Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Bill 2013: Committee Stage
I fully respect the bona fides of Senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy Eames in proposing the amendment. I listened to the arguments they made last week and again today. Under the proposed amendment the calculation of the parliamentary activities allowance payable to the party leaders of qualifying parties would be recalculated in the event that Members leave the parliamentary party, with the amount payable being reduced, presumably, on a permanent basis. The current system, as the Leader of the House said, provides that the allowance payable to a parliamentary party leader is calculated on the basis of the numbers of Members elected or nominated to the Dáil or the Seanad on the day of the election. This amount is fixed at the time of the election or following a by-election and not affected by Members leaving or joining the party subsequently. It is very important to note that the amount is determined by the vote of the people, not the subsequent decision of an individual Member to change allegiance or by any group within a party to expel somebody. It is determined on a fixed day by a vote of the people. Following the calculation of the allowances payable, parties are allocated their resources, inclusive of the allowances, which they use to employ researchers, support staff, press officers and so forth, commission research or obtain other supports in order to fulfil the real duties of a parliament which are demanding. These commitments are entered into on the understanding there is a fixed sum of money available for the duration of the Parliament. If the amount payable to a party could be decreased by Members resigning from it or losing the whip, as suggested by the Senators in their amendment, parties would find themselves with contracts in relation to both the employment of staff and the engagement of services that they could no longer honour, with an accompanying loss of jobs and a party potentially facing legal or contractual challenges. I do not believe that would be a desirable outcome and it is certainly not one I would support.
The parliamentary activities allowance is the means through which we support the parliamentary system. I listened carefully to the comments of Senator John Crown who believes there should be no such thing as supporting the parliamentary system. Some of us have been here for a long time and seen what the alternative in funding politics - that is, through donations; corporate donations, in particular - has done to the political system. Perhaps the Senator is more familiar with the North American system than I am, in which Members of Congress are in permanent fund-raising mode and there is no prospect of standing for, much less being elected to, either House of the US Parliament without an incredible war chest given, no doubt, with no conditions attached by generous donors, be they corporations or wealthy individuals. We have seen electoral battles in the United States where incredible war chests had to be deployed. That is not the political system I support or want. That is why when I was the Minister for the Environment in the mid-1990s, I brought forward the Electoral Act to ensure full transparency in the election expenses of all individuals who contested an election. I also put a cap on these expenses in order that there would not be the capacity for those with the deepest pockets or the best and wealthiest friends to fund their way into Parliament. That is not the system we have in place.