to deal with the issue in a very clear way. Therefore, I want the legislation we are discussing today to be a stand-alone Bill.
There are some technical difficulties I should point out to the Deputy regarding the text of his amendment. As I see it, it is proposed to insert the new provision relating to donations in the part of the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 that deals with expenses and payments at elections and not in the part that deals with donations. There are some difficulties in that regard but more fundamentally the proposal is made without reference to the existing provisions of both the 1999 Act and the Electoral Act 1997, which deal with limits on donations to and disclosures by political parties. Deputy Lynch need not have any fear in regard to this matter. It will be delivered upon in separate legislation which will be radical.
The Minister seems to be bringing us all around the House on this matter. He is going from 2009 to 1999 and 1997. We are well aware that when Deputy Howlin was the Minister in 1997 substantial changes were made, which were subsequently diluted and diminished by his successor, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, when a whole range of provisions that would have facilitated electoral control were undermined at that time. The excuse of the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, was that it was a cumbersome, bureaucratic exercise and we should not approach it. I welcome the ground the Minister has made up on the issue since he came to office approximately two years ago, but the issue has been before the House for a long time. The Minister spoke about it before he arrived in Cabinet.
I do not accept what the Minister said about legal clarities and technical difficulties. Two things in particular arise in regard to the issue. The amendment is not outside the scope of the Act and while the Minister accepts it is a good idea, he is saying "not just yet". I will be pressing the amendment.
I again offer my assurances to the Deputy that this legislation deals with specific matters relating to local elections. We had to get the Bill to the House as quickly as possible because we have to comply with the 60-day rule, which is part of the legislation. I want to come forward with more comprehensive legislation, which will overhaul the system and deal with the issues I spoke about at my Ard-Fheis at the weekend. It will be radical legislation and it will do exactly what I have set out. He need not have any fear about that. Obviously, if he wishes to press the amendment that is fine, but he should not interpret the vote on it as in any way not accepting the principle behind the amendment because there is no question about it — we will do what the Taoiseach said initially and what I have said subsequently.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 20 (Tommy Broughan, Joan Burton, Joe Costello, Martin Ferris, Eamon Gilmore, Michael D Higgins, Brendan Howlin, Ciarán Lynch, Kathleen Lynch, Finian McGrath, Liz McManus, Arthur Morgan, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Brian O'Shea, Jan O'Sullivan, Seán Sherlock, Emmet Stagg, Joanna Tuffy, Mary Upton)
Against the motion: 64 (Dermot Ahern, Michael Ahern, Chris Andrews, Seán Ardagh, Bobby Aylward, Niall Blaney, Áine Brady, Cyprian Brady, Johnny Brady, John Browne, Thomas Byrne, Dara Calleary, Pat Carey, Niall Collins, Margaret Conlon, Seán Connick, Mary Coughlan, John Cregan, Ciarán Cuffe, Timmy Dooley, Michael Finneran, Michael Fitzpatrick, Beverley Flynn, Pat Gallagher, Paul Gogarty, John Gormley, Noel Grealish, Mary Hanafin, Mary Harney, Seán Haughey, Jackie Healy-Rae, Máire Hoctor, Billy Kelleher, Peter Kelly, Brendan Kenneally, Michael Kennedy, Séamus Kirk, Michael Kitt, Tom Kitt, Brian Lenihan Jnr, Conor Lenihan, Tom McEllistrim, Mattie McGrath, Micheál Martin, John Moloney, Michael Moynihan, Michael Mulcahy, M J Nolan, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Darragh O'Brien, Charlie O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Noel O'Flynn, Rory O'Hanlon, Mary O'Rourke, Christy O'Sullivan, Peter Power, Seán Power, Trevor Sargent, Eamon Scanlon, Brendan Smith, Mary Wallace, Mary White, Michael Woods)
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Seán Sherlock; Níl, Deputies Pat Carey and John Cregan.
Amendment declared lost.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 5, line 4, to delete "shall incur" and substitute "may apply to their election expenses".
We have put forward this amendment in order to ensure consistency with other sections of the Bill. We suggest a change in the wording to "may apply" rather than "shall incur". I am interested in hearing what the Minister has to say on this.
I thank Deputy Flanagan and his colleagues, Deputies Hogan and Bannon, for bringing forward this amendment. It may be beneficial for me to outline in greater detail the intention behind the provision contained in section 4, which deals with the allocation of a portion of the candidate's spending limit for the use of the national agent or political party.
As is the case with Dáil and other election codes, the spending limits for local elections will apply to individual candidates in the first instance. However, unlike the spending limits that operate for other electoral codes, candidates nominated by a political party will be deemed to automatically allocate 10% of their spending limits for use by the party's national agent at a national level. For example, a party candidate with a limit of €7,500 would be deemed to automatically allocate €750 for use by his or her party. There is provision, however, to allow this figure to be varied upwards or downwards by written agreement between a candidate and the national agent of his or her political party. The maximum the national agent of the party can spend will be the sum of the amounts allocated by the individual candidates. This can be spent nationally or within an electoral area. The national agent can also authorise a designated person locally to incur a portion of the expenditure that has been allocated to him or her.
Under the current arrangements for Dáil elections, when candidates allocate a portion of their limit for use by the national agent of their party, this must be done in writing. Given the number of candidates involved in the local elections, this approach would create significant administrative difficulties. It would be unwieldy to the point of being inoperable. A position will, therefore, apply whereby 10% of the candidate's limit will be deemed to be allocated for use by the national agent. This will allow sufficient latitude for political parties to fund their election campaigns at local elections. There is also the option to vary the amount but this would have to be done in writing. It is envisaged that the written agreements would follow a similar form to those used for general elections when a candidate or his or her agent can apportion part of the spending limit to the national agent of his or her party.
The wording of the Bill, as it stands, achieves the objectives I have set out and has been approved by the Parliamentary Counsel. I do not propose to accept the amendment.
I listened with interest to the Minister's response. I believed I understood what he was saying but I am sorry to say I became increasingly confused. Perhaps he will clarify his comments further. I understand from the section that it is assumed in respect of local elections that 10% of the spend of an individual candidate will be spent by one's political party. However, as the section seems to state in the alternative, if one's political party is not to be taken as spending 10% on one, there could be a written agreement whereby it would spend nothing on one, or more than 10%. This is what I understood the Minister to have said initially but, as he continued, I gathered that, irrespective of whether the party spends 10% on one, it is to be taken as having done such. I am somewhat confused about what the Minister is saying.
I want to broaden the discussion on this provision and its interaction with the section. I have a major concern about this legislation, particularly about this section and what the Minister is doing in respect thereof. My concern is that it has become politically correct to take the view that it is invidious for people to spend money at election time on putting across their or their party's policies to the electorate, and that expenditure in this regard should be curtailed substantially. It is politically correct to be of the view that it should be curtailed as much as possible.
This Bill is presented as a reforming measure. I fully accept the need, as outlined in the Bill, for transparency with regard to donations and I do not want to be misunderstood on that point. I have a very simple personal political view, which reflects the view of Fine Gael, that there should be transparency with regard to donations. I would not mind if this applied to every €5 received as a donation but this would become ridiculous and the bureaucracy and administration involved would make it untenable. I presume the figures that are fixed in this context tend to allow people to privately contribute small sums to political parties or individuals and seek to ensure that, where one tries to contribute a larger sum, transparency will apply and that no one can contribute more than a particular sum.
My concern is not about the freedom people should have to contribute to political parties. It is absolutely reasonable that there be a limit on how much businesses or individuals can contribute. However, too many politicians across the board in this House and the Government are falling into the trap of confusing the maximum any individual should be allowed to contribute by way of a political donation with the maximum that could or should be spent on an individual candidate. This section addresses this issue and lays down maximums. The amendment concerns a fraction of the maximum spend that is to be attributed to the local party.
Why is this a problem? It is because we live in what purports to be a parliamentary democracy. We have a constitutional provision that allows people the rights of freedom of expression and freedom to associate. The very essence of elections is that individuals have the capacity to communicate directly with the electorate, unfiltered by the media, to put across their policies and personal positions, thereby allowing themselves to be identified as candidates in the eyes of the electorate. Thus, the electorate can understand the individuals' associations with their political parties and, if the candidates are independent, the electorate can be made aware of this. Ultimately, it is a question of the electorate getting to know about the person it might vote for and the policies he or she supports. That is the very essence of a constitutional democracy, regardless of whether one is an independent candidate in a local election or a general election or whether one is a member of a large party or, as is the case with the Minister, a small party.
We are doing damage to our parliamentary democracy for the sake of political correctness. It is a form of political correctness that is, to some extent, being supported by certain journalists within the media who never stand for election and who have an opinion on everything but are not accountable for anything.
The limits and the legislative measures prescribed in this section uniquely serve the parties in Government on the occasion of an election, and particularly serve the parties in Government during local elections. It is blindingly obvious why I am saying this. It is a question of limiting the spend of an individual candidate on trying to get his message across when standing for democratic election. What will happen during the course of the forthcoming local elections? Will the Government stop issuing press releases? Will the myriad of consultants, advisers and personal attendants associated with the offices of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and all the other Ministers stop issuing press statements and documents about Government policy? Will they be limited on their spend? Will the public relations spin doctors, on whom the Government, including the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has spent millions, take a vow of silence in the 60-day or 90-day period before the local elections? Will they stop spinning the benefit of so-called Government policy initiatives? Will they stop giving Ministers advice on how to get across to the public——
I will come back to this. My point is directly relevant to the amendment. Will Ministers stop using taxpayers' money to pay public relations consultancies to help them spin their message to the specific advantage of local election candidates running for those Ministers' parties? Of course they will not.
In the context of this section, what percentage of the spend incurred by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in the two-month or three-month lead-in to the local elections, when he is trying to persuade people of the great merit of the policies he is implementing, will be attached to the spend of every Green Party candidate in the local elections to delimit the personal expenditure they can incur? The answer is none of it. What the Government wants — it suits it in the context of the current environment of political correctness where we live in a democracy but engaging in democratic activity which is not filtered by the national media is apparently a reserved sin — is to curtail the capacity of the candidates of the parties that oppose it or independent candidates to communicate directly to the electorate in the lead-in to the local elections their critique of Government and alternative message and policies.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government could decide two or three weeks prior to polling day in the local elections to hold a press conference to unveil some new environmental initiative the Government purports to take. Presumably this press conference would be organised with all of the consultancy and PR advice at the Minister's disposal to produce yet another glossy document to lie on the shelves of Government offices gathering dust and which would be forgotten after the election. Would the Minister's spend on this be factored in to what is being spent on Green Party local government candidates? It would not.
However, should a Fine Gael candidate in the local elections want to respond to this and put leaflets through doors to state the Minister's announcement was made four times previously, that the Government does not have the money to carry out the proposal and that it is an election gimmick, the Fine Gael candidate would be constrained financially in the cost of printing the leaflets or in their distribution if there were not sufficient volunteers to distribute them. If the candidate wanted to distribute them with speed because the Minister decided to hold that press conference three days prior to polling day and had to pay a professional organisation to distribute the leaflets, he or she would be stopped from doing so.
We are damaging the very fabric and foundations of our democracy under the guise of political correctness. This is a pretence at curtailing expenditure from candidates because the view is that very rich people or people who get more financial support than others should not be allowed to use it to get their messages across. By the time this Government is finished there will not be a rich person left in the country because of the economic disaster it created. However, one of the touchstones of political popularity and electoral support, in circumstances where rightly the donations that can be given by individuals are limited and where there is transparency with regard to donations, is the extent to which an individual manages to raise finance from other persons to support his or her campaign.
How many people in this House celebrated the success of the Obama campaign in raising funds by way of small donations in the 18 month lead-in to the United States presidential election? We thought that was a good thing. Looking at the disasters of the Bush Administration, some of us in this House silently cheered on Obama, as did others more vocally. He could not, under our democratic system, have run in a local election and raised any funds that were meaningful.
Let us be straightforward about this, a candidate who has limited capacities and abilities and not an original idea in his or her head will spend exactly the same money as a brighter candidate who has an original idea and a real message to get across. This is not democracy. I suggest to the Minister that whereas it is perfectly acceptable to require transparency of donations and to limit the amount of individual donations — although there could be some constitutional issues in regard to this — a major constitutional issue is raised with regard to curtailing an individual candidate in a democratic election in a parliamentary democracy in the amount of money he or she can spend from small donations raised to put across his or her message and to seek electoral support.
These issues have not yet been dealt with by our courts and they should be because this is wrong-headed. I am concerned that if there is supposed to be a compulsory party political spend identified within a candidate's expenditure, a large lump of it should be extracted from the spend of Government as it spins its way into the next election. This Bill is designed to disadvantage candidates from any party, not only from Fine Gael, who might want to oppose Government policy, get themselves elected and have the freedom to get their messages across.
We all know normal people from outside this House — none of us as politicians is entirely sane or normal; if we were we would do something different with our lives. We are obsessed by the minutiae of politics. We read it and talk about it and contribute to it to a point of complete and utter insanity. I suspect everyone in this House requires psychotherapy — I include myself in this — with regard to our obsession with the minutiae of politics. Ordinary people getting on with their lives are not that obsessed. Ordinary people facing major economic struggles have other issues that are more important to them and when it comes to an election one must grab their attention. If there is a message, one must repeat it and if one wants to connect with them one must make an effort to do so. In this modern age this requires funding.
I apologise for the length of my contribution but this is a serious issue. This is not a technical debate on a Bill which is okay financially. It has been already guillotined at one point and will be guillotined again at 1.30 p.m. This is about the very fabric of our democracy and the Minister is threatening to travel in a similar direction on Dáil elections. If he does, he should be challenged in the courts and the President should refer the Bill to the Supreme Court under Article 26 of the Constitution. I suspect that if this Bill were so referred, it could produce some very interesting judgments from the Supreme Court.
To what extent has the Minister obtained a detailed opinion from the Attorney General's office on whether this type of curtailing on spend as opposed to the raising of funds is damaging and possibly unconstitutional? To what extent has he considered or investigated whether it violates international treaties on human rights and political activities? We need to rethink where we are going with these types of limits in these circumstances. The Minister, before he got his anatomy into Cabinet on a seemingly permanent basis regardless of what disasters fall about his shoulders, may have discovered during past elections as the Green Party struggled to get a message across, that the party was overwhelmed by the type of communications that derived from Governments during the course of election campaigns, including those for local elections. The reason the Minister is there is not because too many people know anything about the detail of Green Party policies, it is because the green concept is a brand. Correctly, people are now environmentally conscious. People used to get — I emphasise "used to get" — a warm feeling in their tummies when they heard the Green Party existed and they hoped it might do something to improve the environment.
In the context of their experience of the Green Party in Government, I suspect they are suffering from a considerable amount of political indigestion. It may well be that the reason the Minister is anxious to ensure there is an uneven playing pitch in the local government elections is that he can, from on high in his Department, issue policy documents and advocate implicatory support for his Green Party candidates while he will be on a high moral platform curtailing the extent to which candidates of other parties can attack the shibboleths and misrepresentations made by him on behalf of his own candidates.
Deputy Shatter has raised a very valid point. These issues are never straightforward. One of the problems with bringing the Bill before the House so late in the day is that we cannot properly tease them out.
Deputy Shatter has raised some valid concerns. There is an issue with Government machinery and taxpayers' money being used to promote Government parties. It is done in many different ways. I can recall departmental advertising campaigns that would use the Minister to front such campaigns. This is wrong. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is running a campaign to raise awareness on climate change, at a cost of €5 million per year, but there is an element to this campaign that is about promoting the Green Party and its brand, as Deputy Shatter pointed out. The Green Party has branded itself on the issue of climate change. There are ethical issues to this. The Green Party should take these issues on board as much as the Opposition.
I was going to qualify it. Things are never black and white. The Minister seems to think that one has to agree with him entirely, or else one is against him. That is not the way it is.
There are complications in respect of the alternative. If we were to do what Deputy Shatter is proposing and we did not bring in these kinds of limits, then people could spend much more in a local election than they could for a defined period in respect of a general election. Therefore, an anomaly already exists. I have run in local election campaigns where the candidates have spent more on local elections than the limits prescribed here. They have had jeeps painted with their names and they have handed out products at schools and train stations. They have plastered themselves all over billboards and have spent an obscene amount of money. Only certain candidates can do this. We should limit the spending of rich people and people with access to the support of corporations.
Deputy Shatter raises a valid point, but I do not agree with him entirely. We need to take on board the issues he is raising. Will the Government promote itself at the next election? During the last general election, we had to cost the Oireachtas envelopes we used and we had to repay the State for that. However, the Government can use whatever machinery it likes during the local elections, and it will not be costed. Even though it might promote its candidates, that will not come into this expenditure at all. If we had more time to deal with this Bill, we could have teased out the issues and try to insert provisions to deal with those problems.
The Labour Party still supports these expenditure limits. It is a relief to most candidates to see expenditure limited for some of the time. Spending money on elections eventually brings diminishing returns. I accept that there is statistical information about the more money spent bringing more votes, but one finds that money starts going down the drain as people begin to ignore the billboards, the photographs in bus shelters and so on.
This Bill contains good provisions but Deputy Shatter has raised valid issues about the Government's use of its own resources to promote the political parties within that Government.
There have been very interesting contributions to the debate on this amendment. I agree with Deputy Shatter that politicians are not quite normal. Many of us here have a degree of dysfunction. We will not go there, but we will have to talk about it some other time.
It might be an idea. Deputy Shatter's contribution today was like a Second Stage speech, something at variance with what his Fine Gael colleague gave yesterday, who welcomed the Bill. Deputy Shatter seems to have a principled objection, and he claims that the Fine Gael Party has adopted his position. That is interesting, because Fine Gael abstained on the last vote and on the Labour Party amendment, which seems to be following his line.
I told Deputy Ciarán Lynch that I agreed in principle with what he was saying, and that we will introduce those limits. However, the Fine Gael Party is telling us this morning that it objects in principle to imposing them. I understand Deputy Shatter perfectly well. He has made himself very clear. He stated that candidates ought to be able to spend as much money to get their message across. In other words, he is saying that we should have the best democracy that money can buy.
The Deputy then talks about the Green Party, but we should look at the facts. An excellent document was prepared for the joint committee on this and it showed the spending of the various political parties. Which political party spent the least amount of money? The Deputy is now trying to make out that Fine Gael and its members are going around like church mice. If he looked at the individual spending of candidates, he will see that some of the Fine Gael candidates at the last local election painted the town with the amount of money they spent. I find that disagreeable, because those candidates have an incredible advantage. I do not know where they get the money — they may be wealthy themselves — but they use it to put out leaflet after leaflet, while others who do not have that money cannot compete. We are trying to have a level playing pitch here.
Deputy Shatter spoke about President Obama and the small donations he received. President Obama also got huge donations from major companies. Deputy Shatter gave the impression that Fine Gael was supporting President Obama, but there are many of his younger, more right wing colleagues who supported Mr. McCain. That is their democratic right.
Incumbency clearly gives people an advantage. There have been many cases on this. Each Deputy is an incumbent. They have the facilities, including envelopes, secretaries and so on. That gives a certain advantage to them as candidates.
We are trying to set certain limits and adopt a common sense approach. It is not political correctness gone mad, but is simply looking for an even playing pitch. I am glad to say that the Labour Party agrees with the principles we are enunciating. The party asked me to bring forward this Bill.
Deputy Shatter asked me whether I got legal advice. Of course I did but it is a little bit over the top to suggest that we are in breach of international treaties.
I will briefly respond. I listened with great interest to what the Minister said. He studiously avoided addressing the issue, which is about the amount of money spent by the Government and by his Department to get across his party's policies and his Government's policies in the lead in to a local election. This is not about an even playing pitch. It is not about the best democracy money can buy. It is about the best democracy the Government can buy, and the best democracy the Government can control. This is a serious issue. We need to debate it. There will come a time when the Minister will not be sitting on that side of the House, and this issue may strike him as being relevant.
One aspect struck me. A comment from my colleague, Deputy Terence Flanagan, brought it to mind and perhaps the Minister could provide the House with some assurances concerning the matter. I find it difficult not to laugh when I refer to it but, at the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis, a unique political event, the well known reporter Mr. David Davin-Power appeared on the "Nine O'Clock News" with a group of individuals who have been described, rather unkindly, as zombies.
It is a constant source of entertainment to me on "Youtube". I was fortunate, along with hundreds of thousands of people, to have the "Nine O'Clock News" on live on that night. I was obliged to call my wife in, who had disappeared into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, and I was delighted when the group reappeared. I genuinely have a difficulty discussing this matter. To move on——
——during the local elections, or indeed by his ministerial colleagues, that the initiative we witnessed on the "Nine O'Clock News" last Saturday evening was not a practice run for something that is going to be repeated during the course of the elections.
Will we see groups of mute and startled candidates running for the Green Party or the Fianna Fáil Party gathered around a Minister in a state of some distress, but unable to speak, in the hope that it would advance their political cause? It is important that we know this, because if we do not get such an assurance there may be a need to calculate the financial benefit of such an appearance and to amend the legislation on Report Stage. The question that arises is whether a zombie presence attached to a Minister——
I conclude by congratulating the Minister's Green Party colleagues at that party's national conference on not doing the same thing live, but in believing it necessary to have a practice run in the privacy of the conference building after the RTE "Nine O'Clock News" went out. That was a sign of originality.
I hope it is relevant, but if the Deputy had tabled an amendment referring to zombies, I would have been more than pleased to consider it. Since he has not, I am afraid I cannot.
Question, "That the words proposed to be deleted stand", put and declared carried.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 5, between lines 48 and 49, to insert the following:
"(4) In this section, 'population' means population as ascertained by the Central Statistics Office in the census report setting out the final result of the most recent census of population.".
As previously indicated on Second Stage, for the 2009 local elections population data from the 2006 census report is being used as the basis for determining the spending limits in county and city council electoral areas. To avoid ambiguity in future elections, the amendment will specify that the population data used in setting spending limits will be from the census report setting out the final result of the most recent census of population. A key factor which must be considered in setting expenditure limits is the diversity which exists throughout local government in Ireland in terms of the different type of local authority, the numbers of members elected in each area and the respective population figures for those areas.
Given that they are the primary units of local government, there is a case for treating county and city councils differently from borough and town councils. Differences in population, especially at the level of electoral area, suggest different spending limits should be set to reflect this situation. Data on expenditure of previous elections also points to higher spending in more populous areas. Having spending limits for county and city councils based on population is the most equitable way to proceed. However, to achieve consistency in the application of the spending limits in future, it is important that the scheme of limits takes account of the fact that shifts in population will occur. If the population of an area increases, it is important that allowance is made to revise the spending limits in that area where appropriate. To provide clarity, I specify in the amendment that the population used in determining the limits would be based on the final result of the most recent census of population. That is the most appropriate way of doing so.
I welcome the amendment and the move to the census reports. However, the issue of the link between the personal public service number, PPSN, registration system and the register of electors must be attended to, because the register of electors and the census figures for given areas are showing great disparities throughout the country. In some cases, there are more people on the register of electors than there are people reported in the census. I hope this measure goes somewhat towards clearing up that difficulty. Fundamentally, the elephant in the room is the PPSN issue and that must be addressed.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 6, line 1, to delete "50" and substitute "182".
On behalf of the Labour Party, I moved a Private Members' Bill more than one year ago on the issue of electoral spending. Earlier in his address, I note the Minister mentioned and gave credit to the Labour Party as the party which has consistently called for this move and that it has been a driving force on this issue throughout the years.
I welcome the legislation from the Minister, but there is an issue with regard to the running of elections. General elections are a matter of fate, determination or decision, whereas local elections are on a five-year schedule. The date of the next local elections is predictable. Whether one is a sitting councillor or an incumbent, it is likely that candidates for the next local elections will be in the field in approximately two or three years time, because project management of local elections has become of this fashion. Hence, there is extensive spending during these periods.
I refer to Deputy Shatter's earlier remarks. All the research shows that there is a clear correlation and connection that money spent on elections determines the outcome. The report compiled by the Oireachtas Library for the Oireachtas Select Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, a copy of which was provided to the Minister, highlights numerous such examples. The purpose of the amendment tabled by the Labour Party is to adjust the time line. I accept that given that local elections are to be held this year, something had to be done and some structure had to be in place for these elections. However, I believe we need a longer time line to monitor expenditures.
To some extent, such a provision is to the benefit of a candidate, because it does not allow a situation where people with extensive resources and a great deal of finance available to them are able to frontload their advertising before the scheduled date from which the expenditure is accounted. I call on the Minister to revise his opinion on this issue, to extend the duration of the period in which costs can be accounted for and to take on board the Labour Party's amendment.
The amendment attempts to extend the parameters within which the Minister makes the order setting the spending limit period. Bearing in mind the proximity of the forthcoming local elections, 60 days is the maximum period that can be realistically set for the 2009 elections. This period effectively will be more than double that currently for Dáil and European Parliament elections. It also will be more than double the period for which local election spending had to be declared under the current provisions in the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999.
Under the Electoral Act 1997, which provides for spending limits at European Parliament, presidential and Dáil elections, the commencement of the spending period is determined by reference, in the case of a Dáil general election, to the date of dissolution of the Dáil; in the case of a Dáil by-election, to the date of the issue of the writ; and in the case of a European Parliament or presidential election, the date of the order appointing polling day at the election. The end of the spending period in the case of all of the three categories of election is polling day at the relevant election.
The reason parameters are set for the Minister in the Bill in setting the spending limit period is to ensure policy is set in primary legislation. If no upper or lower parameter was set, the Minister of the day would effectively have an unfettered ability to set the spending limit period by order and could, in theory, act against the spirit of the legislation. The parameters, as they are set out in the Bill, allow for a spending limit period of between 50 and 60 days. This is a marked improvement on the current arrangements.
There is also a significant difficulty with the amendment, as presented. The effect of the amendment would be to retrospectively commence the spending limit period and declare that it commenced some time last year. Fairness in the treatment of election candidates demands that they be given notice of the rules and regulations with which they must comply at an election in advance of them coming into force. This is especially the case when the potential for prosecution and criminal sanction can result.
Deputy Shatter alluded to the possibility of challenges being made to the legislation before the courts. Acceptance of the amendment would result in the introduction of a retrospective rule and criminal sanction for breaching it. As the amendment is legally unsound, we must exercise care in this matter. For these reasons, I do not propose to accept the amendment.
There is no legal difficulty with the amendments, nor do problems arise in the context of retrospection. While I accept this is new legislation and its implementation in the coming months will give rise to difficulties, it is in the nature of legislation that minor difficulties and anomalies will emerge.
The fundamental principle arising from the amendments is whether the Minister is prepared to sign up to the concept that electoral expenditure should be contained. Some speakers appeared to indicate they do not sign up to this position. If one accepts the principle of spending limits, it is not realistic to believe electoral expenditure will be confined to election periods. Candidates spend money on local elections long before they take place.
While I appreciate the Minster's decision to establish a 60 day mechanism, the reason for its introduction is the delay in bringing the legislation before the House. The Bill was introduced yesterday afternoon and will go out the door at 1.30 p.m. By any measure, it is rushed, crisis-driven legislation. The reason for the crisis has been the delay in bringing it to the House.
Should legal questions arise, it will be as a result of the insufficient time provided to examine and scrutinise the Bill. Government sequencing of legislation rather than proposals made by the Opposition are the problem. I ask the Minister to consider the issues I have raised and accept the amendment. Failing that, I will press the amendment.
I ask the Minister to clarify one aspect of the section. The Bill introduces a number of expenditure limits, which reduce based on a perception of constituency sizes and other factors. I am interested in the thought process which produced these figures. Why was an expenditure limit of €15,000 rather than €20,000 or €12,000 selected? Has a mystical measure of which I am unaware been used to determine this ideal expenditure of a candidate? What elements were factored in to arriving at this determination?
Was a calculation done of the number of leaflets a candidate may have printed at a particular cost? Is it no longer acceptable for candidates to have posters on lamp posts? If not, was a costing done of how many types of posters could be used or whether such posters should be in colour print or black and white? Did anyone factor in the cost to a candidate who takes his or her own photographs for his or her posters or has them done by friends or relations? Has a costing been done for a professional photographer?
What is the position when supporters of a candidate have a picture of a candidate erected in their gardens? Has a costing been done of the wood one would have to pay for to erect such a presentation? While I have not engaged in this practice, a number of candidates appear to believe having such displays in gardens is a good idea. I would prefer to see tulips and daffodils growing than see pictures of candidates emerging from behind garden walls, which some people may find scary late at night. How was the figure arrived at?
What is the position regarding a candidate who may not benefit from the media assistance frequently available to members of large and even small parties? An independent candidate with a good idea who needs help to get it across may need help to deal with the searching questions he or she will be asked should he or she be fortunate enough to do something of such vital national interest as to end up on "Morning Ireland" or something so daft as to end up on "Liveline" with Joe Duffy. He or she may need to be careful about how to approach the issues. To what extent has this been factored in to the calculations?
Has consideration been given, for example, to a media savvy candidate, perhaps someone who has been involved in the broadcasting world, possibly as a journalist, and has media expertise? Why is the expenditure limit of such candidates not reduced by a certain percentage to take account of their media expertise and training? Presumably if a candidate receives some form of media training within the period designated in the section, this cost will form part of his or her expenditure. Perhaps that will not be the case.
I am curious about how we got to these magical figures and the extent to which thought has been given to the types of thing people do. For example — I do not know whether the Leas-Cheann Comhairle or the Minister has done this — many people give gifts at election time to attract the attention of the electorate. Gifts of pencils and pens are becoming increasingly common; in fact, if one is very lucky and happens to bump into a sufficient number of candidates, one can get enough to last until the next election, which saves one having to spend between elections. During the last election campaign candidates were handing out brown paper bags with their parties' logos on them to assist shoppers. How many of those are appropriate for a local election candidate to purchase? To what extent is this factored in to the Bill? There are many gimmicky things candidates like to do, some of which one should probably not refer to in this House as they are somewhat towards the exotic end of things, although such spending tends to be incurred during Seanad elections rather then local government elections.
I am curious as to how we got to this point and whether the Minister recognises that this is not in fact a level playing field. As people from different backgrounds and with different levels of training and support take part in election campaigns, the playing field can never be level. What the provisions actually do is to try to ensure those whose parties are in Government, who have media training or are involved in the media, or who have a pal who is a PR consultant get their messages across much more effectively than other candidates while spending the same as them. The other candidates are denied the possibility of purchasing such expertise when they are not lucky enough to have the right friends in the right places.
The Deputy will appreciate that we cannot legislate for those who are media savvy. I understand a very media savvy person may be running for Fine Gael in the forthcoming by-election in Dublin South. Perhaps he could confirm whether this rumour, which has been circulating around the House for quite some time, is true.
I will provide the background to the legislation, which has been in gestation for quite some time. We took soundings from people across the board. The consultative committee on local government reform, which included members of all the main local government representative bodies and which was involved in the drafting of the Green Paper on Local Government Reform, considered the issue of expenditure limits and we had good feedback in this regard. The consultative committee suggested the limit be set at approximately 50% of the general election spending limits. The limit for a three-seat Dáil constituency is €30,150, so half of this is €15,075. I hope the Deputy sees the logic behind this.
A research report on local election spending limits was published by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in which the Deputy's party was represented and its members made their points of view known. This is what is causing me surprise. They were in broad agreement with what I was doing and they said that consistently. The Deputy will see this if he goes back over the minutes of the meetings. It was noted by the committee members that the most common approach adopted internationally was the use of a formula based on the size of the electorate. That is why we went along with that. Deputy Ciarán Lynch, who is on that committee, will agree with me that it was a cross-party approach. Everybody involved, including the members of Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party — I do not know whether Sinn Féin is represented on that committee — said this was the best approach and there was consensus on the issue.
As the Minister knows, we are on Committee Stage, and as this is our national Parliament we must raise important questions, whatever the consensus. I have personal concerns about the extent to which this has been worked out, its implications and the science behind it. What the Minister has told me is that no one has actually worked out what a candidate might spend money on to get a message across to, communicate with or come to the attention of the general public or the electorate. The science behind the decision was this: some time ago someone fixed, probably equally unscientifically, what the spending limit should be in Dáil elections, so half of that amount for local elections must be right. That is not a science.
Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind is a recollection — I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong — that the Minister has already announced he will reduce the spending limits for general elections. I am sure the Government would, if it could, introduce legislation to allow zero spending by any candidate from any party in a general election. This proposal might even get two cheers from the general public and three cheers from the media. It would enact this if it could, because then constant Government press conferences would be all that was required for its candidates to be elected. This would be close to the politics we have seen over the years in a variety of unfortunate dictatorships across the world.
The Minister is telling us that an unscientific figure was agreed on for the general elections which was essentially divided by two to work out an appropriate figure for the local elections, but that the figure will probably be reduced again for the next general election. I suggest to the Minister, on the basis that we cannot stop spending entirely, to ensure that Fianna Fáil, which the Green Party is propping up in Government — the most incompetent Government in the history of the State, with which we are cursed at this moment — remains permanently in government by imposing a maximum spending limit of €500 for any candidate in the two year lead-in to the next general election. That would be appealing. The Minister might give it consideration, and I am sure someone could work out a scientific formula to support it. What is happening here is no more scientific than that.
I accept Deputy Tuffy's point that there is a serious problem in that a person who is personally extremely rich could try to buy an election through considerable personal funding that does not derive from donations from members of the public who support him or her. There is a history of rich people spending large sums of money on themselves when trying to get elected — not just in this country but elsewhere — and falling flat on their faces. I am concerned there is a misconception on the part of politicians in all parties in the House that this type of legislation provides for a level playing field. It does not. What it does is to give an inordinate advantage to whoever happens to be in Government — and the way we are going, even if the entire island of Ireland was taken over by the IMF and the financial group of the European Commission, the Green Party would still be attached by an umbilical cord to Fianna Fáil and keep it in Government — by ensuring a monopoly in the communication of political information vested in Government Ministers and Departments. The Minister studiously avoided talking about all the advisers attached to his and other Departments or spending on consultants and press conferences.
I could not seriously deal with the zombie issue earlier, because I find the whole thing so ludicrous. However, this is a serious point. In the lead-in to the local elections, how many press conferences will we see in individual constituencies with candidates anatomically attached to Ministers — appearing out of their left and right earlobes, attached to their legs, hands and everywhere — in the vague hope they will be in a picture or will get themselves on the 6 o'clock or 9 o'clock news on RTE or the 5.30 p.m. news on TV3? All these things are about candidates trying to raise their profiles in their own constituencies.
The Minister is well aware that parties in Government have an inordinate advantage in promoting their candidates, although perhaps not when a Government is as utterly incompetent as the present one. It may be that the zombie formula attempted in the Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis will not be utilised by the party's local election candidates given what I hear about their attempts to portray themselves as pseudo independents when they knock on voters' doors. They know nothing about what the Government is doing, do not support many of its policies and are opposed to everything that has a detrimental impact on people. They are even opposed to measures that have not yet been announced and will disagree with the budget regardless of what it contains. A number of Fianna Fáil candidates are running such disassociated zombie election campaigns. I am not sure that Green Party candidates are much better, although they have managed to uphold the perception that they are opposed to the Government at the same time as being a part of it.
The same act was practised by the Progressive Democrats for many years before the chickens came home to roost.
This is a serious issue which will impact on the next general election if the Minister gets his way. The perception that an even playing pitch can be created simply by limiting candidates' spending is a fallacy and an example of ill-thought out political correctness. For the sake of our democracy, we need to debate with greater incisiveness and clarity how Governments spread their messages, how much they spend on doing so and what is available to those who oppose Governments and other political parties.
The principle behind section 4 is setting a timeline for election spending. After listening to the previous speaker, I am at a loss as to the direction in which this debate is proceeding. My colleagues in the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government agreed that election spending should be measured and limited. Various suggestions were made regarding methodologies for apportioning spending because it is recognised that the population bases of local election areas can differ in terms of population size. Rather than a debate on methodologies, however, I have heard a principled argument against the concept of spending limits.
It is not political correctness to impose such limits because the argument for doing so is supported by research. The Oireachtas Library and Research Service has provided Members with a report on this issue which states: "Most commentators are broadly positive of the notion of spending limits during elections". It quotes the following from a 2003 report from the Standards in Public Office Commission: "It is recognised internationally that having election spending limits in place is an important factor in fighting corruption and safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process". Benoit and March state, "spending is positively and significantly related to electoral success". This is not anecdotal comment; it is reputable research which demonstrates the relationship between spending and outcome. Our job is to put a framework on these findings.
Money provides access to the basic tools of a modern democracy — for example, advertising, running political parties, selecting candidates, mobilizing voters and polling — and for this reason, political finance affects almost every aspect of democratic politics in both developing and consolidated democracies.
It is, therefore, nonsensical to claim in this House that spending levels are not related to successful election outcomes. What is the motive behind this change of position? Is it because funding tends to shift alongside changes in the polls? The Minister paraphrased St. Augustine in wanting to introduce spending limits but not yet. When a poll pulls one in a different direction, like St. Paul one falls off the horse and is converted.
While I welcome the Bill for the most part, I am disappointed that amendments Deputy Tuffy and I tabled were not accepted. Sadly, our amendment providing voting rights for the homeless has been ruled to fall outside the scope of the Bill. I urge the Minister to address this issue, whether through the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 or some other means. The disenfranchisement of homeless people is a relic of the era when only property owners had the right to vote. We have long since progressed towards a democratic republic in which every citizen is cherished and valued equally. The right to own property should not be exclusively equated to the right to vote. All people have the right to democratic participation and to register their franchise regardless of whether they rent or own property, or even if they live in sheltered accommodation. If we based registration on PPSNs, this deficit in our democratic structures could be overcome.
I cannot stress strongly enough that the issue of voting rights for the homeless is relevant to this House, even if it has been ruled outside of the scope of this Bill. It is incumbent on us to address it. We are here because people have exercised their right to chose their representatives in this House. It is not acceptable that a significant part of our society is denied that right because of a property and address related issue. I urge the Minister to find some mechanism to address this issue.
I had not intended to contribute to this debate and will not speak about the principles of the Bill but I wish to raise one issue. I recall negotiating these issues with both Fianna Fáil and Fianna Gael many years ago in the context of Dáil, European and presidential elections. Provision was made at the time by the rainbow Government for spending limits in local elections as well.
The subsequent Minister for the Environment and Local Government, however, had a different view and successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments have watered down those provisions. I hope, however, that we are now turning the corner and putting in place a realistic basis for equality when contesting elections, where the amount of money a candidate can spend will not be a determining factor.
There will always be anomalies, it is not possible to craft a perfect Bill. Section 4 is the heart of the Bill and it is hard to determine the basis for a figure. I am concerned that it would be a percentage of a Dáil spend. How would that be relevant? The Minister might reflect on these specific figures before the Bill goes before the Seanad.
The Minister has allocated figures for the spend at the lowest of level, borough councils, of €7,500. Borough councils operate differently; Wexford Borough Council is a single electoral area with a population of 20,000 whereas most borough councils would have wards of perhaps 4,000. The notion that we apply the same spend to reach 20,000 people as 4,000 is invidious.
I ask the Minister to re-examine this because the crafting of the section displays an understanding that all borough councils operate on a ward system but there are others that operate on an integrated basis where there are 12 seats to be filled from the entire borough and, thanks to the Minister's own extension of this particular borough last year, it is now a significant area with in excess of 20,000 residents. An election spend of €7,500 in that context would not be fair.
Going back to Deputy Lynch's point, it is not accurate to say that someone categorised as homeless has no right to vote. A homeless person faces particular difficulties in engaging with the electoral process, including his name being entered on the register of electors. Current law provides that persons shall be registered where they are ordinarily resident. The question arises of the best way to link a homeless person with an address and that matter is best left between the local registration authority and the person concerned. The possibilities that arise include registering people at hostels or shelters permanently or temporarily. Local authorities have a flexible approach to voter registration for homeless people. It is not necessarily the case that proof of address will be demanded in every case. I look to local authorities to be reasonable and adopt a common sense approach in such cases given the circumstances.
If there is a need for documentation there are options. It is sufficient for a homeless person living in a hostel to produce a letter from the hostel verifying his residence to collect unemployment assistance. I see no reason local authorities could not follow suit. A homeless person with no fixed abode is entitled to the weekly supplementary welfare allowance which is paid at the post office in the area in which he is based. The person has a card that enables him to withdraw money. This could be sufficient for registration. Sometimes a homeless person is booked into an emergency hostel or bed and breakfast where rent allowance is payable and this is another way of assigning a place. While we are not directly discussing this in the amendment, I wanted to clarify that.
Deputy Howlin is right in what he said about borough councils, there is a variation between them. Wexford is in this situation, as is Drogheda. We did not have the numbers, however, from the census for borough councils and that is why we opted for €7,500. Many candidates contest both borough council elections and county council elections and we have made allowances for that, with an extra spend being permitted for those who do. They will not be disadvantaged in that regard because there is still a level playing field. There is a slight anomaly but it is down to the population figures currently available to us.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 7, before section 9, to insert the following new section:
"9.—The Schedule to the Act of 1999 is amended in paragraph 1(a) by the insertion after "disseminating such advertising" of "and in this paragraph, 'advertising' in the case of advertising in any newspaper or other periodical publication means advertising in a publication which was first published during the period specified by order under section 12B(1). Regulations under this paragraph may provide for how the publication date of a periodical is to be determined."
In recent years, there have been developments in advertising media during elections. Significant amounts are spent on newspaper advertisements, particularly in free sheets and weekly provincial newspapers. This amendment seeks to establish a clear line for costings for such advertisements.
A weekly newspaper or free sheet may be issued on a Tuesday afternoon but the publication date will be the following Friday. Given that elections take place on Thursday, a week's advertising in that paper is outside the scope of the period of the election. Because of the 60 day period, the publication date can fall in the first week of the period of the election and then fall out at the end depending on when the journal is released.
This must be clarified because it is not uncommon. The last week of an election campaign is the busiest time for newspaper advertising and most spending happens then. The expenditure is accommodated within the legislation and it is a fact that we will be spending money during local election periods. However, we need to determine whether expenditure taking place in the last week in this medium is accounted for and costed.
I fully understand the intent of the amendment which I have discussed with my officials. We have looked at examples, including the Kilkenny People. The Deputy mentioned Tuesday afternoon, but the newspaper comes out on Wednesday, and Friday is the date referred to on the masthead. Those are difficult matters. I understand what the Deputy is trying to get at in the same way as I understood what he was trying to get at concerning the Internet. We will seek guidelines for candidates on those issues.
The Deputy is seeking to provide a more prescriptive interpretation of expenses on advertising for electoral purposes. The Bill also includes provision for the Minister to bring forward further regulations in this area. Having looked at it, I do not believe the Schedule, dating from the 1999 Act, needs to be amended in this way, but I will consider the matter further. At the moment I cannot accept the amendment. The Deputy has suggested examining this matter further in the Seanad at a later date.
I wished to clarify the situation on what are considered as election expenses for the purpose of making a spending declaration at a local election. I will not go through that matter again, however, because we dealt with it on the previous amendment. One of the effects of the Deputy's amendment would be to create a significant difference in the definition of election expenses for local elections compared to those for Dáil and other national elections. We need to get that consistency. The provisions of the 1999 Act, as amended by this Bill, are sufficient to provide for the declaration of spending on advertising for electoral purposes during the election. They do not need to be elaborated upon further in the manner set out in the amendment. We will, however, provide guidance for individuals which, in many ways, is common sense. We can examine this to see if the date on a newspaper's masthead is the relevant one or not.
There is also the question of defining the difference between daily newspapers, which are used for one day, and weekly newspapers or magazines which may be in circulation longer. These questions are relevant. If a weekly publication is part of the 60-day period, obviously it will have to be taken into account and will be part of the expenditure. This is not and, given the nature of what we are discussing, can never be an exact science. Deputy Howlin referred to having discussed the matter as a Minister in previous Administrations. We are trying to do our best to ensure that certain limits apply. We will provide the guidelines and will examine the issue in more detail. At the moment, however, I am satisfied that what we have put in place is in line with our requirements.
I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure he will acknowledge that any of the amendments moved today were not prescriptive in tone, with the possible exception of the one on which we called a vote. The amendment does not seek to assist the Minister, but rather candidates in the field. We have all been candidates at one stage or another, and surely will be again when the next general election comes. The amendment stems from my own experience as a candidate who had to complete reports and the standards in public office forms at the end of an election period. I know from my own colleagues and those in other parties that assimilating all the paperwork can be a headache even though they try to make the best fist of it.
I take on board the Minister's response that this matter will be examined further. I will withdraw the amendment and look forward to the Minister's guidelines and direction on this matter in future.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 7, line 45, to delete "7" and substitute "10".
These are straightforward amendments which aim to give candidates and their postering teams more time to remove posters after elections. If candidates are involved in a long campaign it may take three or four days for them and their teams to recover. The amendment takes cognisance of that fact. In addition, the amendment allows for the fact that not all candidates have armies of helpers who are in a position to remove all the posters in a timely manner. The geography of constituencies can vary, so it can take time to get around to postering duties. Therefore these amendments seek to increase the time period for the removal of posters after an election campaign, from seven to ten days.
I thank the Deputy for his amendment and he is right to say that campaigns can be exhausting. In particular, if a candidate has lost an election, his or her enthusiasm for taking down posters can be somewhat diminished.
However, the seven day period has worked well. The best way for any candidate to approach this matter is to ensure that, if he or she has a team that is paid to put up posters, the contract includes their removal also. That is happening increasingly and it seems to work fairly well. I have been impressed by the way in which all political parties have approached this matter. For the most part, they have complied with the seven day rule. Deputies will be aware, however, that some mischievous individuals sometimes take down a candidate's poster and, for the fun of it, put it up again after the seven day period has elapsed. That is happening and if the individuals involved can be caught that is fair enough; otherwise there is very little one can do about it.
Yesterday, Deputy Higgins took exception to the view — which I do not hold — that somehow election posters constitute litter. They do not, of course. They are a means of advertising a candidate, but they do become a litter problem after a certain period. One of the major issues I am trying to address concerns plastic ties that hold posters in place. Very often the posters are removed after an election, but the plastic ties are left there. The problem with making their removal voluntary is that people do not feel obliged to do it. I would have hoped for good co-operation between local authorities and candidates. I wanted to ensure that we either had recyclable tags or biodegradable ones, so we are examining this matter. Alternatively, we could have identifiable tags so we could know to which party they belonged. That is the way to approach this matter. It is not my intention to curtail freedom of expression in any way. Posters add an air of excitement to a campaign and let people know that an election is taking place.
In the past few elections there has been a problem with the proliferation of posters. Some postering is excessive. One poster per pole is fine but I have seen candidates on the evening an election is declared putting up three posters on one pole just to prevent other candidates using the spot. There is a need for some form of regulation. We are satisfied the seven-day limit in place is adequate and ensures poster-free lamp posts all over the city quickly after an election.
As it is 1.30 p.m. I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of this day: "That each of the sections undisposed of is hereby agreed to and the Title is hereby agreed to, that Report Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed."