Wednesday, 21 February 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister for the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Dempsey): An ongoing review of the electoral legislative code is essential to ensure its accuracy, consistency and workability. In view of the changing lifestyle patterns of the electorate and the disappointing downward trend in turnout at polls we must continuously examine the operational procedures of registration and polling to ensure that any obstacles or inflexible practices are remedied. We must ensure that the integrity and security of the registration process and of the voting and counting procedures are not diminished.
The Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000 is the outcome of this ongoing review. It seeks to improve the registration process, revise the conditions for registration of political parties and to clarify, amend and improve other aspects of the electoral process. It includes an important new provision for electors to decide that their names and addresses in the register of electors should not be used for a purpose other than electoral or other statutory use. It contains a number of other amendments including provision for the display of a large print copy of a ballot paper in the polling station to assist electors, especially visually impaired electors.
The Bill also provides for miscellaneous amendments to the Electoral Act, 1997 to improve the working of that Act for political parties, public representatives, the Public Offices Commission and others. It will also revise expenditure limits for candidates at Dáil elections to more practical and sensible levels than were set out originally in the Electoral Act, 1997. I will come back to this point later as there has been much comment on this single issue and an attempt by the Labour Party to create a climate of hysteria in relation to it. It is a pity that many of the other very good features—
The Bill does more than revisit and up-date the existing electoral code. It is also forward looking legislation which could have a profound effect on the way in which elections are held. In December of last year I approved the appointment of a Dutch/UK company, Nedap/Powervote, to deliver an electronic solution for the current manual voting and vote counting arrangements. The Bill will provide the statutory basis for the use of voting machines and electronic vote counting at elections. It will provide for the inclusion of photographs, first used at European elections in 1999, and political party emblems on ballot papers and will include provision for earlier opening of polling stations. It will also allow poll workers working outside the constituency or local electoral area where they are registered to vote.
Sections 1 and 2 are standard provisions dealing with citations, construction, commencement and interpretation. Subsection (9) of section 1 provides for the Minister to make orders for the commencement of the Act. This subsection is required because some of the Bill's provisions, especially in relation to the register of electors, require a lead in time to become effective. It is my intention that all of the Bill's provisions will be commenced as early as possible.
Part 2 of the Bill amends the Electoral Act, 1992, which is the principal Act providing for the registration of electors and political parties, the conduct of elections to Dáil Éireann and the arrangements and rules for the counting of votes. Sections 3 to 34 make a series of amendments to the code ranging from relatively minor technical adjustments to a number of new provisions.
Sections 3, 4, 32 and 34 introduce the first major change in relation to the register of electors providing electors with the opportunity to decide whether or not they wish their names and addresses to be used for a purpose other than an electoral or other statutory use. The edited register will exclude the names and addresses of electors who indicate that they do not want this information used for commercial purposes. Registration authorities will have three years to contact all electors on the register before the pub lication of an edited register is mandatory. If a registration authority is in a position to publish an edited register before the expiration of the three years it may do so. Commercial use of registration information excluded from the edited register will be an offence under section 32.
Why produce an edited register? The register of electors is a public document and is not covered by the data protection legislation. However, once it passes outside the hands of the registration authority and is held on computer the person concerned may have to register with the Data Protection Commissioner. If public representatives add personal data in relation to racial origin, political opinion or religious or other beliefs to a copy of the register they would be required to register with the Data Protection Commissioner. The register can be bought by anybody and modern technology allows personal information in the register to be more easily processed than previously.
Anecdotal evidence available from complaints suggests that the sale of the register for commercial purposes may act to discourage some individuals from registering. In addition there is an emphasis in data protection legislation that persons should be able to withhold their consent to the use of personal data for a purpose other than that for which it is collected.
In providing for this matter the choice had to be made whether to make it illegal to use the data in the register of electors other than for electoral or other statutory purpose or else seek to make it available subject to the consent of the elector. The Government has opted for the latter course in which electors are able to register their wish to restrict the availability of their personal details at the point of data collection. If it is found that most people do not wish to be included in the edited register or there is no demand for such a register then its discontinuance will be considered in future legislation. It is a matter I will keep under review. Section 55 provides for similar provisions for the Seanad university electoral register.
Section 4 also provides an enabling power to create a national register of electors which may be required in the future for further developing electronic, Internet or telephone voting and which will facilitate the on-line updating of the different individual registers of electors countrywide. There is also a provision that the preparation and maintenance of the register of electors can be assigned by order of the Minister to a body other than a registration authority. This would enable other organisations besides registration authorities to be involved in this process. There have been complaints over the years about the accuracy of the register and perhaps other bodies could bring new ideas on how to improve matters. Such a ministerial order would have to be approved in draft by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Section 6 includes two important and worthwhile changes. The first provides that a person  who is on a register of electors and moves residence from one constituency to another or from one local electoral area to another can apply for entry to the supplement at their new address. This is subject to their authorising of the registration authority to delete their name from the register of electors for the area in which they are registered.
This is a measure which I am sure all Members will welcome as particular annoyance is expressed at elections and referendums by people who are on the register but have moved residence to another constituency or local electoral area. Under current law such persons cannot vote in their new constituency and must travel to their old constituency, with the associated cost and inconvenience, to vote for candidates who do not represent their new area.
Section 6 also provides that persons who reach 18 years of age between the date the register of electors is published and polling day will be eligible for entry on to the supplement to the register. The proposed amendment is intended to clarify the position that a person who becomes 18 years old on or before polling day, including the period after the cut off date for applying to get on the supplement, can apply on or before the cut off date for entry on the supplement for the poll in question.
Section 10 replaces and extends section 16 of the Electoral Act, 1992, to provide that electors lists can be compiled in place of the draft register, register and supplement to the register. The use of lists would provide an opportunity to have a rolling register where it would be possible to add and delete names throughout the year. While the current supplement facility provides for additions, electors' lists could be a more efficient way to keep the register up to date. It would be an interesting exercise to try out electors' lists again using current technology. Following enactment of the Bill, I intend to consult with one or more registration authorities concerning the use of electors' lists. It is envisaged that the use of lists would be introduced on a limited basis, initially as a pilot scheme which could be reviewed in light of the experience gained.
Section 11 provides for a comprehensive revision of section 25 of the Electoral Act, 1992, concerning the preparation and maintenance of the register of political parties. Most of the amendments have been sought by the registrar to assist him in carrying out his functions as registrar and to provide for the registration of political party emblems. A review of the conditions for registration are also necessary as registration now covers more than just putting the name of a political party on ballot papers. Registered political parties are entitled to State funding for the administration of the parties if they obtain not less than 2% of first preference votes at a general election. The parties have certain disclosure and other obligations under the Electoral Act, 1997, and have certain rights under the Referendum Acts as regards “approved body” recognition.
 The main changes proposed in section 11 to section 25 of the Electoral Act, 1992, are: the introduction of criteria which new parties will be required to meet in order to be registered; a party can register an abbreviation, acronym or party emblem; the name of a party cannot exceed six words; a party can apply to amend its name in the register; and an application for registration and amendment of entry in the register will not be effective if the final decision is not given before the movement of the writ or the making of a polling day order.
Sections 12 and 13 devolve power in relation to polling schemes to local authorities. A polling scheme divides a county or county borough into polling districts and appoints a polling place for each polling district for the purpose of holding elections. Under current arrangements, the Minister confirms or otherwise a polling scheme prepared by a local authority and submitted to him. However, this is a function which should be determined locally, where the detailed local knowledge resides, rather than centrally in the Department.
Section 15 is a small but important clarification that a person who reaches 21 years on or before polling day is eligible for nomination for election. The current legislation does not specify the precise date by which a person must reach the age of 21 years. It is desirable to clarify the matter, as a doubt in one case ended up in the High Court.
Sections 16, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 23 provide for the inclusion of photographs and political party emblems on ballot papers and related matters. Photographic ballot papers were used for the first time in the June 1999 European elections to give voters additional information to assist them in making their choice. It was also anticipated that the measure would be of assistance to those with low levels of literacy. To assist in the assessment of the use of photographs, I commissioned Lansdowne Market Research to carry out research into the European election experience. The results of its research appeared to confirm anecdotal evidence at the time of the elections and since that people are generally well disposed towards the use of photographs. The survey results revealed that the attitude to their future use was overwhelmingly positive and there was also a fairly strong belief that photographs were of assistance to electors in casting their vote. Likewise, the feedback from people with literacy problems was positive. The Lansdowne report, however, cautioned that the use of photographs could introduce a bias in favour of candidate-centred criteria and I have decided, therefore, to include party emblems as a counterbalance to candidate photographs.
Section 17 removes an anomaly in relation to the recoupment of deposits and election expenses. At present, an unsuccessful candidate at a Dáil by-election can qualify for the recoupment of his or her election expenses up to £5,000 based on a quarter of what would have been the quota in the constituency had the by-election  been a general election. At the same by-election, however, a candidate may not qualify for a refund of their deposit of £300 as this is based on obtaining a quarter of the quota at a by-election. Section 17 will apply the same conditions to both the return of a deposit and the recoupment of expenses to a candidate in a Dáil by-election. Similar amendments are repeated in sections 29, 30 and 31 dealing with the count rules which include provisions for the transfer of votes if it would enable a candidate to qualify for a refund of his or her deposit.
Sections 24 and 26 provide that persons who are unable to read or write to the extent of not being able to vote can have a companion vote for them – at present this facility is confined to electors with physical or sight disabilities. Its extension to persons with literacy problems is justified and will complement the use of photographs and party emblems on ballot papers which will also be of assistance to such electors.
The proposed change in section 25 is in response to a considerable number of representations I received to the effect that polling day staff who are registered voters in a constituency other than the one in which they are employed are unable to vote. Section 25 will allow such persons to vote by post provided they are included in the supplement to the postal voter's list.
Section 28 is concerned with the secrecy of the ballot, particularly on islands where there are a small number of voters but also in other areas where there is a small turnout. This section provides that ballot boxes with 50 or less ballot papers should be opened in view of the public, including tally persons, but at a distance to ensure the secrecy of the ballot. Its purpose is to ensure that an agent or other person present at a count cannot identify the preferences of voters whose ballot papers are in a ballot box containing a small number of papers. An agent could surmise how a person voted from local knowledge or from the marked copy of the register of electors. Such a scenario is potentially in conflict with the constitutional requirement that “voting shall be by secret ballot”.
Section 33 will allow a registered political party or a non-party candidate to display one poster within 100 metres of a polling station on each approach road but outside the curtilage of the building in which a polling station is located. Complaints were made about the 1992 Act's requirement which prohibits persons from canvassing or interfering with electors within 100 metres of a polling station, to the effect that it is difficult to identify polling stations and this may discourage electors from voting who might find it difficult to locate their polling building. The use of a small number of posters near the polling station may remind electors of the poll as it has been pointed out that polling buildings have become less visible.
I turn now to one of the more innovative aspects of the Bill, the provision for the introduc tion of electronic voting and counting. As announced in last December's budget, the Government provided £500,000 in 2001 for the first phase of a programme to introduce electronic voting and counting for elections in Ireland. Following extensive research by my Department into available technologies and an international tender competition, a Dutch-UK company, Nedap-Powervote, has been chosen to deliver an electronic system. Phase 1 of the project is under way and will involve extensive testing of voting machines, election management software and PR-STV count software. When testing establishes that the system operates satisfactorily, the Government will consider using the equipment in a number of constituencies at an election or referendum, provided of course the legislative provisions are enacted.
The Nedap/Powervote solution will provide a large screen voting machine, which is successfully used in the Netherlands and in the German cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf. Election preparation will be run from an industry standard PC system and the completion of the count, using PR-STV, will be carried out on a standard PC and programming unit. The emphasis in the chosen solution is on security and simplicity. The system will be simple to use both for voters and for returning officers and their staff.
Vital functions will be available for authorised staff only and a new version of the election management software is provided for every election. Electors will register in the normal way at the polling station. They will record their preferences by pressing a designated space beside the candidate's details on the ballot paper displayed on the voting machine and vote by pressing the vote cast button. There is a facility for an elector to correct or change a preference recorded before the vote cast button is pressed. Votes cast are always securely stored in case of a machine or power failure.
The introduction of electronic voting and counting is a large and challenging project at the end of which, I am confident, we will have a system that will make it easier for the public to vote, provide election results within a few hours of close of poll, improve the efficiency of electoral administration and support a positive image of the country in the use of information technology.
Sections 35 to 48 provide a statutory framework for the use of electronic voting and vote counting. The number of sections may appear small but Part 3 will be applied along with the provisions of the Electoral Act, 1992, modified as necessary. One of the comments most frequently heard is that elderly electors may have difficulty using the system. Experience elsewhere, and the small pilot study of the Dublin South Central by-election, does not support such worries. If electronic voting is used successfully in countries with large populations and high illiteracy, I have no doubt that the Irish electorate will not have any difficulty with the system. As far as the elector is concerned, he or she will be replacing the use of  a pencil for marking preferences with a finger touch. There will be local and national educational and publicity campaigns on the introduction of the system.
I will table some textual amendments on Committee Stage to the sections in Part 3 to improve the text of the sections as they were drawn up and drafted before the preferred supplier was appointed. The changes will be as a result of discussions with the supplier.
Despite the innovative measures contained in the Bill, it is fair to say that a small paragraph in Part 4, to which I now want to turn, has attracted the most comment. The Electoral Act, 1997, was amended in 1998 to deal with a number of difficulties that arose in applying its provisions. This is not surprising given the complex reporting and administrative procedures that the legislation entails. The experience gained by the Public Offices Commission since 1997 has, understandably, given rise to a number of further operational difficulties. Section 49 revisits the Electoral Act, 1997, as amended in 1998, to provide for a number of amendments, most of which have been requested by the commission. The changes are listed in the explanatory memorandum and deal mainly with operational difficulties encountered in regard to the application of the legislation. The amendments proposed will help the commission, political parties, public representatives and others in making the legislative provisions work more smoothly.
Many of the difficulties, I suggest, may not have arisen if the original expenditure limits were set at reasonable levels. Candidates and Members of both Houses should be able to go about their daily business, whether acting as representatives of the people or campaigning at an election, without the need to carry a calculator or engage an accountant to ensure that every penny spent is accounted for. I have, therefore, taken the opportunity in this Bill to revise the expenditure limits at Dáil elections to what I believe are realistic levels. Section 32 of the Electoral Act, 1997, set the original expenditure limits for candidates at a Dáil election at £14,000, £17,000 and £20,000 for a three, four and five seat constituency, respectively. I increased these amounts in line with increases in the CPI on 13 October 1999 to £14,453, £17,550 and £20,648. I have always believed, however, that the original limits were inadequate and I am now proposing to increase them to what I believe are sensible and workable levels of £20,000, £25,000 and £30,000.
My position on this issue has been consistent. When the Electoral Act, 1997, was being discussed on Committee Stage, I proposed amendments to increase the limits to £20,000, £22,500 and £25,000 which, when updated for increases in the CPI to 2002, are comparable to those I am now recommending. Indeed, the two lower amounts I am now proposing are less than what the updated amounts would be in June 2002 if my original proposed limits had been accepted in 1997.
 At that time the Minister refused to accept my amendments replying that the limits in the Bill “are reasonable and it will be good for politics and good for our pockets when they are put in place”. Interestingly, since those limits were set and in the only practical application of their adequacy, candidates from Opposition parties have exceeded the statutory amounts in no less than three instances in five Dáil by-elections. The House may also be interested to know that the Labour Party had a total spend in those by-elections of £86,925 compared to £86,862 for Fianna Fáil – not quite the difference that some commentators might have expected.
The lesson from the experience to date is clear and should be a pointer to what will occur at the first general election where these limits will be applicable. It is important that expenditure limits be set at a level which will permit the running of an effective campaign without the need to engage an army of accountants and financial advisers to keep within unduly restrictive amounts. Following the next general election I do not want Members of the Dáil from any side to be under investigation by the commission for moderate expenditure over the limits, which I am sure would happen were the present amounts to remain. The revised limits I am proposing are based on the principle that an effective election campaign is an essential element in the democratic process. Clearly, the determination of appropriate limits is a matter of judgment. My judgment is that the proposed limits in the Bill are reasonable, balanced and workable and provide an appropriate framework for the regulation of election expenditure.
I note that one of the criticisms levelled at me was that there was no rationale in the documents released under the Freedom of Information Act for the increased limits I proposed. I have carried out a fairly extensive examination of the files for the 1997 Electoral Act and there is no rationale for the limits set in that Act, except the Minister's own judgment at that time. I say that merely in passing.
There are some pertinent facts which the Labour Party, and indeed some elements of the media, have overlooked in their comments on the limits proposed and it is important that I put them on the record. I accepted, as did my party, the principle of election expenditure limits in 1997 but at reasonable levels. The inadequacy of the current limits have been demonstrated by the inability of the Labour Party and Fine Gael to remain within them at by-elections.
I want to sound a note of caution, which was sounded in 1997 also. There is a major problem in relation to third party expenditure. There are constitutional issues in relation to imposing limits on third party expenditure vis-à-vis the right of freedom of expression. My own view, however, is that if a third party campaigns against a candidate, that candidate should have a reasonable opportunity to defend himself or herself within reasonable  expenditure limits. The limits I am proposing may not be adequate in such circumstances but they will help, especially when a single advertisement in a newspaper can cost thousands of pounds. While a third party has a constitutional right to freedom of expression, a candidate at an election also has a constitutional right to vindicate his or her good name. For example, the weekend before the next election any group can register with the Public Offices Commission and produce an onslaught in the media or through literature and leaflets, making all sorts of statements in relation to a party or an individual candidate. The issue which arises is whether a candidate has the right to place ads in newspapers to defend and vindicate their good name. It will be interesting if it arises and while I do not want to raise hares about it, it is a possibility. There is already evidence of it in some areas in relation to different issues. There exists a right to freedom of expression, but there also exists the right of a person to vindicate their good name.
The new limits are the same for all candidates and do not provide additional funds to Fianna Fáil. It is worth emphasising that what Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party are entitled to spend at elections is determined by the number of candidates nominated. It is open to the Labour Party to nominate as many candidates as Fianna Fáil, or more if it wishes.
Section 50 is largely concerned with consequential amendments to the European Parliament Elections Act, 1997, following the amendments in Part 2 of the Bill. One substantive extra amendment provides for the transfer of responsibility from the Clerk of the Dáil to a chief returning officer for a number of matters at European elections, including forwarding the election results to the European Parliament and receiving, storing and destroying documentation. Essentially, I am restoring the pre-1997 position as the Clerk of the Dáil does not have adequate storage facilities in Leinster House or the resources to meet the various demands that arise from his responsibilities in this area.
Sections 55 and 56 make amendments to the Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act, 1937, and the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act, 1947, to provide for photographs on ballot papers, an edited university register of electors, an advance to the returning officers for their expenses before the election orders are made and for producing the Seanad register of electors in electronic format. Section 56(c) repeals Rule 23 in the First Schedule of the Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act, 1947. The Clerk of the Seanad has requested the repeal of this rule as it cannot be complied with. It was linked with entering numbers on ballot papers, which was terminated in 1972.
 I hope to be in a position on Committee Stage to bring forward amendments in relation to the issue of donations. I may also move amendments on Committee Stage to delete the provisions of this Bill in relation to referendums as I may be including these and certain other provisions in a separate referendum Bill subject to the views of the other parties. The Government Whip will be raising this with the other parties this evening.
The Bill before the House can be characterised in two ways – it is innovative and forward looking in terms of electronic voting and counting, the provision of photographs and party emblems on ballot papers and provision for earlier opening of polling stations. However, it also revisits the existing electoral code to streamline registration arrangements, to clarify provisions in relation to age and eligibility to vote, to expand and update the conditions for registration of political parties and to improve the working of the Electoral Act, 1997, for the Public Offices Commission and elected representatives. Like all politicians and commentators I am concerned at the trend towards declining voter turnout in recent years. We must continually examine the statutory and administrative arrangements in place for elections and remove difficulties where they arise. The Bill addresses such issues and will help to modernise our democracy. Accordingly I commend it to the House.
Mr. Coogan: This morning at the instigation of Senator Costello and members of the Labour Party we asked that the Bill be removed from the business of the House today and returned later. The Bill is in two separate Parts. The first Part is quite good and contains much good housework and tidying up in terms of the Electoral Acts. It has a sexy provision regarding electronic voting which is very attractive to the media and the public and other provisions regarding the register of electors, all of which are worthy of debate in the House. In fact I would have liked the opportunity of talking about the system of electronic voting on its own and how we can ensure people's votes are protected and remain secret. Unfortunately, such issues were used as a subterfuge, a ball of smoke, a sleight of hand, a case of watch my left hand while my right hand is increasing donations. It reminds me of the sausage maker who wants everybody to buy the sausages but does not want them to know how they are made. The Bill is a trojan horse, with attractive provisions to hide Part 4, the miscellaneous section. God may be in the detail but the devil is in the miscellaneous section.
The first Part of the Bill deals with registration. I would like an opportunity to discuss the abuses which have crept in over the years in terms of the collection of names and how we can ensure the collection of names is correct and that the person collecting them does not have a political bias. I also want to tease out the list system and how the Minister intends introducing it.
 The Bill allows for a person who was registered in one area to apply to have their name included on a supplementary register in a different area. How do we ensure their name is removed from the first register? What proof is there that the person's name does not appear on both registers? Will there be an indication beside a person whose name appears on a supplementary register saying they were registered elsewhere so the presiding officer can ensure the name no longer appears on the original register? This could be wide open to abuse and I am sure the Minister will answer these questions in his response.
I wish to refer to party emblems and ensure that particular emblems are not used. For example, have we the right through legislation or regulation to prevent the use of extreme right wing logos, such as the swastika, or emblems of extremist movements? Does the Minister ever say a particular emblem should not be used or can anybody just push his case by standing for election? In the past if you wanted cheap advertising and were opening a venue called Discomania, all you needed to do was change your name to Discomania and stand at the local or general election. That would ensure publicity. This practice started with Dublin Bay Loftus but is now used in many areas. I want to ensure we do not have emblems that call on people for revolutionary purposes, either extreme left or right. We have the right to prevent that.
I move now to the issue of the use of photographs. Regarding the local government Bill, there is debate concerning the possibility of single issue candidates. We can draw a parallel between that and the candidate centred criteria. If somebody is photogenic and somebody else, like myself, is a little battered over time, will there not be a degree of influence in terms of the attractiveness of the photogenic rather than the battered?
Mr. Coogan: Neither the Senator nor I would fit into these categories. We are somewhere in between. There is, however, a more serious aspect that concerns the Seanad. I understand that when the person makes their nomination and pays their deposit the photograph will be attached to the form. In the Seanad elections it may not be so easy because it is not the candidate but the nominating bodies who hand in the nomination papers. This creates another layer to cause confusion.
Electronic voting is another matter I have questions about. I have a personal rather than academic interest in technology. I am curious to know how this will be introduced and how security will be ensured. If someone walks into a polling station with their sheet of photographs of 12 candidates, will the electronic display also show the candidates? Will there be perhaps photographs on the wall of the 12 candidates which could be tampered with by someone placing them numerically in their own order of merit and leaving them on display for other voters? These details need to be thrashed out.
The tallymen will be sadly missed when electronic voting is introduced. These extraordinary characters have added excitement over the years with their ability to predict patterns and transfers and explain the nuances of the process. It is also intended to do away with posters and the distribution of leaflets outside polling stations. These changes are dehumanising the election process and the excitement. I hate to see these traditions go. At least we will have our results earlier.
I wish to return now to the meat and gravy of this Bill and I am sorry that the Bill was introduced in this manner. The general statement in the explanatory memorandum implies there is only good in the Bill. It states that the purpose is to improve the registration of the electoral process; provide for the inclusion of photographs and political party emblems on ballot papers; revise the conditions for registration of political parties; provide for miscellaneous amendments to the Electoral Act, 1992; provide for the use of voting machines and electronic vote counting at elections; and provide for amendments to the Electoral Act, 1997, to improve the operation of that Act. This all seems fairly innocuous but it is not when one turns to the miscellaneous section. God may be in the detail but the devil is in the miscellaneous in section 49.
The Minister has said today that when he checked back on the deciding of the initial amount that could be spent at elections there was no rationale behind it. Does the Minister not consider that it is up to him to introduce a rationale? It is our belief that the initial sum, which in the 1997 Act was £14,000, £17,000 and £20,000, was sufficient. Whoever breaks the limit should be penalised. Penalties are there to be imposed and the degree of penalty could be increased with the amount of expenditure over the limit. In the 1997 Act the limits depend on whether they were three, four or five seat constituencies. If we were to base an increase in limit on the cost of living index the new amounts would be £14,453, £17,550 and £20,648. That is a reasonable increase. The Minister intends to introduce an increase of up to 50%. Who can spend this money? Only those who get it and the largest party will get the most. They will then spend the most and again get the most. Do we forget what is going on in Dublin  Castle? We again leave ourselves open to being declared bent, takers and users.
As the Minister is aware, we in the Fine Gael Party have decided that we will not accept any donations from any company, building society or friendly society. In this Bill it is stated that only disclosures of more than £4,000 have to be declared. We are totally against any donations of that nature and we believe smaller donations will enhance democracy. Has the Minister ever seen poison belladonna? It is quite colourful and attractive. It was in a beautiful bottle the only time I ever saw it. Like this Bill, it might have been beautifully packaged but it was still poison. This Bill is poisonous to the belief people have about democracy.
If we wish to re-establish trust in democracy we should remove this section completely. We should return to the 1997 allowances. Increased allowances will be seen as beneficial only to the largest party. The Minister is aware of this probably more than anyone as he is the financial trustee of the largest party. I ask the Minister to remove the section completely. He said he has advised the House that he hopes to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage regarding donations. Why not have an all-party agreement and then deal with the matter directly at a later date?
Mr. Coogan: I am not in the Lower House, not yet and possibly not in the future, depending on my photogenic attractiveness. However, had I been there I would have had something to say about this matter. I plead with the Minister to help remove the public cynicism. Last night I met a young couple, one of whom had been in my college in Galway. She expressed the view that politicians are all on the make and on the take. Because of what is happening in the tribunals and what is happening here today, I was unable to convince her that that is not so.
I ask the Minister once again to review his position regarding donations and to do the same as everybody else. Let the Government's policies and choice of candidates decide whether it is re-elected. We should not allow corporations with no allegiance to any political viewpoint except their own pockets to make political donations. They do not make a political statement when they donate, it is purely out of self-interest. Confi dence in democracy will be restored if this system of donations is eliminated. More young people will participate in the democratic system and will have more respect for and interest in this House.
Mr. Walsh: I dtosach báire ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire go dtí an Seanad inniu. Táimid buíoch den Aire go bhfuil tús á chur leis an mBille sa Teach seo. I welcome the Bill and am pleased the Seanad has been chosen to debate the Bill in the first instance. Given the tenor of the debate in this House and what has been happening in the Lower House recently, the Bill will receive more considered deliberation here.
I will take up the point made by Senator Coogan – no doubt the Labour Party will also take it up – the issue of integrity in politics. Public service is not held in the esteem to which it is entitled because of various controversies and the need to establish tribunals of inquiry. Feigned indignation and political posturing, particularly during the Order of Business in the Lower House, serves no useful purpose and adds to the cynicism to which Senator Coogan referred.
The Labour Party has made much play about this subject and it is ironic that it has the gall to do so. Its record is unparalleled in politics, with a total disregard for expenditure limits currently in place.
Mr. Walsh: Every political party has an obligation to act responsibly on such issues. A party whose leader was the recipient of donations to the value of £27,000 in his final year in office and which failed to report a £27,000 donation from SIPTU in 1998 to the Public Offices Commission is not in a position to cast aspersions. All political parties have a case to answer and so have individuals within parties. We are all obliged to ensure that the integrity of politics is restored.
 Attempts to muddy the waters and to confuse the issue of candidates' expenditure limits with corporate donations is disingenuous. People will see through that. Is the Labour Party endeavouring to restrict donations to other left wing parties in the future as it moves towards the right? That does not serve democracy.
The Minister has indicated that during Committee Stage of this Bill in the Seanad, he will introduce amendments on the subject of donations. I fully respect the right of the Labour Party to have a position on this, but I disagree with it. Political parties should not be 100% funded by the taxpayer and by the Exchequer. A combination of funding is my favoured option and I hope the Minister will impose limitations on the level of donations to be permitted. I hope these will be at realistic levels and that they will not be totally prohibited.
There is a need to make politics relevant in society, especially in a time of economic growth when our actions contribute to public opinion. I was recently told by a secondary school teacher that he asked the students in an exam class to name the political parties and their leaders. Fianna Fáil was named with Bertie Ahern as leader. Sinn Féin was the second party named with its leader as Gerry Adams. After a considerable pause, the Labour Party was named with its leader as Tony Blair. They could not name any more after that. This is indicative that people are not aware of political parties. We think everyone is interested in politics. I suggest that democracy is a very tender flower which needs to be nourished and pruned from time to time.
I join Senator Coogan in asking our colleagues in the Labour Party to urge their leader, who seems to be keen to make a political football of this issue, to participate with Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the other parties in formulating a common policy on donations. I make that appeal as a rather new Member of this House.
There are other points of electoral reform which I wish to see included in this Bill. Talk of Dáil reform has arisen because of controversies surrounding the Order of Business. Local government reform is long overdue and I hope the Bill dealing with that will be in this House soon. There is a need to separate local and national politics. A significant shift is needed from the bureaucratic approach in local government to a more democratically-based one. This would help restore the image of politics.
There are many issues, including whether there should be a change from multi-seat to single-seat constituencies, which are not included in the Bill. I hope they will be addressed in future electoral reform legislation.
There is recognition in the Bill that Ireland has changed and is now a leader in the technology sector. It is appropriate that we should consider the use of electronic voting in place of the ballot paper. I know the Minister for the Environment and Local Government is keen that this is achieved under the Bill.
 In Part 2 of the Bill, the move to introduce an edited register is a good one. Because of the number of mailing lists dealing with different issues, junk mail is now a feature of everyday post and is something we should try to avoid. People should not have to plough through myriad letters and envelopes to get to the issues they are interested in. This edited register will prevent abuse of the system and the Minister was right to provide for it in the Bill. How well it will be policed is another matter.
I note a suggestion in the Bill which the Minister did not allude to in his speech. This is that the functions of the current registration authority might be transferred to other bodies. If this is the case what expertise will these other bodies have over and above local government systems? There are three years in which to contact all electors before the edited version is published. Perhaps there should be a copyright on published registers and draft registers to add security to the process. People may decide to opt out of the edited register and if that happens the Minister should abolish the edited register so that it is not available.
There is a procedure to delete out-of-date electoral details and the Minister's liberalisation of the supplementary register is welcome. The purpose of the Bill should be to facilitate those in a position to vote and if the person drafting the register makes a mistake it is important that voters do not suffer as a consequence. Within the supplement of postal voters there is provision for diplomatic and Defence Forces staff, and those provisions are also welcome.
To register as a political party, current legislation states that members must be over 18 years of age and at least 50% of recorded members must be included in the register of electors. There must be 300 members in the party or alternatively it must have one TD, one MEP, or three local authority councillors. It must also have a constitution or a memorandum of association. I wonder if the figure of 300 members is too low. The proliferation of small parties concentrating on single issues in local areas might not be a great basis for democracy.
Section 15 of the Bill proposes that a person who reaches 21 on or before polling day is eligible for nomination for election. Given the youth of our population and as people have the right to vote at age 18 as well as being legally recognised as adults, there is a case for 18 to be the eligible age to be nominated for election.
Opening polling booths at 7 a.m. is a good idea. It will facilitate people travelling to work but it raises the issue of proper manning of polling stations. Election day is exceptionally long for polling booth staff and many with experience of election polling know that issues of heating, seating and other arrangements have often been unsatisfactory. Much preparation has been left  very late and problems were only addressed following staff complaints on the day of the election. Local authorities who will have responsibility in this area must play their part in addressing these problems.
I welcome the changes in section 24 and section 26 of the Bill but I would enter a caveat where the Bill provides for an illiterate person to avail of a companion to vote. We should be conscious that this is open to abuse and there may be need for a verification process so that the vote cast reflects the view of the voter and not the companion. Those with experience of these cases often wonder if the disabled or illiterate elector's view is correctly represented. I suggest that the residing officer verify that the view of the elector is being fully complied with.
It is a good idea that voters working in a polling station outside their own constituency will have the opportunity to be on the postal voters' list. I hope this will also apply to urban and local council elections. People who value the franchise and wish to exercise it have often lost their votes due to their work, and this will remedy the situation.
I appreciate what the Minister says about the secrecy of the ballot in section 28, but I have some misgivings. The Bill provides that a ballot box with less than 50 ballot papers will be opened in view of the public, but at a distance to ensure secrecy. There is an area in Donegal where great lengths were taken to determine the direction of one vote, but I will not relate that anecdote here. It might be very difficult to determine whether a person properly marks the ballot paper unless they put an identifying mark as to how they voted.
The tallying of votes is of assistance to the democratic process and to political parties, and with electronic voting there will be a return from each polling station which would clearly identify the number of votes received in each of the polling stations or ballot boxes. The current tallying exercise undertaken by all major parties will continue.
I welcome the change in section 33 from a position where no posters are allowed adjacent to a polling station. This creates a less than active environment around polling stations on election day and has given rise to a measure of apathy among potential voters. One poster may not be sufficient. I suggest that up to three would be best as often there will be different approaches to the polling station. Anything that ensures a greater profile for an election and entices or encourages people to vote is welcome.
I would go further and support a penalty for those who do not vote. People gave their lives so that we might enjoy freedom and democracy and the least voters can do is exercise their franchise. There should be as many inducements as possible to encourage voting.
In regard to section 47, one of the vagaries in the current system is the mix and the random selection of papers for transfers, particularly for  surpluses. With a computer system, it should be possible to eliminate that completely to reflect the precise composition of the votes and the onward preferences. The software should enable that calculation to be done.
The miscellaneous section has come in for adverse comment. Some aspects are to be welcomed. Extending the number and types of statements the public offices commission can return for correction of minor errors or omissions is good. There should be some flexibility in that.
The provision that persons should act in accordance with guidelines issued is essential and is now to be enshrined in legislation. The Minister made a very good point about third party expenditure in the context of election expenditure not being regarded as a donation and this will be addressed on Committee Stage.
There is a downward trend in the turnout at polls. We have seen this to some extent with referenda where an energetic case put by politicians is almost neutered and there is now just a debate by somebody for and somebody against. This has led to confusion and impacted on the interest in a referendum.
The amount of £30,000 needs to be viewed in the context of the Dáil election being the most important. It is the one that decides who will govern and that impacts on every citizen. A European Parliament election has a limit of £150,000. Admittedly the constituency is bigger, but there is not the same level of competition. There are no limits on local government elections. The limits which are mentioned are reasonable but they may not be high enough.
Mr. Quinn: The Minister referred to this Bill as being innovative and forward looking. I agree. I have listened very carefully to the Minister and there were some aspects that I had not noticed or understood before. I am particularly impressed that the university Seanad register will be in electronic form. I was impressed with the way the Minister explained the ability to use electoral lists in general for commercial purposes with the option for individuals to exclude themselves. I am one who in business terms has used that list over the years. I am also one who has received what others, before I became chairman of An Post, used to refer to as junk mail. There we refer to it as direct marketing. Using lists like that it is possible to identify whether something was coming from the electoral list or whether it was a genuine letter.
The right for someone with reading difficulty to be accompanied was referred to by Senator Walsh. I agree with him. We must be very careful about this. The secret ballot was established more that 130 years ago and we must ensure that there is no repeat of the abuse when the first Irish voters went to the polls knowing that their landlords could watch whom they voted for.
 We recently mentioned age discrimination in this House. I am delighted that people can now vote on their 18th birthday and that it is possible to stand for election at 21. Some of my children had difficulty voting because an election occurred in that in-between period. I think the Constitution states that a person needs to be aged at least 35 to stand for President and 21 for other elections. I am not sure if that really stands up any more. We do not have the right to say we know what age a person should have attained to be elected. Such conventions are from the past. I agree with the Minister that the new provisions are innovative and forward looking.
Part 3 of the Bill makes provision for electronic voting. While welcoming electronic voting in principle, I have grave doubts about whether the full impact of this revolutionary change is appreciated. We run the risk of messing the whole thing up through insufficient preparation.
I make a plea to consolidate all our electoral legislation. This Bill makes massive changes to several electoral Acts. It does so in the usual way, by means of amendments. What we have is what I call the patchwork quilt where we legislate by making changes on changes on changes. The original legislation is then virtually smothered under all the amendments.
During the Order of Business today, I asked the Leader to take into account the document published yesterday by the Law Reform Commission on statutory drafting and interpretation – Plain Language and the Law. At the request of the Attorney General, I spoke some months ago at an international conference at Dublin Castle on the topic of making language more easily read and understood and accessible to the public. If ever something should be accessible to the public, it is the area of electoral law.
There are many areas where we could benefit from consolidating legislation, for example family law. There is a special reason for doing so in this case. Electoral law unlike other types of law is a highly practical thing. The Electoral Acts are actually used in real life to make important decisions by people who are not lawyers. I am talking mainly about returning officers. These laws need to be consulted by people who are affected by the decisions returning officers make, the candidates in elections, their agents and their helpers. When we pass an Electoral Act we are not just creating another tome to gather dust on a lawyer's shelf, we are creating a handbook that will have to be consulted, usually in a great hurry, by people within a wide range of legal ability.
When I first ran for the Seanad election in 1992, I went to register and one of the other candidates discovered that he had not read the details correctly. I had to propose him, even though I was opposing him. This person was a professor who should have been well able to handle it, yet that sort of thing can happen.
In this case, above all others, we should aim to bring together our electoral law between the covers of one single Electoral Act. We should not  send people on a wild goose chase looking at a series of amendments. I do not blame the Minister for not doing this now. I would prefer to see this Bill go through. However, the Minister should take up this challenge. As an important aspect of democracy, the law relating to the central democratic act, our electoral process, should be simple, clear and accessible.
Section 48 of the Bill proposes to delegate to the Minister the power to amend by order several Electoral Acts, other than the principal Act, to bring them in line with the changes that this Bill proposes to the principal Act. That is a step too far. The purpose of delegating powers in legislation is to allow Ministers to regulate the details of implementing a policy and a framework that the legislation sets out.
This is different from giving a Minister power to amend primary legislation by way of order. I am sure the House will vigorously resist such an attempt to circumvent its powers and the powers of the other House and will insist that the place to amend the other Acts is in this Bill, not by orders made by a Minister under the Bill. I recall the fuss Senators correctly made during the debate on the restatement of legislation Bill which gives the Attorney General unlimited powers, including the power to print consolidated versions of Acts. Section 48 is much wider-reaching than it needs to be and is a step too far.
I wish to refer to the substance of Part 3 which makes provision for electronic voting. Senators who are aware of my enthusiasm for the information age will no doubt expect me to welcome this development with open arms. While I welcome it, I do so with caution as I am not convinced that the implications and practicalities have been fully thought through. I wish to look at the issue from two perspectives, first, a conceptual viewpoint and, second, the practical viewpoint of making it happen in real life with real people. Both perspectives offer food for thought.
At a conceptual level, what we are talking about is not a shift from paper-based voting to electronic voting. What is really at stake is a move from voting with an audit trail to voting without an audit trail. That is the basic difference. Let us consider the present system, old fashioned as it is. Its key characteristic is the physical existence of a vote on a piece of paper which is tracked at every single stage. Before a vote becomes a vote, it is counted in the sense that the number of ballot papers is carefully controlled. The issue of each piece of paper is recorded and takes place in full public view. A vote becomes a vote when a voter records his or her choice on that physical piece of paper. The voter can look at the paper and handle it before giving it up to confirm that the paper reflects his intentions. The fact that the vote is secret does not mean that it disappears from view. It is counted going into the ballot box and again when it is being taken out and it is guarded while it is in the box. The counting takes place in public so that everyone can see it and if  there has to be a recount the physical evidence is there to do it.
The entire process is so open and visible that the voter has total trust in the integrity of the system. To the best of my knowledge nobody has ever questioned the integrity of the balloting. Any accusations of fraud generally centre around the issue of personation, using a dead person's name etc. No one has sought to question the integrity of the ballot process. The fundamental reason for this is the existence of a physical audit trail from start to finish. Our unquestioning trust in the system rests on that foundation.
In the 1965 or 1967 election – I cannot remember the year – Eugene Timmons won a seat on the 14th count by four votes. Two friends joined my wife and me in casting our votes. When we heard that Eugene Timmons had won by four votes we felt pleased that our four votes had counted, that is until we discovered the following day that the two women had voted one way while the two men had voted another way. The point is that there was a piece of paper which could be repeatedly recounted on that occasion. I physically create my vote by marking the ballot paper and from that moment on the ballot is handled in a way which virtually eliminates the possibility of fraud or error. There is no fraud because the ballot is watched over, while there is no error because the raw material is there to recount if there is any question of doubt.
I want to compare that system with the one being put in place. Under the new system a voter will indicate choices by pressing the relevant parts of a touchable screen – I assume that is how it will work – and these presses will be electronically recorded on a medium such as a cassette or cartridge. The voter will not see the record and he must trust the technology to ensure that his voting intentions are fully and correctly recorded. There is no feedback, confirmation or guarantee that the voter's intentions have been properly translated into digital impulses. There is not even one of the notorious “hanging chads” to chew over – I only heard the term for the first time in December in regard to what happened in Florida – because there is no punchcard for a chad to hang on to. Our confidence has been shaken by what happened in Florida, but at least those chads existed and could be checked. I do not understand why they did not check every single one of them, but clearly the Americans have a different system. The case was made and the secretary of state for Florida decided that only a certain number had to be counted. At least it is possible to examine these chads and decide the voters' intentions.
Under the new system the moment of truth, the instance of voting, will disappear into a black hole and, to the best of my knowledge, it can never be retrieved from it. The Bill provides for detailed regulations for the care of the recording medium before and after the voting has taken place. The regulations will ensure that the counting process  can be done repeatedly. However, it does not provide for any means – I stand to be corrected – to allow us to inspect whether the translation of the voter's intentions into digital impulses was properly carried out. The new system will require an act of faith that the current system does not require.
The vast majority of people will make this act of faith but whether they are right to do so is another matter. Nobody who has ever been involved in the commissioning of a major computer system would put much faith in any system ever getting it perfectly right on the first occasion. Developing software is notoriously a matter of trial and error. However, in most projects it is possible to build in space to undo mistakes. The Minister spoke with confidence about what will happen, but I wonder whether that space will be built into this project.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Edward Tenner, a researcher at Princeton University, stated: “Many independent voting security specialists doubt that any electronic system can be both secure and anonymous”. He was making the point that the audit trail an ATM machine creates as a back-up against fraud is not possible in a secret ballot. Maybe we can prove him wrong, but this is also my concern. Electronic voting systems are, therefore, inherently open to fraud since a fraudster could easily bury among several thousand lines two lines of code which would affect the way votes are recorded. I am not so worried about fraud as I am a trusting person and am sure nobody here would attempt this. I am, however, scared stiff about the possibility of mistakes being buried in the software.
Mr. Quinn: Let me shift perspective and raise a totally different set of concerns from the practical, human and usability dimension I covered earlier. For more than 25 years, I have sat down once a week with a group of customers who very generously tell me what my company is doing wrong. They tell me about small practical issues relating to trolleys, queueing and the way in which goods are displayed and offered. Whatever some people might think, I am not totally stupid. One would think that after 25 years I would not have to go back to customers week after week and ask what are we doing wrong. However, the truth is we keep making mistakes all the time. We keep making mistakes because it is virtually impossible to anticipate exactly how things will work out in practice. We design something using the best knowledge available to us yet, from a user's perspective, it always looks different. Matters we think might cause problems turn out to be no problem, other matters where we see no problem turn out to be real sticky points.
I say this to emphasise just how steep the learning curve will be for voters during the transition from the present voting system to electronic vot ing. We need to have the system thoroughly tested from a usability point of view and we then need to invest massively in educating people to come to terms with the new approach. The approach will neither be quick nor easy. It will be much more difficult than just signing a cheque for the machinery. I am not implying the Minister suggested that would be the case because he certainly went further than leading us to believe that it is just a matter of ordering the equipment.
We must introduce electronic voting in a way that will make it equally acceptable to everyone, whether young, old, a technical whiz kid or mechanically averse. I am old enough to recall when ATMs were introduced. Older people would not touch them and would prefer to go inside the bank to cash their cheques, as they had always done. A number of them still do that. I believe there will be no choice in this instance. We expect people to adopt the new technology regardless of whether they like it. All the more reason, therefore, to invest in getting it right the first time.
The Minister and Senator Walsh referred to the disappointingly downward trend in turnover in politics, therefore, one of the objectives is to ensure we overcome that. I fear that if electronic voting is such that it turns off those who are computer averse, we may discourage people from voting. I appreciate that during the break the Minister's advisers gave me an opportunity to look at a sample of how the electoral system will work. I was impressed because it answered some of the concerns I expressed before lunch. One of the challenges for us is to ensure we do not dissuade or discourage some who might have voted from doing so. We must ensure we take all the steps in a logical and careful way and in a manner we are fairly sure will work. I do not know the history of this in countries with similar systems to ours because our PR system is probably different from most. Therefore, it may be that we are the guinea pigs in this area. I fear the assumption that technology always works first time.
I congratulate the Minister on what he called a forward looking and innovative concept. I believe a great deal in the Bill is worthwhile. The words I used indicate this but they also suggest where we might be able to improve the legislation.
Mr. D. Kiely: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment her on the work in her Department. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, on having the courage to bring the Bill to this House.
Senator Coogan said it was a sleight of hand type of Bill and that the Minister was trying to hoodwink people. The document is in black and white and can be read quite easily. The legislation to change the voting system while at the same time increase the amount of expenditure one can spend during an election campaign is quite open and transparent. I do not see any three card tricks or underhand tactics being used. It was very unfair for anyone to make such a comment in this  House. All the print is the same size and we can all read it.
There was mention of other legislation being introduced in the dark of night. Recently legislation relating to the increase in the salaries of TDs, Senators and public servants was introduced at 7 p.m. Everyone said this was rushed through at the last minute. I do not know what time of day these announcements should be made; perhaps we should pick a time of the day to make announcements on every issue. Twelve o'clock, whether day or night, might be a good time to make all these announcements and no one could say they are being hoodwinked. It is totally unfair to make these allegations.
Almost two years ago, I fought a local election, following which I had to submit my statement of expenditure. I did so quite openly. During that local election campaign I spent in the region of £4,500. To be limited to £14,000, including what headquarters might spend, is very little. I believe the Minister has not gone far enough in relation to what one might spend during an election campaign, given the cost of posters and other literature. Perhaps people are not submitting all their costs. The Minister is proposing to increase the expenditure limit to £20,000, £22,000 and £25,000, which is reasonable. Other parties say that just because Fianna Fáil puts up more candidates they get a bigger slice of the cake. There is nothing stopping other parties from putting up whatever number of candidates they wish. It is an open democracy and parties can put up as many candidates as they wish. Fianna Fáil assesses the situation and decides to put up what it believes is the correct number of candidates to fight an election campaign in each constituency. That is very open and democratic.
On the Order of Business the Labour Party criticised the proposed expenditure limits in the Bill, yet in the last three by-elections it was the only party to break financial guidelines. It is ridiculous to suggest that the biggest party can buy votes by spending more money. The Labour Party candidate won the 1990 presidential election despite the fact that it spent only a fraction of the amount spent by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, although it secured much free advertisement from various sections of the media which the other parties had to pay for.
There is much in the Bill I welcome. However, like Senator Quinn, I am concerned about the proposals on electronic voting. This must be given careful consideration and, if adopted, the proper procedures must be in place. It should be used on a trial basis for a by-election. The recent experience in the US is not encouraging. In the most advanced country in the world dispute centred on the status of chads on ballot papers in the Florida count of the presidential election.
The hand counting system has been honourable and effective and I compliment all those involved in it. I was involved in the count in the North Kerry constituency during the 1987 general election when, after two recounts, a mere four  votes separated Deputy Spring from the late Tom McEllistrim. We were able to analyse the votes as they were counted, including the spoiled votes. Each candidate had a representative present and the count was open and transparent. If the result in other constituencies were to be as close as that we must be satisfied that the electronic method of counting is accurate and satisfactory.
I welcome the proposal to include photographs of candidates on ballot papers and to provide for a new edited version of the register of electors to be produced on a supplementary list. That is important because registers are not being kept up to date. They often overlook population movement from one constituency to another.
Sections 24 and 26 make provision for the use of a companion voter by people who are unable to read or write to the extent of not being able to vote. At present this facility is confined to electors with physical or sight disabilities. I am concerned that a companion of an illiterate elector may not vote as instructed. Normally disabled or physically handicapped voters are accompanied by neighbours and the voting takes place in accordance with the rules. I have been involved in many elections and have rarely seen a companion vote gerrymandered.
This and other provisions make it easier for people to vote, unlike in the past where the register of electors had to be scrutinised to ensure that all eligible voters were registered. For example, when people reach the age of 18 years they are now automatically included on the register by the local authorities and people moving to live in another constituency can register at their local post office.
How does the Minister intend to operate the supplementary postal voters list? It is a good idea and should work well. He indicated that the proposed change, provided for in section 25, was made in response to the considerable number of representations he received. What proposals are envisaged to deal with people who work away from their constituencies, such as truck drivers?
Previous legislation rightly prohibited party supporters soliciting votes outside polling stations and stipulated that election posters should be kept a minimum of 100 metres away from polling booths. The Minister has indicated that he favours a relaxation of this rule, especially where polling stations are located in big towns and cities, on the basis that voters may be unaware of their location. This should not be overplayed. It would be wrong if there was a return to a bombardment of election literature outside polling stations. Perhaps a restriction of one poster per party or candidate could be imposed, although that may create difficulties where a party has a number of candidates. The Minister needs to give this issue careful consideration.
I welcome the Bill, including the proposals on expenditure limits. They are badly needed. It is unrealistic to fight elections, even local elections, on small budgets. Gone are the days of relying on  budgets of £300 or £400 or relying on farmers to take time off to canvass. We must adopt to modern realities, when electioneering has become more professional and the emphasis has shifted to communication by post, advertisements and leaflet distribution. Daily contact is being eroded.
People should be allowed conduct their campaigns as they see fit and in this context the expenditure proposals in the Bill are modest. I welcome the Bill and I look forward to contributing further on Committee Stage.
Mr. Coghlan: It is regrettable that this mainly good Bill has been marred by the insertion of section 49 which proposes to greatly increase expenditure limits. Many aspects of the Bill are to be welcomed, including the proposal to improve the registration of electors' process, to provide for the inclusion of photographs and political party emblems on ballot papers and to revise the conditions for the registration of political parties. That is the way to proceed in a democracy.
The provision to allow for the earlier opening of polling stations is also welcome. Given the recent American experience, there may be doubts about the use of voting machines and electronic vote counting in statutory elections. It is anticipated that voting machines, except for postal and special votes, will replace paper ballots while the manual count of ballot papers will be replaced by computer software. On balance that is to be welcomed. The more traditional among us will probably greatly regret the passing of the tallymen and the good humoured banter associated with counts. However, this is the way we have to move and we will get it right just as we got counts right in the past with the use of tallymen. We will adapt. There may be some teething problems, but they will be surmounted. I welcome those provisions.
The donations issue is the most crucial and most important matter on the political agenda at present. There is no doubt that there is a widespread belief that contributions from the corporate sector have influenced policy in favour of the interests of those who contribute and to the detriment of the interests of the wider public. That is something about which all politicians must rightly be concerned. One of the key lessons to be learned from the work of the tribunals, if nothing else, is that politics has to get rid of corporate donations. Ideally, we should collectively draw this line. I am sure the decent people in all the parties would subscribe to the view that politics must be seen to be clean, as anything else is to dishonour our democracy. I was glad to note recently that Deputy Fleming fully supports the banning of corporate donations and I look forward to his contribution when this Bill reaches the other House.
The State contributes about £3 million annually to the funding of political parties. An appropriate increase in that figure would compensate for a total ban on corporate donations. There is such  public outcry about donations that I am sure the majority would accept increased State funding of our democracy. The perception is – I am sure this was the reality in the past – that companies and individuals involved in them always got something in return for their corporate donations. There is an old saying that he who pays the piper calls the tune, and I have no doubt there was an element of that. Is the Minister happy that this proposed measure will allow his party to spend about £3 million or an estimated £1 million extra in the next election?
But the evidence that has been emerging from Dublin Castle and the work of the Moriarty and Flood tribunals about the grubby interface between business and politics has generated public pressures and concerns that cannot be ignored. The political mantra “no favours asked and none given” no longer satisfies the public. The very existence of large corporate donations is regarded as suspicious in a climate where politics and its public image require urgent refurbishment.
Mr. Coghlan: Apart from saying it, I believe it. Those who know me will know that I have been preaching this for some time – I would say, since I came into this House. I do not know why any party fears treading the country on the small contributions of ordinary people. I pose the following question to the Minister. Does his party wish to be seen to fund its next campaign with the help of large corporate donations? This would be akin to putting one's hand in the jaw of the tiger and I would not recommend it.
It is time the Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, recognised the unambiguous message that has come from the work of the various tribunals at Dublin Castle and cut the umbilical cord between business and politics. During the course of the last fours years, the public has been appalled by a succession of disclosures made to the McCracken, Moriarty and Flood tribunals about political donations, the buying of political influence, the rezoning of land and the subversion of the planning and political systems.
But the response of the political establishment has been slow and grudging. That is to be expected, given that corporate funding has traditionally conveyed a considerable advantage to the largest and most business-friendly parties. But times and circumstances change. Democratic politics is now under such threat  from a public perception of sleaze and corruption that nothing less than a clean break will do.
As we can see, the tide of public opinion is flowing very strongly against corporate funding. I note that my fellow county man, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, recently acknowledged the shadowy role of big business in politics.
Enough is enough. This issue is far too important to be treated as a political football. The public is punch-drunk from revelations of backstairs dealings and corrupt payments in the political and planning arenas. There is a crisis of confidence in the democratic system. And there is a need for a comprehensive renewal of Irish politics. Introducing new disclosure and donation limits for the corporate sector – as Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats propose – would not clear the fog of suspicion that has invested this grey interface between politics and business. The clearest and simplest solution would be to ban all corporate and foreign donations, as with the Quebec system in Canada, while capping contributions from party supporters and making up any shortfall through State funding. Already, the State provides about £3m in political funding through leaders' allowances and election spending. It would be a simple matter to add to that and it is highly unlikely there would be any Constitutional complications. Tricking around with a discredited system, while attempting to distract public attention by attacking Fine Gael, does not wash. The Government should recognise its responsibilities and end corporate funding.
Surely, the Minister must accept that we must now end the potential to corrupt the political process by banning all corporate donations. The Minister, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and other members of the Government bear a heavy responsibility to get this matter right and to be seen to give leadership and do the right thing. Politics must be renewed and democracy must be properly restored.
In many respects, the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, has been a reforming Minister. He has made many worthwhile reforms and has more in mind in the local government Bill which is about to be brought before both Houses. However, that makes it all the more difficult to understand his thinking on this proposal. No rationale has been provided for this proposal. I would say to the Minister that the public will think the Government is seeking these huge increases to buy votes, thereby increasing its dependency on wealthy donors. I urge the Government to desist from this course of action and bring about an immediate change. The Minister said something about possible amendments on Committee Stage. I hope the  Government will take on board the widespread views and fears that exist and which will further discredit politics. I do not think any of us in this profession want to point-score on this issue and I hope we will not do so. I sincerely hope the Government will make the appropriate changes which will meet the circumstances of the time so that we can go forward in a clear and clean way.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I welcome the Bill and the Minister of State, Deputy Hanafin, who has been to the House on several occasions. A lot of changes have been made in the Electoral (Amendment) Bill which have not been mentioned, but I suppose they will be on Committee Stage. The first things that come to my mind when we speak about an electoral Bill are the register, voting, the rules and regulations, the small poll and so on. I can never understand why the register is not accurate. Why on the day of the election do I find my friends saying they are not on it? I suppose it is my fault as well as everyone else's that there are quite a number of people not registered. If this happens in small country towns, what is it like in cities? Enumerators are employed by our county council, people such as retired gardaí or teachers who know everybody in the parish.
It is not easy to keep up with people coming of age. People who leave to work in other parts of the country may be permanently away in the eyes of the enumerators but in fact return on a weekly basis. One must be vigilant. A member of my family was taken off the register. I had to explain that he returned home every weekend and that his permanent address was in Dingle, though it might be easier for him to stay in Galway and vote for Senator Coogan. The Senator would probably like that.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: It is awkward if voting takes place on Thursday and someone working in Galway wishes to vote at home in Dingle. He has to travel down and back. We should look into the proper registering of voters.
Some welcome changes have been introduced over the last couple of years. When an election is called there is an opportunity to check whether someone is on the register and if not to include them. One of the most welcome factors is that the presiding officer, secretary and polling staff come from outside a community. I always though it was a fairer system where staff came from a different part of a county, but they lost their right to vote. The Minister has provided for staff to have the right to vote wherever they are working on the day of the election.
The Minister talks about using the register for commercial purposes. He does not say that he wants to use it that way but I would ban anyone from using the register for anything other than voting. It is totally wrong. Like most Irish homes,  my own receives five or six pieces of junk mail every day. Letters inform you before you even open them that you have won £40,000. If you follow that up you will end up buying something because that is part of the deal. The register should therefore not be used apart from for voting, excepting certain legal instances like the area of passports.
I have seen an example of how the electronic voting system works. People look at the system in the way I looked at the first car I bought that had no place for a starting handle. At that time people were so used to having cars with run-down batteries that they would automatically start them with the handle. Without the handle I asked myself how I was to start the car. Then I started relying on the battery. You could take that a step further by looking at parking. People have to put their money into a vending machine, press the right button and get their ticket. Therefore I see no problem with an electronic system such as I have seen which displays a photograph of the candidate.
Of course we will all miss the day of the count. That was always the best day in my life. Elections to me were the day of the count, not the rest of it. The best fun we got was in being so accurate in the tally down to couple of hundred votes. I am reliably informed that in the new electronic system each polling booth will give an accurate read-out of what each candidate got. That will be better for each party because up to now if there were a bad vote for Fianna Fáil in a booth that I was counting there was no way I was going to up it in favour of my view.
I welcome the introduction of electronic voting. It would be no harm to hold a mock election. There are issues in a lot of towns that people are trying to resolve with votes and plebiscites. That would be one way of introducing the system.
One of the biggest problems is the decreasing turn-out at the polls. The interest in voting does not seem to be there. This is down to the failure to bring in a reasonably compulsory voting system. I regularly visit Crete and was there during an election. One man there nearly broke his neck trying to get to the polls. I asked him what difference it would make if he missed a vote. He said it was the law that if he did not vote and sought unemployment benefit or a driving licence he would not get it. If you have not voted you do not belong to the system. That is what I was told.
We should look into that. I have a feeling that quite a number of the unemployed do not vote. In my town they do not. Some of the people who benefit most from political representation seem to be those least inclined to vote and we must consider ways of encouraging them to do so.
Members of the Opposition look across at this side of the House and urge Fianna Fáil to ban corporate donations as if they never accepted such donations. What has funded political parties over the years? I will accept any changes made in this area but we must be honest and accept that political parties must be funded. I wish Deputy  Noonan – whose wife I believe once voted for me in Castlemaine – well in his new role as Leader of the Fine Gael Party. It is unrealistic to expect ordinary people to provide donations up to £1,000. In south Kerry, we collect between £10 and £100 from members of the party who wish to contribute.
Oireachtas Members receive requests in the post on a daily basis to contribute to a race night in Donegal or some other function in Sligo. I wrote cheques totalling more than £700 in January alone, all for very worthy causes. However, I cannot afford to do this. Politicians are constantly targeted by organisations ranging from the St. Vincent de Paul Society to local schools. I am not targeted because I am Tom Fitzgerald; I am targeted because I am a Senator. Why should politicians have to use their salaries, to which they are entitled, to try to get re-elected? We must devise means of ensuring that a reasonable amount of money is set aside for people who wish to contest an election. I feel very strongly about this issue. I do not want to talk about hypocrisy but all politicians are in the same boat and require money to fund their election campaigns, however small. People running for election to an urban council, town commission or county council should be funded.
I urge all of the political parties to come together on this issue without any preconceived agenda. The differences between parties should be explored in an attempt to iron out the problems which exist. We would not have peace in Northern Ireland but for the fact that members of political parties there sat around the table together, having sworn they would not look at each other or shake hands with each other, never mind talk to each other. Great progress has been made in the North as a result of their discussions.
I am amazed that Deputies and Senators who argue with each other in the Chambers can subsequently go to the Dáil bar and enjoy a pint together. The funding of political parties is an important issue. Members of the media are going totally overboard in regard to the funding of political parties and the branding of politicians. I have heard and read in the various media that all politicians are crooked; that is a very unfair comment. People in all walks of life behave improperly but that does not mean anyone in this House is doing wrong. It seems to me that political parties are merely throwing mud at each other in an attempt to curry political favour and that is a sad state of affairs.
I hope all political parties can come together around the table and agree that a reasonable level of funding will be provided to election candidates. Election expenses should be jointly funded by the State and through fund raising efforts. I support the Bill.
“Seanad Éireann, believing that the pro posals in the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000, providing for an increase of up to 50% in the amount that may be spent by candidates at a general election and which will allow the Fianna Fáil Party to spend almost £1m. extra, will seriously undermine the reforms introduced in the Electoral Act, 1997, encourage the wasteful expenditure of money at elections, and further undermine public confidence in the political system, declines to give a Second Reading to the Bill.”
Listening to the Minister's speech and the contributions of Senators on the Government side, one might be forgiven for thinking that this Bill is purely a technical amendment to the 1997 legislation, designed to facilitate the introduction of electronic voting, curtail the number of posters outside polling stations, etc. Until recently, we believed that was the Minister's intention but this Bill clearly represents a fundamental shift in electoral law as it has been constructed in recent years. That electoral law was passed as part of a package of measures to modernise our democracy and make it accountable and fair but this Bill fundamentally alters the spirit of ethics and accountability legislation and is a major policy shift. We should not be surprised.
The Government obviously feels it must introduce this legislation. The Minister believes he is restoring an equilibrium but his version of equilibrium gives Fianna Fáil an advantage over other political parties when it comes to a general election. It is interesting to note that no general election has been fought under the terms of the 1997 legislation. By-elections were, however, fought under its provisions in which, for the first time, there was an level playing field. I do not need to rehearse the results of those by-elections.
Ms O'Meara: I will come to that in a moment. I am tired of listening – and I will be gentle in this remark – to totally misleading statements by members of the Opposition who are clearly in such a pathetic position that all they can do is suggest that minor overspends are major breaches of the law, which they are not. A £200 overspend hardly compares with an extra £1 million in the Fianna Fáil coffers to spend on a general election. That is what we are talking about. We are talking about Fianna Fáil restoring its strong, unfair position in a general election and, in so doing, undermining our democracy and the framework of ethics and accountability put in place in this House mostly at the behest of the Labour Party and against a continuing background of revelations of connections between business and politics.
I asked on the Order of Business whether we had any regard for what is happening in the real world, and in particular in Dublin Castle. Clearly those on the other side of the House do not. They  see the tribunals as an unwelcome but necessary investigation.
Ms O'Meara: I took note of Senator Walsh's remark that tribunals were set up to ensure that politicians adhered to standards. I would remind him that they were set up to investigate certain matters. It is up to those of us in this House to construct the framework of standards in public office, but we are not doing that. With this legislation we are setting aside a set of principles which we put in place in the past ten years specifically designed to combat the golden circle of business in politics and to establish a clear space between business and politics. That is what is necessary to underline our democracy, not undermine it.
We are fundamentally opposed to this legislation which is not about electoral reform, electronic voting, posters outside election stations or who should have access to electoral registers. Let us stop pussyfooting about this matter. Let us be absolutely clear what this legislation is about. It is about giving Fianna Fáil an unfair advantage.
Ms O'Meara: That Fianna Fáil is attempting to enshrine this outrageous undermining of democracy in the Electoral (Amendment) Bill shows how deliberately unseeing it is to the public reaction regarding golden circles and business funding on display in Dublin Castle every day of the week.
I have spoken about the background to the Bill. The fact that the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, should have been so sparing in his information with regard to his intentions on this legislation up to his publication of it strikes us as strange. Last October the Taoiseach said, in reply to a question on the Order of Business on this matter, that the Bill would make simple amendments to electoral legislation such as photographs on ballot papers and so on. Even at that stage in October, no hint was being given of the bombshell this Bill was to contain. We would go as far as saying that since last autumn the Taoiseach and the Minister effectively decided to keep this information to themselves and to hide it from the Dáil and the public, yet documents released since then under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Minister had every intention of increasing the limits as far back as February 2000.
The effect of the changes in this legislation are anything but minor. The Bill passed in 1997 allowed for indexation for inflation and so on and despite the fact that we have higher inflation than  we would want, the increases contained in the Bill are well beyond that and beyond what is required on the ground.
Ms O'Meara: Senator Walsh's comments are getting a little worn. As the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, rightly pointed out, the Minister who introduced the original legislation in 1997 refused to accept amendments to increase the limits because he said the limits were reasonable, good for politics and good for our pockets, which the current limits clearly are not. The Minister said in the House this morning that he had always believed the original limits were inadequate, and he did not need any other justification. As the freedom of information request showed, there were no other justifying arguments in the files. The Minister clearly believed from 1997 that the original limits were inadequate and it was always his intention to increase them. He did not need any justification so he just went ahead and increased them. However, those increases will have the effect of eliminating the level playing pitch and giving the larger party, Fianna Fáil, an unfair advantage.
For instance, in a three seat constituency such as my own in Tipperary North, the limit would increase from just over £14,500 as it currently stands to £20,000. We have already done our budgeting for the next election and we are happy that we can operate within those limits and run an effective campaign but we will not waste money. We will not engage in last minute vitriolic attacks by virtue of leaflets, etc., on our rivals and the other candidates nor will we lash out money on a slush fund basis around the constituency as Fianna Fáil generally likes to do, and we will not buy votes. A limit of £20,000 will generate wasteful spending and will allow that margin for vote buying. The Bill is clearly designed to do that.
The other provision in the Bill, which I consider to be an insidious amendment to the original 1997 legislation, is what the explanatory memorandum calls clarification that minor expenditure is expenditure not exceeding £100 in any one payment. It is creating a situation where any number of unlimited £100 payments can be made without recording and without having to be disclosed. That is one of the most abhorrent elements of this legislation because that is where the slush fund really operates. That is where someone can really go to town on vote buying exercises.
I do not have to tell the Minister or any other Member of this House the kind of practices we have seen taking place at election time, where drink is bought wholesale in pubs, bills are paid  for people in households and various other practices that are engaged in to create an unfair advantage and buy votes. Is that good for politics? It is not. That provision, which is anything but a clarification, seems to be designed specifically to allow for the throwing around of money at election time and is an invidious element to this legislation.
The unfortunate aspect of this is that there are some welcome provisions in the Bill, such as the introduction of electronic voting, which I saw a demonstration of last year by officials of the Department of the Environment and Local Government. That is an excellent idea. The introduction of photographs on ballot papers is similarly a welcome proposal which went down well with the electorate, including elderly people, and not just those who would have literacy problems, as the Minister mentioned. People reacted very favourably to the inclusion of the photograph and the party insignia, which is an excellent idea.
Regarding posters outside polling stations, I concur with what the Minister said in that many people do not know where the polling station is located. Sometimes they are moved from one station to another and even people who have been voting at the same station for many years can become confused, particularly when they do not have children in school and are not familiar with the location of a school. However, I accept the provision is balanced and there will be no massive proliferation of posters which we had in the past, nor the necessity for voters to run the gauntlet of party workers, especially from teatime, cajoling people to vote for their candidate. A polling station will still remain a quiet place but people will know where it is located. However, there might be a role for local authorities and those charged with stating where a polling station is located to advertise the location on the roadside as well as the door of the polling station.
Ms O'Meara: —to be accurate, within a total spend of £17,550. In the case of the overspend in the Dublin North by-election, the Public Offices Commission concluded “the overspend had not knowingly been incurred and the amount was not material”.
Ms O'Meara: In the case of the Dublin Central by-election the Public Offices Commission concluded that “the agent did not knowingly cause an overspend to occur and the amount of the overspend was immaterial”.
Ms O'Meara: Both cases related to the teasing out of the details of the spending limits. I have canvassed in many of the by-elections and have worked closely with election teams, and I realise  the legislation is complicated and that some elements need clarification. The overspend had nothing to do with the limits being too low.
Ms O'Meara: —which should be held under legislation, which would create an even playing pitch for everybody. That will end with this Bill as it will simply give Fianna Fáil back the advantage it always believed it should have.
Ms O'Meara: I wish to refer to comments made by Senator Fitzgerald on State funding of political parties. I agree with him, but do not agree with a two-tier system. There should be full State funding of political parties as it is the only way to guarantee transparency and a break in the link between business and politics. Senator Fitzgerald asked how we should fund elections. If the taxpayer funds political parties in elections and there is an even playing pitch for every party, we would all know we were voting for the candidate and not the person who gave £50,000. It would be a very good day for democracy if such was provided for, but this Government will never allow it to happen.
Mr. Ryan: Senator Tom Fitzgerald raised some valid points about the costs of politics and the extreme pressure that being in politics puts on individuals in terms of expectations of the public etc. I and my party believe that in the interests of good politics we must have proper public funding of politics and the associated process. I am talking about money being provided by the State which is accounted for through the Public Offices Commission and which is used exclusively for the purposes for which it is given to politicians, that is, for the pursuit of politics, not for the purchase of expensive shirts in Paris. We have a very clear view on this. The difference is that we believe politics should be fair and should have rules which are enforced by an impartial body, namely, the Public Offices Commission. The Public Offices Commission said the Labour Party did nothing significantly wrong.
Mr. Ryan: Fianna Fáil's big problem is that it likes to control everything and that the Public Offices Commission is not under its control or owned by it. Because of that Fianna Fáil chooses to ignore the commission. Let me explain Fianna Fáil's niceties regarding the rules.
Mr. Ryan: They are in a frenzy about £500, but they will happily socialise in the House with a man who spent a week in jail because he deliberately obstructed a commission of inquiry into precisely the sort of activities which have brought politics into disrepute. They think he is a hero and treat him as such. They socialise with him and listen to his stories. The same people turn on us  and talk about £500, the sort of money that the individual from the Fianna Fáil background who ended in jail would not think of spending because it was such an insignificant sum in his personal life and in his political career. They then turn on us as if overspending by that sum was the gravest mortal sin.
I have no problems with people who make mistakes or with the fact that Fianna Fáil makes mistakes. At present it is running what is perhaps the worst Government in the history of the State. I accept that it does not deliberately make a mess of it. It just happens because it is not able for it. I do have a problem with the deliberate attempt to change the rules because it knows it can get its hands on sums that nobody else can. It has succeeded in doing that in recent years.
There was a time when they were a small party with little money who relied on the ordinary people and their voluntary effort to build what was a great movement. They had values, principles and believed people went into politics to make a sacrifice and do good. They would have found the idea that a person enters politics to become rich repulsive. My own father would have been repulsed by the idea that there was money to be made out of his involvement in Fianna Fáil.
I am fascinated by Fianna Fáil's obsession with the £500 that the Labour Party overspent and also by their apparent belief that this is the greatest offence that has happened in the last three years. This is a party which did not notice when Ray Burke was snaffling £30,000 or £60,000. They did not notice that their party leader for 12 years was living a lifestyle which necessitated an expenditure annually of about ten times his Oireachtas salary. It never crossed their minds nor did they even wonder about it? Everybody in this House except the members of Fianna Fáil was asking how he could afford the lifestyle. Nobody among the mostly decent members even noticed.
Fianna Fáil's problem is that the party comes first. It is about time the party emerged from its cloud of confusion into the real world. It must realise that it is obvious to the people what is going on. Whatever global opinion polls say, real tests of public opinion in general or by-elections show their vote is slipping yet they do not understand why. It is because it has walked away from what it once stood for.
It is a great pity that a Bill that could have produced significant and sensible reforms has been spoiled by what is a clear attempt to restore an advantage to Fianna Fáil, which is hurting from the fact that it cannot swamp the place with money. It cannot swamp a by-election with resources and with money because the law says no. One of its problems is it has difficulties with laws that are enforced. Laws to them are nice gestures but you must be able to get around them. Unfortunately, Fianna Fáil culture promotes the idea that things can be “sorted out”.
The basic issue here is how much money we need to spend in an election. This was argued in the Oireachtas during the period of the rainbow  coalition. The Oireachtas voted then in favour of a certain figure but now that Fianna Fáil is again in power it wants to change it. They suggest that because the smallest of the three major political parties overspent by the sort of sum that many people in Fianna Fáil would spend on a good night out that justifies allowing them to raise and spend £1 million. I know people in Fianna Fáil are both literate and numerate but how many times bigger than £500 is £1 million? It is 2,000 times higher, yet they continue to divert public attention so they can hold on to their sources of funds, the corporate sector they have looked after so well. Those speculators who were threatened with 60% capital gains tax and who have had that threat removed in the last two weeks will troop in to contribute to the coffers of the party that saved them 40% in capital gains tax on their scandalous speculation in people's need for housing. All the bookies and gamblers will contribute because they abolished a large part of the betting levy and also the very rich who have had estate duty and other taxes reduced.
Fianna Fáil will, as a result, have its slush fund for the next election. If only Fianna Fáil was swamped I would not mind but its slush fund will taint all of us. Its great political achievement over the last number of years is to imply that what is going on is somehow a reflection on the corruption of a small number of politicians in all parties. There is only one person from outside Fianna Fáil in the political system being investigated by any tribunal. In the period from 1977 to 1997 when certain people became leaders of Fianna Fáil and the world in many ways fell apart, the party that spent most time in Government was the party of which I am a member. Fianna Fáil was in Government for less time in that 20 years—
An Cathaoirleach: I apologise for interrupting but I would like to welcome to the Visitors Gallery the Rt. Hon. Thomas Clarke, MP, the Westminster member for Coatbridge and Chryston. You are very welcome, Mr. Clarke.
I am at a loss to understand why a party that is allegedly sophisticated and used to have the capacity to win votes and to have a feel for the mood of the people has got itself into this situation. Once, on the Order of Business, I suggested that Fianna Fáil had only one core value left and that was money. This particular exercise suggests that. They have recognised that the restriction on their ability to spend money is affecting them electorally. They have calculated that the damage this will do to them politically is less than what they believe they can buy with the extra expenditure. They have spent the last month or two trying to defend the indefensible and turning on this party. This party spotted what they were at, this party told them and the public what they were at, and this party will continue to inform the public.
On the Order of Business today my party and I suggested that this Bill should not be taken. A few small sections of this Bill crystallise something which is not just a matter of political dispute but which has been a fault in politics in recent years.
I refer to the increased permitted expenditure and the definition of minor expenditure as £100. There are at least 500,000 people in this country to whom £100 is an enormous sum of money. Many people have been told by this rich State that they should be able to live on less than £100 per week. To classify this amount as minor expenditure is designed to leave the Government another escape route and at the same time to insult half a million people at least.
It is most regrettable that we have this legislation before us, tainted as it is with the worst side of Fianna Fáil. It taints us all. Notwithstanding what has been said, both in this House and by media commentators, Fianna Fáil is determined to spend, spend, spend in the next election. This determination has allowed that party to ignore the reality that not only itself but also politics is being damaged. It brings us all into disrepute, just as vulgar expenditure on by-elections and general elections did in the past.
We in the Labour Party recognise clearly, as do Fine Gael and most people, that it is an era which  is in the past. The new era is one of limited expenditure, transparent expenditure and of clean politics in which the public are not bombarded with expensive advertising. The Labour Party is fundamentally opposed to this Bill.
Mr. Mooney: I have just listened to what can only be described as a diatribe from a man for whom I have always had a great deal of respect. I thought he would have raised the level of debate by making what would be termed a valuable contribution. All he has succeeded in doing is insult about 40% of the population who consistently vote for Fianna Fáil. He has accused them of being crooked, corrupt money grabbers, only interested in lining their own pockets. I find it offensive. If Fianna Fáil were to use Senator Ryan's speech as its election manifesto in the next election, its vote would easily be increased by 50% and the Labour Party would find its vote reduced from the measly 10% where it currently languishes in the polls.
I have no intention of becoming involved in a low level, low rent contribution to this debate and I am appalled at Senator Ryan. I should not be surprised. Ever since I was a child, I have learned to live with the reality that the Labour Party has always felt the need to attack Fianna Fáil. Perhaps it finds this necessary to make up for its own shortcomings in electoral terms. Strangely, the more it attacks Fianna Fáil, the better Fianna Fáil's results in the polls. My mother advised me many years ago to turn the other cheek when faced with a bully. The Labour Party is merely trying to entice us into the same low level of debate that it engages in.
I will not attempt to clamber up on the high moral ground that Senator Ryan and his colleagues occupy. The Senator has spent 15 minutes talking about a Bill which contains very important and innovative proposals, yet he merely launched a personalised attack on Fianna Fáil Members in this House and on the wider Fianna Fáil family. To seriously suggest that the Fianna Fáil Party is wholly concerned with guarding its own interests flies in the face of history and in the face of its record in government. Fianna Fáil has consistently been returned to Government.
I find it rich that Senator Ryan talks about the £100 and he is not only a Member of this House but also a full time third level lecturer. Very few of us have the luxury of two or three jobs and can operate—
Mr. Mooney: Let us be blunt about the meaning of this. It is to deflect attention from innovative legislation and an intention to set an agenda. When it comes to getting down into the dirt of the marketplace and getting down into fighting our corner, no member of the Fianna Fáil Party will be found wanting. If the Senator wants a dirty  fight, he will get a dirty fight, because it is the only way—
Mr. Mooney: —that the Labour Party has ever operated. It tries to deceive the people by moving aside from the real agenda. Thankfully, the electorate have a different view of things at the ballot box. I know the innovations in this legislation will be welcomed and Fianna Fáil will secure more votes as a result of it. The Labour Party will get far less votes than Senator Ryan thinks it will get.
What has really annoyed me so much is that the Senator has attacked ordinary decent people, the people I and my colleagues live among. I would suggest that Senator Ryan and his colleagues also live among these people.
Mr. Mooney: Senator Ryan seems to get an attack of rabies when he comes into this House. We do not need outside contributions from Senator Norris, because he is not part of this at all. He sits on the sidelines because he has the luxury of being an Independent.
I will give credit to the Labour Party for being the masters of spin. It certainly takes some beating. We could conveniently forget that in government the Labour Party supported a tax amnesty. It supported the very thing that it did not support when going around the country. Many of us in the Fianna Fáil Party were not in favour of the tax amnesty but the Labour Party in government supported it.
A Labour Party Minister of State sent invitations to meet the then Minister for Finance, also a Labour Party member. The catch was that £100 had to be paid for the privilege. We could talk about a lot of other things along the same lines. This side of the House can play as dirty as the Labour Party if that is required.
Mr. Mooney: Charlie Haughey can speak for himself. The most investigative journalist in this country, Vincent Browne, was the first person to put his hands up and say that despite all his efforts and all the resources available to him, even he was surprised and amazed at the revelations that came out of the tribunal in relation to that particular gentleman's lifestyle. There is no  need to lecture those of us in the Fianna Fáil Party—
On the question of political donations, the reality is that since the 1997 Act introduced spending limits the total spend by the Labour Party in by-elections was £86,925 compared with £86,862 for Fianna Fáil. That should be stated and re-stated.
Mr. Mooney: You cannot compare Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael with the Labour Party in discussion on the increase in election spending limits. The Labour Party nearly always nominates one candidate per constituency contested. Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael nominate an appropriate number of candidates relative to the number of seats that are available in a constituency, which inevitably means that there will be greater expenditure. Logic dictates that more will be spent by Fianna Fáil than by Labour and I do not know what is wrong with that.
The Public Offices Commission that came into being in 1997 is of great concern. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, referred to the fact that he did not want Members of the Dáil under investigation by the commission for moderate expenditure above limits. This will happen if present spending limits remain. What concerns all Members is the way in which the Public Offices Commission has operated regarding spending limits. It did not, as is the norm, set out the rules and regulations to be followed in adhering to legal limits and constraints. When a query has gone to the commission in relation to expenditure at election time it has tagged that on to the list.
I can give details applying directly to the Labour Party when there was a query put into the commission at the Dublin South-Central by-election. The candidate and now Member of this House, Deputy Upton, asked if child care costs would be included as election expenditure. The answer from the commission, to its eternal shame, was yes. We should not allow that to continue.  The legislation was introduced by politicians of all parties and it is time to regain the ground lost.
This House is the legislative power, rather than an un-elected commission that seems to interpret every query as an additional constraint on the exercise of democratic activity. I do not believe Senator Ryan or his colleagues agree that should continue, irrespective of what view they may have about increased spending limits. There is an inherent threat to democracy and the Minister should get off the fence on this and limit the power of the Public Offices Commission to tag on extra expenditure based on queries coming in from candidates.
It is time to bite the bullet. In the past decade, parliamentarians have allowed a slow haemorrhage of power from this House to third agencies which are unaccountable, apart from presenting an annual report which is often buried. I hope the Minister will address the powers of the commission, or at least clarify what the limits or parameters of its powers are when it comes to queries on election expenditure.
The Minister stated, and it needs to be re-stated, that the new limits are the same for all candidates and do not provide additional funds to Fianna Fáil. It is difficult to raise funds to fight an election campaign whether at local council, Dáil, Seanad or European level. The vast majority of candidates seeking election at any level are ordinary, decent, hard-working people who do not get the corporate donations that Senator Ryan suggests.
It is amazing that Senator Ryan can twist logic on its head by suggesting that all such donations are flowing to my party, Fianna Fáil. On the current statistics, nearly half the people of this country vote consistently to re-elect Fianna Fáil Administrations. It is inevitable that there is an attractive outlet for those who wish to take advantage of people in power. To put the matter at its bluntest, while not trying to defend the practice, it is inevitable that the party in power is going to attract those with bags of cash who think they can buy their way into power. I have no more time for carpetbaggers than anyone else.
Mr. Mooney: It is done and it was done by all parties in Government, and do not suggest that the Labour Party is isolated from those who want to follow their own agenda. I would not say it was unusual for a person who wanted to advance a personal agenda to approach a Labour Minister in Government. They might be prepared to put money on the table to do it behind closed doors. Do not suggest that Fianna Fáil is somehow corrupt or weak or pursuing self-interest simply because it has been in Government as long as it has. It has discharged its responsibilities according to the mandate the people have repeatedly given it.
Mr. Mooney: I applaud the Minister for introducing electronic voting as it is past time that the measure was brought in. I would like clarification on section 6 of the Bill, which relates to the deletion of names. There is a question mark about how the names are deleted.
In section 24, the Minister refers to proposals where persons unable to read or write to the extent of not being able to vote can have a companion vote for them. In section 25, those who are registered voters in a constituency other than the one in which they are employed may use the postal vote. Both of these sections are open to abuse and I hope they will be strictly monitored, particularly in relation to those who have literacy problems.
Sadly many who have literacy problems do not admit this and there are unscrupulous people in all parties who will take advantage of that by voting against their wishes. There will be people in flatland who will stuff letter-boxes with ballot papers to take advantage of section 25 and I hope that situation will be monitored.
Mr. Norris: I can gratify Senator Mooney's wish as I undertake to elevate the level of discussion. It is sad to see my colleagues in political parties knocking sparks off each other in this undignified way. It will only serve to disillusion voters, in the unlikely event that they watch recordings of the proceedings. It is also unlikely that the Seanad will be covered in the media due to the violently partisan type of debate and that is a real pity. It serves to lower the perception of the honourable profession of politics in the public mind.
Mr. Norris: I felt that Senator Tom Fitzgerald was a reasonable voice from the Government side and it is a pity there were not more along those lines. He seemed to suggest a fairly civilised way of dealing with things without this kind of acrimony and spite. There is suspicion, as there always is when people are dividing out money. I know the term gerrymander; some people would regard this as some kind of “moneymander” by Fianna Fáil. Whether or not it is, this certainly lies behind the amendment tabled by the Labour Party which, having listened to the arguments, I am more inclined to support than I was before the debate began.
I applaud the new leader of Fine Gael, Deputy Michael Noonan, for his action on corporate  donations. I look forward to the other parties following suit. It is a pity that the Minister was only able to promise something about donations in his speech. He did not do it in the Bill and I wonder why he did not hold on to the Bill until he could do something. This would have been a very positive moment to do it, particularly with the scandals that are going on.
Mr. Norris: I hope so too and that is what Senator Fitzgerald was saying. Party politics should not be played with this issue because the credibility of the public, the belief in the political system, is far too important. There was a young lad in the Gallery and I asked him had he ever voted. He said he was 16 and had never voted. I asked him if this debate would make him more or less likely to vote and he said definitely less. It was really a case of a plague on both your houses. That was just one little voice, but we need to be aware of that. Let us, as politicians, not disillusion the public any further.
We should get rid of corporate donations. I have no doubt that they have always been made and that they were made to Governments and parties who had the capacity to ignore them and lay them to one side. However, by giving large sums of money a context is created in which there is a likelihood of an even unconscious prejudice in favour of the person who made the large donation. The whole thing is unfortunate and should be addressed directly.
The Minister is a little bit coy in listing out, during his speech, all the technical changes that are provided for in this legislation, most of which are welcome. The miscellaneous provisions deal with the really contentious issues. It would have been better, even if only for the optics, if he had contained those in a separate Bill, held it back and dealt with the question of donations. As he says, there may have been some kind of political difficulty.
I was interested in what Senator Mooney said. He is a very fine speaker. I do not always agree with him but I like somebody who can take up a challenge on his or her feet and deal with it by producing evidence and statistics. The kind of thing he said, for example, about tacking on the expenses of child minding is absolutely outrageous. We should be encouraging people to stand for public life. We should be facilitating them and not hindering them in this mean minded and niggardly way.
Much of this stuff is window dressing, cosmetic and utter hogwash. I am fed up getting knocked out of my bed, when I have just flown for 14 hours, to get a registered envelope containing a list of demands where I have to say that I did not take money for this, that and the other bloody thing. I have never got a penny in my life and I  have to get out of bed to fill up this thing. Then I have to take it to a solicitor and get it sworn. That costs me a fiver, unless the solicitor is a friend and does it as a nixer. I suppose it is illegal for me to say that too in these frightfully pure days. Then I have to send it by registered post, which costs another couple of quid. All this to say I got nothing. If I had been on the take, could anybody think I would be such a complete imbecile that I would say that under section 6, yes, I took £75,565 so that I could change the planning on this or that? They must be mad. It is like the British Prevention of Terrorism Act where someone going through an airport has to sign a form stating the purpose of their visit. I do not know anybody mad enough to say that they really wanted to put a bomb under the Queen Mother. It is idiotic. It is just for window dressing and it means sweet damn all. Anybody who is really on the take knows at least the basics of how to cover their tracks. It is an insult to our intelligence and it is a waste of money. I am mean minded enough to say that I resent being bothered with this sort of rubbish.
In the Minister's speech he mentions the edited register. I find this of interest. It is an intrusion for this material to be made available to commercial companies. I always tick the little box in anything I am on saying I do not want this. I already get enough tripe through the letterbox, including the stuff from the ethics commission or whatever they are. He said a choice had to be made whether to make it illegal to use the data in the register of electors other than for electoral or other statutory purposes. I looked at the section of the explanatory memorandum of the Bill and it is quite clear that it is perfectly reasonable, valid and legal for candidates to make use of the information compiled on the register. This is very important, especially for the university candidates because of their method of reaching their electorate, which is very widespread indeed. For example, in the next election Trinity will have about 40,000 electors and each must be sent electoral material in writing. Without using this material, how can candidates spread out their wares in front of their potential electorate?
The Bill does not address this because it would be ultra vires for it to look at election expenses for the Seanad. That is fine with one exception. When all serious candidates are compelled to write to as many of those 40,000 as possible, that is an expensive business which should be allowable as an expense against tax. This should apply not only to sitting candidates but we should equalise the playing pitch for people who want to come and take our seats.
For sitting Senators, this should be a business expense. We are paid by the people to represent them. That is our business, trade or profession. I enter that as my occupation: public representative. Surely it is a legitimate business expense to spend a certain amount of money on re-election. I believe that the electoral system should be supported by money from public funds. Both inde pendents and the political parties should get a certain amount of money. We should also be allowed to write off some of our expenses against tax. It only seems fair and in any other business it would be possible.
We need to look at the question of funding. It is not just a question of the individuals involved but also the parties. This is what lies behind the rancour on this side of the House. Because Fianna Fáil is the largest party, and I do not want specifically to attack Fíanna Fáil, if they have for example 100 candidates they would get £1 million. They can decide to allow £400,000 for central party purposes and that means they can buy enormous amounts of advertising. I would hate to see us go down the American road. We have not done it yet but that has vitiated politics in America. Elections are quite plainly bought. America is no longer a democracy. People buy their way into power. That is perfectly, absolutely and stunningly clear and it is a tragedy. We want to avoid that.
I am glad the Bill contains a provision on the inclusion of photographs as a surprisingly large number of people have difficulty in reading and absorbing information. People with reading difficulties, for example, dyslexia, etc., are disadvantaged and it is useful to have a photograph on the ballot paper. I have campaigned for this in the House, as the Minister probably knows, having been briefed by lobby groups in this area. I assume that the photographic reproduction will be limited to the candidate. I suppose, legally speaking at least, I am a bachelor or a spinster of this parish and it galls me to see children, spouses and God knows who else romping around in photographs. It is bad enough to see them on the campaign literature of my opponents but if they are also on the ballot paper I will be ill from fury. I hope photographs will be limited to a visual reproduction of the features of the candidate.
The one aspect which worries me about electronic voting is whether it is user friendly. I am becoming elderly and have always been a bit thick as far as mechanical and electronic issues are concerned. I am a little worried, particularly in light of the Florida situation in the United  States, that people might be confused and find it difficult to operate. The Minister appears to suggest by shaking his head that this will not happen. I hope it will not happen and that the advice he has taken is accurate.
I am also worried, given that I know so little about electricity and other new fangled inventions, about whether it is possible to hack into this system. I suppose one would be suspicious if the Socialist Party of Ireland, Marxists-Leninists, suddenly got 45,000 votes in County Westmeath. I hope that it will not be possible to hack into the system and interfere in this way.
It is important that we address these issues. It is a pity there was a mix between the clear, efficient and practical steps such as electronic voting, photographs and the use of large print – this is a wise and good provision for people who are visually impaired – and something which has a much more ideological flavour to it and which has led to a display of bad temper and ill manners in the House. This is regrettable.
Mr. Cassidy: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and thank the Minister for initiating the legislation in the Seanad. We are always most grateful when legislation is initiated in the House.
This is a wonderful time to be in public life. It is the greatest singular honour for an individual to be elected to represent his community, constituency or county. Those of us who have been Senators for a long time will recall when it was difficult to achieve anything as a public representative due to a lack of resources. This is an exciting time to be in public life as we can improve our areas, update and amend legislation and work to assist future generations.
The legislation updates the necessary requirements in many areas. I welcome in particular the suggestion made by Senator Norris that the money expended by those who wish to serve the public should be tax allowable. All candidates have to spend money at election time. Those of us who were unfortunate enough to be around in 1981, 1982 and 1983 when there were three general elections remember that families had to contribute to the funding of candidates. I salute those people who stayed in public life during this difficult time of economic depression and massive emigration.
The country's future generations will inherit has been made what it is by the people of all political parties who have been in power, particularly those who have been in power for the past 13 years. The chief executives of any major company would be proud of the job done on behalf of Ireland plc in terms of our economy. Many other countries are trying to copy our example and it is important to record our congratulations to all former Taoisigh, Ministers for Finance and the other Ministers for the terrific job they have done, particularly since the mid-1980s.
I welcome the provisions of the Bill. Section 28 provides for the inspection of ballot papers.  Sometimes this can be difficult and it may not encourage people in small areas or island communities to vote. However, it is important that the paper should be in view of the party tellers. Even if they cannot be within a yard or four feet, they should be within five or six feet of where the votes are counted.
I welcome the provision which will allow posters to be displayed within 100 yards of a polling booth. Those of us who live in remote areas know that the excitement of election day has been practically eliminated because no activity is allowed near polling booths. Previously people took time off work to serve the candidate or party of their choice on election day. I have seen few polling stations with only one road leading to it; there is always another road to the east, west, north or south. This means there will have to be a poster on each road approaching the polling booth. The Minister was a TD for the area for a considerable time and he knows that there are three roads leading to Castlepollard national school – one from Glenview, a second from Ballycomoyle and Water Street and a third from Castlepollard town. One poster will be allowed on each road, which is not too many.
We have all seen on CNN what happened in America in regard to electronic voting. It should be indicated to voters that they can only mark the ballot paper on the left hand side of the photograph or logo. I welcome the provision regarding photographs but they should be photographs taken within the previous three months. The photographs of some of my colleagues in the Westmeath Examiner were taken ten or 12 years ago. I do not know how the editors can stand over that. It may be that they consider them more attractive. I agree with the Minister that a current photograph should be provided. I would go so far as to suggest that he include a provision on Committee Stage that the photograph must be no older than three months.
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