Dáil debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Electoral Process

1:20 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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1. To ask the Taoiseach if he will provide a progress report on the work of the Interdepartmental Group on the Security of Ireland’s Electoral Process and Disinformation. [46524/19]

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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2. To ask the Taoiseach if he will provide a progress report on the work of the Interdepartmental Group on the Security of Ireland’s Electoral Process and Disinformation. [47364/19]

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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3. To ask the Taoiseach the role his officials had in the interdepartmental group that finalised proposals on regulating transparency in online political advertising. [47451/19]

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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4. To ask the Taoiseach the role his officials had in the interdepartmental group into regulating transparency in online political advertising. [48842/19]

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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5. To ask the Taoiseach if a progress report will be provided on the work of the Interdepartmental Group on the Security of Ireland’s Electoral Process and Disinformation. [48847/19]

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

The Government recently approved the progress report of the Interdepartmental Group, IDG, on the Security of Ireland's Electoral Process and Disinformation. The report was published on 5 November and laid before the Houses on 12 November. The safeguarding of the electoral process from disinformation and other security risks requires a cohesive and co-ordinated approach across Government.

The membership of the IDG comprises officials from the Departments of Business, Enterprise and Innovation; Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Defence; Education and Skills; Foreign Affairs and Trade; Housing, Planning and Local Government; Justice and Equality; Public Expenditure and Reform, and also representatives of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces.

Members of the group have expertise in communications technology, cyber security, electoral legislation and EU developments in this area. The group is facilitated and chaired by my Department. This second report by the group outlines progress on the seven recommendations contained in its first report published in July 2018, which are to expedite the establishment of an electoral commission; advance the modernisation of voter registration; regulate the transparency of online political advertising; reform of legislative provisions concerning funding of election and referendum campaigns; assist the EU Commission's work in tackling online disinformation; continue to advance national level media literacy initiatives; and also enhance cyber security measures around the electoral process, including providing advice to political parties.

The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government will lead on drafting the heads of a Bill to make provision for the regulation of transparency of online paid political advertising within election periods.

The overarching policy objectives are to protect the integrity of elections, ensure they are free and fair, and not captured by a narrow range of interests; to respect the fundamental right to freedom of expression and the value of political advertising and its importance to protect democratic and electoral processes, while ensuring that regulation of expression meets the requirements of lawfulness, necessity and proportionality; and to respect the role of the Internet in the public sphere of political discourse and ensure that the public have access to legitimate information required in order to make autonomous voting decisions.

The proposal was formulated following a public consultation and open policy forum with participation from media and Members of the Houses, online companies, the advertising industry, academia, civil society and the European Commission.

The Government approved the establishment of a statutory electoral commissionon 17 July 2019. TheCommissionwill bring together several electoral functions in an independent, dedicated public body. The drafting of the general scheme of an electoral commission Bill is currently under way and its completion is anticipated by the end of 2019. It is anticipated that the Bill will be published in mid-2020, with the enactment of legislation and establishment of the electoral commission thereafter.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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Earlier this month, the Taoiseach told us that the electoral commission legislation was being worked on at present. Today, he tells us that it will be finished by the end of the year, and we are talking about the middle of next year before any substantial progress is made. That is not a surprise to anyone in the House because, as the Taoiseach is aware, the interdepartmental group's first report found that the absence of an electoral commission is a matter of concern and recommended that it should be established. The Taoiseach told the Dáil that the heads of the commission Bill are expected next year yet the status of the Bill in the Government's autumn legislative programme provides no date as to when the initial stage of the legislative process will be completed.

It is worth remembering that the establishment of an electoral commission was first raised in the Oireachtas in 2004 and has been agreed in consecutive programmes for Government since 2007. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil has demonstrated any real commitment to this key piece of reform. Establishing a commission is not only a long overdue modernisation reform; it opens up important opportunities to increase voter participation in elections.

Four by-elections will take place at the end of this week. The current Administration is on its last legs, and we face a general election in the coming months. The Taoiseach has been a member of two Cabinets and over the course of the past eight years has failed to deliver on his commitment to introduce this much-needed and long talked about reform. Is it the case that the electoral commission legislation will not be in place before the next general election? That seems to be what he said in the past few minutes. It is probably a hallmark of this Government, and we had it here yesterday evening also regarding the issue of health, that everything is on the promise but very little is delivered. This issue has been talked about since 2004. It is beyond impossible to consider that we cannot get this commission delivered quicker than this timetable.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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During Taoiseach's questions yesterday, I said to the Taoiseach that democracies across the world are struggling to deal with the problem of fake news spread by social media, often by anonymous third parties. Last weekend, the actor and comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen, accused the Silicon six, the big six social media companies, of spreading "hate, conspiracies and lies" by facilitating this material online. Specifically, he said that the Silicon six determine much of the information that the world sees and collectively amount to "the greatest propaganda machine in history". When we reflect upon that, it is a reflection of truth. He said that this is resulting in a type of "ideological imperialism" where "unelected" companies "were imposing their vision on the rest of the world", unaccountable to any government, and outside of the reach of most law.

I said to the Taoiseach yesterday that we have to defend our democracy. Our democracy is not for sale. We must have strong regulation of not only what goes on the Internet but also of political campaigning and advertising. We need to urgently update our laws to ensure that money spent on clear and obvious lies and disinformation can be counteracted and not allowed to contaminate our elections, as they manifestly have influenced elections in other jurisdictions in recent times. When I asked the Taoiseach about this yesterday, he seemed to be unconcerned whether the necessary law would pass before next year's general election. I believe it is of vital importance that we collectively regulate in this area because once an election is in process, it is too late to try to regulate or control an external influence on our democratic system. Has the Taoiseach had time since yesterday to reflect on this matter? Will he work with us, collectively, to have laws in place before the next general election?

1:30 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It will soon be three years since Deputy James Lawless published Fianna Fáil's Bill to introduce transparency and protections for the public in respect of political advertising. The handling of this issue has become a classic case of how the Government is failing to address important public issues. The initial response from the Taoiseach and his party was to reject the idea that something should be done. When the Dáil passed the legislation anyway, the Government worked to block it and set up its own internal group to consider it in December 2017.

In spite of many media briefings claiming action is under way, the latest progress report shows that not a single recommendation made by the internal Government committee has been fully implemented. In fact, it is much worse than that. The Cabinet blocked the Fianna Fáil Bill because it said the definitions in it were unusable while the interdepartmental group on protecting our electoral process has now said Fianna Fáil's definition should be used in Government legislation. The problem, of course, is that the legislation has been delayed so much that it cannot be in place before the next general election.

There are two things at stake. The first is the right of the people to know who is spending money to influence their vote. No one is proposing to limit legitimate speech but transparency is essential. Second, there is an urgent need to protect the limits on donations and spending that are a core part of legitimate democratic competition.

Given that the Government has accepted it will not produce legislation on time, should we not now agree at least to proceed with Deputy Lawless's legislation? The Government has produced a policy outline and accepted key definitions. The legislation is ready for amendment on Committee Stage. It could become law early next year with Government support and, indeed, amendments. Where there is a will, there is a way. Deputy Lawless's Bill is the basis of ensuring that, in the next session, after Christmas, legislation could be passed and commenced in advance of the next general election.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The drafting of the general scheme of an electoral commission Bill is under way in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Its completion is anticipated by the end of 2019. It is also anticipated that the electoral commission Bill will be published in mid-2020, with the enactment of the legislation and the establishment of the commission following thereafter.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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That will not be in the term of this Dáil.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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To my knowledge, no Opposition party has taken the initiative and put forward its own electoral commission Bill despite ample opportunity to do so. We are happy, however, to work with the Opposition-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is not fair.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is also true.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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What is the Taoiseach's point?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We are happy to work with the Opposition on this if it can present legislation that is up to standard and sound. The electoral commission's establishment is guided by several recent reports and public consultations. These include the 2016 report of the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and Gaeltacht on the consultation on the proposed electoral commission and the regulatory impact assessment and public consultation concerning the establishment of an electoral commission that were completed by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government earlier this year. Submissions received as part of this consultation expressed broad support for the establishment of an electoral commission on a statutory basis and initial assignment of a limited number of functions with a view to assigning functions over time.

While the statutory functions for the initial transfer to the electoral commission have not yet been finalised, proposed functions for the initial transfer include responsibility for the register of political parties, responsibility for the reviews of the national and European electoral boundaries, currently conducted by the Constituency Commission, and responsibility for the consideration of local area boundaries, which are currently reviewed by the local area boundary committees. It is also intended that the electoral commission will include a new research and advisory function to inform the Government and Oireachtas in their consideration of electoral law reform.

The Government is very conscious of the discrepancy that now exists between print broadcast media and online platforms when it comes to political advertising. There is an obvious gap in safeguarding the electoral process from online disinformation as the area is entirely devoid of regulation. The current proposal to regulate for transparency in online political advertising would make provision in legislation to mitigate this gap. The regulation of political advertising in broadcasting media is part of a wider regulatory framework for advertising. Advertising in the print media is subject to a self-regulation code of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland but political advertising is not within the scope of this code. It is our view that overhauling the regulatory provisions across all platforms is therefore a more significant task, requiring a comprehensive review by the electoral commission when established, in consultation with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

In the meantime, as a priority, it is intended to press ahead with legislation to cover online advertising owing to the absence of regulation in this area. A general scheme will be prepared for quarter 2 of 2020 in line with the Government decision of 5 November 2019. The general scheme will be prepared in consultation with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and other members of the interdepartmental group, as appropriate.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Why does the Government not want to do it before the general election? There seems to be a studied approach to avoid having the legislation in place for the general election.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I certainly do want it, if it is possible in the timeframe.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach just said he has no intention of having it.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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That is not what I said.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is what the response states in reality. Maybe Fine Gael has its own plans for spending on the platform in question. I do not know.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Conspiracy theories again.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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No. There is no reason the Government could not deal with transparency before the next general election.