Wednesday, 5 May 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Cullen): I made the position clear on amendment No. 1. The amendment is not considered necessary. The parliamentary counsel is the expert in drawing up the Long Title of Bills. The Long Title of the Bill was prepared by the parliamentary counsel and is considered satisfactory.
Mr. Gilmore: I will begin by complimenting the Minister on his performance on television last night — I saw him on “Prime Time” on RTE. For a Minister who left this House yesterday evening with calls from the Opposition for his resignation still ringing in his ears, it was a remarkable performance for him to conclude his interview on “Prime Time” with a satisfied grin on his face, telling the nation that these electronic voting machines would be used at some stage. This did not particularly surprise me, however, since the Minister had the programme item all to himself. He managed in the course of the solo run which he was permitted to tell the nation that the amount of money he had wasted on this system was not €52 million but €42 million. As Deputy Rabbitte pointed out in the House this morning, that is in flat contradiction of what the Minister told the House last week, where the figure clearly comes to €52 million, although that point was not put to him in the interview.
He also managed to tell the nation that the waste of the €52 million on the electronic voting machines is a prudent investment, although he was not asked anything about the estimate for depreciation on the equipment, something which the House will no doubt return to at a later date.
It would be of interest to know whether the solo run which he was permitted was at his request or insistence. It is known that Ministers have in recent times taken to insisting that they will not appear in the same studio as their Opposition counterparts. It could perhaps have been RTE’s latest interpretation of what constitutes political balance.
The programme was also of interest for the fact that one would assume by looking at it that there was no political opposition in the country. It is an interesting case study. I recommend its study to students of journalism or to those interested in broadcasting as an example of what happens to a State broadcasting organisation in a country where one party holds power for far too long. This is a political issue where the Opposition parties have made the running to the point where the Government has been forced into a reverse position and the State broadcaster completely ignores the Opposition. The question could be asked as to why in this country, unlike in Britain, a Minister will not resign over the kind of error that the Government made on the electronic voting issue. Part of the answer might well be that BBC’s “Newsnight” would hardly have handled the issue in the same way.
The purpose of the amendment is to change the Title of the Bill. At this stage I think it does not matter a great deal what the Title of the Bill will be. This Bill is no longer about what it set out to do, which was to impose electronic voting against the wishes and will of the Opposition and those who have commented on it. That now cannot be done, thanks to the work of the commission. Nevertheless, provision should be made for the Irish title of the commission.
This is a particularly relevant amendment, given the report of the commission. The Bill sought to allow the Minister to introduce electronic voting by ministerial order at the European and local elections initially and then at any election that he so chose thereafter. Again, thanks to the work of the Commission on Electronic Voting, we will not have electronic voting at the European and local elections. However, the Bill still allows the Minister, if he so chooses, to introduce electronic voting for any by-elections or referendums that may arise, or the presidential elections in the autumn and the next general election. It also allows any type of system to be used for casting or counting votes as electronic voting systems are not confined to the system under scrutiny by the commission. The amendment proposes that the legislation, which would enable the Minister at his discretion to introduce electronic voting for any election, would not come into operation until such time as the commission had given the all clear for the system to be introduced.
The commission’s report on the system the Minister believed he could unilaterally introduce for the local and European elections is damning and clearly underscores the requirement that electronic voting must not be introduced until the commission has satisfied itself that the system is safe and capable of being used. Nor should the system be introduced before general political agreement has been reached on the issue. The problem we now have arose directly from the Government’s desire to proceed unilaterally and its failure to listen to the views of the Opposition, members of the public and experts who commented on the system. If it had listened, we may have made more progress towards the introduction of electronic voting.
Mr. McCormack: I strongly support the amendment. If it is not accepted, it will provide further proof of the determination of the Government and the Minister to introduce electronic voting one way or the other. I hope all we have heard about the €52 million not being wasted and the voting machines being stored temporarily until electronic voting is introduced is not indicative of the attitude of the Minister and the Government.
If we are to continue to have faith in the work of the commission, whose preliminary findings the Government has accepted, the legislation cannot be allowed to pass without this amendment. In light of the commission’s report, I presume the Minister will accept the amendment and I would be astonished to hear otherwise. If he does not accept it, it will add to our belief and concern that one way or another, come hell or high water, the Minister and the Government want electronic voting introduced, regardless of whether the people want it or the system is proved. In this regard, I will quote from the summary of the commission’s interim report:
The report then sets out the legitimate reasons the commission was not prepared to give the go ahead to electronic voting at this time. If the amendment is rejected, the Minister will have power, by regulation, to introduce electronic voting or any other voting system any time he so wishes.
Yesterday evening, I asked the Minister to apologise for scathing remarks he made about Opposition spokespersons in an address to the House on 31 March, which have since been proved to be unfounded. He stated:
These remarks were completely uncalled for. Opposition spokespersons have not opposed electronic voting but its introduction without necessary paper checks or proof that the system is in order. We were doing our duty in pointing out inadequacies in the system which members of the public had raised with us. For the Minister to throw such remarks at people who are genuinely doing their job deserves an apology, particularly in light of the commission’s interim report, which contains nothing that Deputies Gilmore, Allen, Morgan and I did not raise on Committee Stage.
One would almost imagine that the commission’s report was written on the basis of the proceedings of the meeting of the Committee on Environment and Local Government of 18 December 2003, as reported in the Official Report. The commission’s interim report repeats all the concerns raised at that meeting and during the Second Stage and Committee Stage debates on the Bill. The Minister’s statement that the Fine Gael Party spokespersons, namely, Deputy Allen and I, did not know what we were talking about deserves an apology and lowered the esteem in which I hold him.
Deputies, as democrats, are elected by the people to represent them in the Dáil on an equal basis. Like the Minister, Deputy Allen and I were elected by the ballot box, not by electronic voting, to do a job, not to listen to guff of this kind from the Minister. I demand an apology for his comments about the spokespersons for the Fine Gael Party on 31 March.
Mr. Sargent: I speak from a slightly different point of view from Deputy McCormack because I was elected by electronic voting, which was a deflating experience compared to the excitement of the paper based system. Having said that, I will not argue with the result in my case, except to state that the standards of transparency and safeguards in terms of integrity and privacy referred to in the amendment were taken completely on trust and not verifiable. It was impossible to——
Mr. Sargent: If he were to read the report, and I believe he has read it, the Minister would find that the commission did not state anything of the sort. It is very important that we deal with those aspects of the report directly relevant to the amendment. In the constituencies in which the electronic voting system was used at the previous election, everyone, including staff, had to have complete trust in the system and take or leave the result because there was no way of checking, calling for a recount or knowing how the outcome would be presented. The appalling fracas at the count in my constituency certainly attested to that and overall confidence in the system was completely absent.
Mr. Sargent: I promise I will not interrupt the Minister. The commission has given us a thought-provoking and thorough assessment and it is what we have been trying to say without the expertise that it has at its disposal, other than the submissions that were made. We had the intuition and the common sense to see that this system was flawed. The commission has not been able to give assurances on the veracity of the system because it could not obtain access to the full source code of the system. Its report reads like a damning litany of doubt. It even claims that it is not possible to certify the accuracy of the software proposed for use at the forthcoming elections. That should put a brake on the Minister as it was obvious that this would be a problem once the commission was asked to do its work.
I was amazed when I read the assessment and the recommendations by the commission. It claimed the testing was impossible and there was an error in the count software and a possibility that there could be errors in the use of the machine by electors, especially in the context of a number of simultaneous polls. That would have been the case on 11 June, with four different polls taking place.
Mr. Cullen: How many hours will it take voters to cast a vote in June? People get confused with different ballot papers. Would the Deputy like to bet on it? Could he try to put a figure on it? That is sanctimonious claptrap.
Mr. Sargent: I am reading from the commission report as it is important that people know what the commission has said verbatim. The Minister must realise that the commission has a different view from his. It does not matter that he welcomes its report.
Mr. Sargent: I remind the Minister that the commission has a different view from that of the Minister. He wanted to rush this through before the elections on 11 June. The commission stated that that was not the best thing to do because the system was full of flaws and the possibility of errors would destroy the public confidence.
Mr. Sargent: I was paraphrasing when I said “full of flaws”. I will read from the report if the Minister would like me to do so. People who have an interest in the process of electoral reform and the Minister’s misguided plans should read this report. It is important people realise that Fianna Fáil is not the party that should be charged with amending the democratic system. It has a very bad name in that respect. It tried in the past, by way of a referendum, to amend the way in which the people elect their representatives, and the people rejected it at that time.
Mr. Sargent: I have done nothing of the sort and have not denigrated any returning officer. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. An arrogant Minister insists on foisting a system upon them that they neither asked for nor were trained to operate. Like the commission, they were unable to test the system. This amendment from Deputy Gilmore is timely as the commission has just published its report. If the Minister was serious about taking on board the work of the commission, he would accept this amendment. It does nothing except attempt to reassure people that no system will be introduced that is without transparency, integrity and privacy and is not verifiably so. That is a modest request and the Minister should accept it.
Mr. Allen: This morning I heard a number of comments by a female spokesperson from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. She spoke about the consequent costs of running the elections in June. I do not know who she is but the Minister should inform us in the House of the consequences in June.
Mr. Allen: Will the Minister keep quiet and listen for a change? If he stayed quiet and listened over the past few months he would not be in the pickle he is in. He has led the taxpayers up the garden path and dug a hole for himself.
Mr. Allen: The Minister will have the flexibility and freedom to do whatever he likes regarding the commission and the running of elections. He is incompetent and, worse still, arrogant in the performance of his duties and hides behind his spin doctors and anonymous female spokespersons who put a spin on the stories they provide to the newspapers. We have no confidence in his ability to run anything and therefore I fully support the amendment before us.
Mr. Morgan: I support the amendment. The Minister should note the difference between a terrible system that may be responsible for systematic corruption and individuals making a series of mistakes. I accept that the latter happens on a grand scale but it is much fairer than the former. We have already advised, through our debate on our amendments on Committee Stage, on what the Minister should be seeking to achieve in terms of a voting system.
Now that the Opposition parties have been vindicated by the Commission on Electronic Voting regarding the preservation of an electoral system that has the confidence of the public, it is important that we maintain this confidence. Therefore, the Minister should accept this amendment and ensure that, irrespective of the makeup of Government, nobody is put in a position where a conflict of interest arises between that person’s roles as officer in charge of running the election and as director of elections for a Government party. Clearly, such a conflict of interest exists. This amendment seeks to deal with it and it is worthy of acceptance by any reasonable Minister. I cannot for the life of me understand why it should not be accepted. The opportunity to begin to correct the errors in this Bill lies in this amendment. If the Minister is not prepared to accept it, it will be a rather telling judgment.
Mr. Cullen: I thank the Deputies for their contribution on this amendment. It will be only too clear to anybody listening to this debate where the Opposition has come from. The only thing it is trying to hang on to is the forlorn hope that, after the €42 million——
Mr. Cullen: ——the new electoral system will not come into being. I am happy to tell the Members opposite that the direct capital cost was €42 million. The rest comprises additions in VAT and taxes, as the Deputies well know.
Mr. Cullen: No, I did not. It is quite clear that there is one difference between me and the commission, namely, the commission needs more time to do its testing, as opposed to all the international testing that has been carried out on this system. I am equally happy——
Mr. Cullen: The reality is that this is a positive investment on behalf of the taxpayers. The Government, comprising the Fianna Fáil Party and the Progressive Democrats, will ensure that we bring this country into the 21st century in many different ways——
Mr. Cullen: Deputy Gilmore’s amendment, which would insert a new section into the Bill, is unnecessary. The commission’s terms of reference in Schedule 5 to the Bill, together with sections 21 and 22, clearly state that the commission’s reports will comprise recommendations on the secrecy and accuracy of the system, including the application or non-application of the electronic voting and counting of the Nedap-Powervote system for the European and local elections on 11 June 2004. In line with its commitment to accept the commission’s recommendations, the Government has decided not to use the system at the polls next month. Obviously, we must await further reports that the commission has said it will deliver to us. It should be noted that the commission stated its experts reported that the system accurately records and counts the votes. In particular, it stated that it did so at the pilot polls in 2002.
Mr. Cullen: It is understandable that once the commission decided on its own testing regime, it would find it difficult, if not impossible, to complete the testing given that the experts engaged by my Department took months to complete their work. Once the commission went down that road——
Mr. Gilmore: Can I deal specifically with the amendment? The terms of reference of the commission, which is now to be established on a statutory basis, are set out in Schedule 5. Under these terms of reference, the commission is confined to looking at the Nedap-Powervote system, and it drew attention to this in its report. Under section 5, however, the Minister is entitled to introduce any kind of electronic voting system. If, when this Bill is passed, the Minister decides to use some other system, a variation of the existing one or a different type of software for the county, the commission will have no function at all in this regard under the terms of the Bill.
The purpose of amendment No. 2 is to ensure that, if electronic voting is to be introduced, two conditions, at a minimum, are met. First, there should be general agreement across the political spectrum. The Labour Party, as we have said before, is open to reaching agreement on this issue, as it has been all along. Second, the commission should give the system the all-clear. We are now in a fortunate position because the commission has greatly enhanced its credibility among the public as a result of the report it published last week. It emphasises its independence and, as I said yesterday, has done a good job in trying circumstances. If electronic voting is to be introduced and operated for a future election, will the Minister give an assurance that it will be done with general political agreement?
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