Thursday, 2 February 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan): The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill, which I am commending to the House, while not the longest legislation the Seanad has ever debated, is one of the most significant. When enacted, it will change fundamentally the way politics is funded and conducted in Ireland. Corporate donations will be severely curtailed, the books of political parties will be opened up to public scrutiny, the maximum amount that can be accepted as a political donation will be more than halved and there will be greater openness, with significant reductions in the thresholds for the public declaration of political donations. Other measures in the Bill provide for greater transparency by donors and those in receipt of political donations.
The people have a right to know how their political system and political parties are funded. This Bill goes further than any previous legislation in asserting that right. Excessive and secretive corporate funding of politics is corrosive to democracy and public trust in politics. Most people who have reflected on the funding of political parties have come to the conclusion that corporate donations need to be restricted. It is better to have a system of funding based on a large number of small donations from citizens rather than a small number of large donations from big business, which is what this Bill sets out to achieve.
Ireland is a member of the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption, GRECO. In 2009, this body undertook an evaluation study of Ireland’s political system, specifically examining the issue of party funding.
Among the recommendations made was that all registered political parties should prepare independently audited accounts which would be made public in a timely and accessible way. It was also recommended that consideration be given to lowering the current disclosure threshold for political donations. Similar proposals have been made by the Standards in Public Office Commission.
Senator Rónán Mullen: On a point of order, are copies of the Minister’s speech available? Perhaps the Deputy Leader might take action in respect of this matter. It would be appreciated if something could be done to ensure that there will be no repeat of this occurrence. It is a discourtesy — I accept that it is unintended — to Members of the Seanad that copies of the Minister’s script are not available. It is much easier to engage with what a Minister is saying if his or her speech is provided. Out of respect for everyone involved, ministerial speeches should be available from the outset.
The Bill is an important step towards achieving a significant improvement in the balance of representation in the Dáil between men and women. When citizens consider our national Parliament, they should see something more akin to their own reflection looking back at them. This is not currently the case with 183 men and 43 women. That is hardly balanced representation.
I will now outline for Senators the principal elements in the Bill. We will have an opportunity to scrutinise each section in more detail on Committee Stage. The Bill will reduce the current limits for acceptance of political donations and the thresholds for declaration of these donations. In doing so, it is noteworthy that the financial amounts set out in the existing legislation are given in punts — old money — even though the euro has been our currency for the past ten years. This says something with regard to the overdue nature of the changes we are making. The Electoral Act 1997 is almost 15 years old. The rules on political donations were incorporated into the Act in 2001. A major revision in Ireland’s laws on political funding is, therefore, long overdue.
Part 1 entitled “Preliminary and General”, contains standard provisions of a general and technical nature. Part 2, entitled “Amendment of Electoral Act 1997”, provides for changes to donation and declaration amounts and introduces new conditions for corporate donations. The maximum amount that can be accepted as a donation by a political party, an accounting unit of a political party or a third party is being reduced to €2,500. The current figure is €6,348.69. The maximum amount that can be accepted as a political donation by an individual is being reduced from €2,539.48 to €1,000. This new limit will apply in respect of donations to a Member of either House of the Oireachtas or a Member of the European Parliament, as well as to a candidate in a presidential, Dáil, Seanad or European Parliament election.
The programme for Government makes clear this Administration’s position that the role of corporate political donations in Irish politics must be curtailed. The measures in the Bill will give effect to this commitment, having regard to the need to respect Ireland’s Constitution and our commitments under international and European law. Our objective is to restrict the influence of corporate donors. The Bill will do that to the maximum extent feasible and permissible. Provision is made for a ban on the acceptance of donations or more than €200 for political purposes from a corporate donor unless the donor has registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission. Such donations must also be accompanied by a statement confirming that the donation has been approved by a general meeting of the members of the body or by its trustees.
Allowing corporate donations of up to €200 to be accepted without having to comply with the new requirements is based on practical considerations regarding implementation. It is considered that placing the additional disclosure and approval conditions on relatively small donations of under €200 from businesses or organisations would not be fair or practical. For example, if there was no lower limit, a local business placing a poster in a shop window in support of a candidate could be regarded as giving a corporate donation by way of a benefit-in-kind. A shop owner who buys a raffle ticket or offers a small spot prize for a local function could similarly be regarded as giving a corporate donation. An exemption from the new registration requirements is given to a provider of a programme of education and training or a student’s union where such a body makes a payment to a student society or club. This will allow colleges or students’ unions to continue to provide financial support to student groups that promote political participation without being obliged to comply with the new corporate donor requirements. I am sure Members will agree that these grants to student societies can hardly be regarded as the sort of corporate donations which need to be restricted and that this exemption does not contradict our objective of enhancing the openness and transparency of political funding in Ireland.
Provision is made for the establishment of a register of corporate donors. This register will be published in order that people, particularly voters, will know which corporate donors intend to provide funds for political parties, election candidates or elected representatives. The term “corporate donor”, as defined in section 5, includes all corporate and unincorporated bodies and trusts. This definition embraces companies, partnerships, trade unions, trusts, co-operatives, societies, building societies, charitable organisations, non-governmental organisations, clubs, associations and any other unincorporated bodies of persons. In other words, all bodies and organisations other than natural persons.
I have mentioned the reductions in the value of donations that may be accepted. In addition, the threshold at which donations must be declared by a political party to the Standards in Public Office Commission will fall from €5,078.95 to €1,500. The declaration threshold for a donation received by a candidate or elected representative is being reduced from €634.87 to €600. There is provision for a reduction from €5,078.95 to €200 in the threshold at which donations must be reported by companies, trade unions, societies and building societies in their annual reports or returns. Part 2 also provides for a reduction in the threshold for donors other than companies, trade unions, societies and building societies in reporting donations to the Standards in Public Office Commission, from a figure of €5,078.95 to €1,500 for aggregate donations given in the same year. Part 3 provides for the necessary amendments to the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 to enable the new requirements on political donations which I have outlined to apply at local elections.
Part 4, entitled “Political Parties — Disclosure of Accounts”, provides for all registered political parties to prepare an annual statement of accounts and an auditor’s report. These are to be submitted each year to the Standards in Public Office Commission for publication. In the event of non-compliance with these provisions, funding made available to political parties by the State under Part 3 of the Electoral Act 1997 is to be withheld. The format of the accounts will be based on guidelines prepared by the Commission, in consultation with political parties, and approved by the Minister.
Part 5 is entitled “State Funding of Political Parties and Gender Balance”. The proportion of men to women in the population is approximately 50:50 but this has never been reflected in Dáil representation. Just over 15% of the Members of Dáil Éireann are women. The fact that this is the highest level of female representation achieved in the history of the State says something. It has taken too long to travel this short distance.
Experience shows that if we leave matters alone, the situation will not improve as quickly or as significantly as we want. We cannot continue to drift along in respect of this matter. We must take action. The provisions in Part 5 are designed to hasten our journey towards greater gender equality. Parties which do not select at least 30% women candidates at the next general election will face losing half of their State funding. This would be not just for one year but rather for the lifetime of the next Dáil. To put the potential impact of non-compliance into perspective, a total of €5.38 million was paid to five qualified political parties in 2010 under the Electoral Act 1997.
It is appropriate that the Bill is commencing its passage through the Oireachtas in the Seanad. Members of this House have played a particularly crucial role in highlighting the need for legislation to address the shortcomings in our democratic system. My party colleague, Senator Keane, has been vocal, in public and behind the scenes, in pushing for these reforms. I also acknowledge the work of Senator Bacik in the preparation of the report, Women’s Participation in Politics, published in 2009 by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights. The work of that committee informed the design of the legislation now before the House. I will quote directly from the summary of findings in chapter 5 of the committee’s report, which concludes:
The system set out in the Bill has regard to experience in other jurisdictions. It draws on models that have succeeded elsewhere, while having particular regard to Ireland’s legal and constitutional framework.
Since details of the Bill were published in June last year, there has been a significant public debate on the gender balance provisions. Some public figures, in questioning the need for these measures, have suggested they may be unconstitutional. While I welcome the debate, I reject these views. The provisions are robust.
The provision contained in the Bill is designed as an incentive mechanism to encourage political parties to apply a more equal gender balance in the selection of candidates. It is a proportionate response to address a significant weakness in Ireland’s democratic system. In contrast to those questioning the constitutionality of the provision, others have pressed for a similar measure to be put in place for local elections, the objective being to encourage more women to stand in local elections through active measures such as those set out in the Bill. I agree with the principle articulated. However, I am not in a position to apply similar gender balance measures to candidate selection at local elections.
Funding provided for political parties under the Electoral Act 1997 is linked with performance at general elections. The reduction in funding paid to political parties which do not meet the new gender balance requirements will, therefore, be linked with the candidates of political parties at general elections. There is no direct funding mechanism attached to local election candidates or political parties and groups contesting local elections. Nevertheless, while the measures will not formally apply at local elections, I expect that in practice political parties will act and some have already stated they will. At a minimum, parties preparing candidates for a general election are likely to select a more balanced ticket for local elections. There is a clear incentive for them to do so. It can be anticipated that an increase in the number of women candidates at local elections will follow as a consequence of the legislation.
On the timing of the coming into effect of the provisions, the Bill adopts both an ambitious and pragmatic approach. This is particularly so when bearing in mind the base-line from which we are starting. At the general election held in February 2011, 86 of the 566 candidates who sought election were women, representing 15.19% of the total. If the Bill is passed, the intended outcome is to effectively double this figure to 30% in one general election cycle. Provision is then made for this figure to increase to 40%, with a minimum of seven years allowed for this change to take effect.
I want to explain the rationale behind this approach. Section 16 of the Electoral Act provides that payments made to political parties under the Act are based on their performance at the last preceding general election. Therefore, the change from 30% to 40% has to be made with reference to the holding of a general election rather than to a fixed time period only. Otherwise there would be potential for a situation where both the 30% and the 40% gender balance provision could end up being used as a criterion for payments to political parties in respect of the same general election. In the interests of fairness and in order to ensure compliance with the legislation the Bill must be very clear about when the change from 30% to 40% will apply. The formula used in the Bill achieves this clarity in a balanced and fair, yet ambitious way. I ask anyone who seeks to criticise the Bill for not going far enough to bear these points in mind. We need to be mindful of how far the provisions in the Bill go. They are ground-breaking and provide for real change and reform.
Reform of political funding has been promised for years and although the Government has been in office for less than one year, we are presenting another far-reaching and progressive piece of reforming legislation. The Bill will significantly enhance the openness and transparency of political funding in Ireland. The corporate funding of politics comes at a price above and beyond the value of any donations given and accepted. It brings with it an unavoidable perception of a mutually beneficial relationship. As we have seen in Ireland in recent years, this can have an incrementally corrosive impact on public trust in politics.
The Bill will decisively shift the balance of the political funding and regulatory system in favour of the citizen. It will affirm the right in law to know how politics is funded, who is providing the funding and how that money is spent. The gender balance provision linking the State funding of political parties with candidate selection at Dáil elections has the potential to change the face of politics forever. This is real change and reform. I ask Senators to give the Bill the consideration it deserves as comprehensive, progressive and much needed legislation. I look forward to hearing their views.
Senator Averil Power: I welcome the Minister. I also welcome those in the Visitors Gallery. It is great to see so many women in the Chamber, although there is a good gender balance in the Seanad, due in large part — this should be acknowledged — to the fact that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste in appointing the 11 nominees to the House wisely chose seven women. We have seen the contributions these women have made to the House. I also acknowledge the presence for the debate of former Senator Mary Henry and the contribution she made over a long period. She was a role model for many women.
As the Minister pointed out, women have never made up more than 15% of the membership of the Lower House. It is worth recognising — I make this point in particular to those who point out that this will change over time — that no real progress has been made in the past 20 years. In the most recent general election in 2011 only five more women were elected than in 1992. The percentage increased from 12% in 1992 to 15% last year. The reason for this is very clear: the parties have not offered the electorate a choice.
Of the 556 candidates who ran in the most recent general election, only 86 or 15% were women. There is a direct correlation between the number of candidates offered to the electorate and the number of women who make it through. As some constituencies have had no female candidates, what choice have voters had in these constituencies? When I ran in Dublin North-East, I was the only woman on the ticket. This did not offer a real choice of gender balance to voters in the constituency. Parties of all hues, my own included, have failed Irish democracy during the years by not giving the electorate a real choice. It is welcome that the Bill will address this issue.
The lack of women in politics has a real impact. Although the lives of men and women have changed much and have become increasingly similar in many ways, there are still so many ways in which they are different. Increasingly, men look after their children and play a caring role in the family, but the vast majority of people who do so on a full-time basis are female, whether it is looking after a child or an elderly parent. The majority in part-time work are female, as are the majority of those subjected to domestic violence. Until our democracy is more representative of the population, certain issues which will never really be addressed by the political system. Therefore, I welcome the measures brought forward in the Bill.
Like many others, I am a reluctant supporter of quotas. None of us want quotas and I do not think anybody thinks they represent a a good option. However, they are a necessary evil. I appreciate the significant opposition to them outside the House, and there is certainly significant opposition to them in my party. I have received e-mails and correspondence from people who are deeply unhappy about the idea which they see as undemocratic. Equally, I point out that in the history of the State the number of women elected points to the fact that the system is undemocratic and represents a failure of democracy. If the system was perfect, we would not need to tinker with it, but it is fundamentally flawed. The all-party committee came to the conclusion that the experience in other countries showed that the system could not and would not change unless positive measures were put in place. That is why we must support the Bill.
Crucially, the report also found that quotas alone would not fix the problem and that we needed a comprehensive package of reforms addressing other issues such as child care, the procedures of the Houses and working hours. We also need training and support for new female candidates. It is encouraging to see the 50:50 Group advocating strongly for a change in Irish politics. Some of its members are present. Women for Election has received substantial philanthropic funding for the provision of training and mentoring support for women. This will ensure the candidates put forward by all parties will have the supports needed to be successful.
It is often said women do not put themselves forward for election. That really upsets me because it is too easy for parties to say this. As all Members know, in every constituency women are involved in chambers of commerce and running community projects. I am often contacted by women from a local group involved in a campaign. Women are on the boards of management of the local schools and therefore are involved in politics in the broader sense. If they are not involved in party politics we need to examine what is wrong with politics and not ask what is wrong with women. If women are taking leadership roles in community organisations and in other professions, which is a dramatic change in recent years, and politics has not changed in 20 years we must examine the political system and change it. We must change the culture also and I hope that by having a critical mass of women elected to Parliament young girls will see pictures of those parliamentarians and think that is a job they could do. We need more role models in that regard but, unfortunately, politics is seen as the preserve of men. We support the legislation although I will table two amendments on Committee Stage.
I accept the point the Minister made about the local elections and the way the legislation is currently structured, which is based on general election funding, but I am not sure that has to be the case. We will look into that in more detail before the Bill comes back for Committee Stage but I do not understand why funding cannot be apportioned on the basis of general election performance, subject to review after the following local election. That would be an incentive for parties to keep up at the local election because the local elections are crucial. Of the 83 new Deputies elected to the Dáil last year two thirds were councillors while candidates with no previous experience in elected office generally faired poorly, getting less than 1,000 first preference votes. The local elections are a key starting point in this regard and the legislation should be amended to change that. Just because the funding donation is phrased in a particular way currently does not mean it has to remain that way. We need to be a bit more creative in that regard.
I will propose a sunset clause on Committee Stage in that once the number of women elected to the Dáil reaches 40% and remains at that level for the next two general elections, the quotas would go. That is crucial. The quota system should not be in place forever. I would be a reluctant supporter of quotas but once the change has been made and, crucially, once we have that critical mass in Parliament, they should go. We intend to table an amendment in that regard.
On the issue of political donations, as the Minister is aware my party introduced a much more comprehensive political donations Bill last year but it was rejected by the Government. We want to ban corporate donations within constitutional limits but we were advised it would not be constitutional to fully ban them and instead proposed that a €100 limit be set on them, which I think would cover the cost of a poster in a shop window. We proposed that and it should be taken up. Only an individual who is entitled to vote should give a donation. I do not support corporate donations.
We also proposed a lower threshold for the declaration of donations which is crucial because in many respects it is the mystique about donations that causes a lack of confidence in the system and people not knowing who is giving what to whom. That is the reason we proposed a much lower threshold. The change in the Bill which will require individual candidates to declare donations over €600 as opposed to the previous figure of €634 will not make a tangible difference. I would like the limit to be much lower.
Senator Cáit Keane: I welcome Dr. Mary Henry to the Seanad and commend all she has done for women in politics. Dr. Henry worked with the former Minister, Gemma Hussey, and the former Deputy, Monica Barnes, in that regard. They were three great fighters for women in politics, with many others. I welcome also the people in the Visitors Gallery from the 50:50 Group, the large delegation from Cork, the representatives from Women for Election, as well as Fiona Buckley, Claire McGing and Yvonne Galligan, to name but a few. There are many more present but I will not read out all the names. I welcome also the three men who have come to back them up. That is important because women need men and men need women. The 50:50 Group was given the right name in that regard because it does not mean women representing women but women and men for all.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this historic Bill on political funding and urge its acceptance by the House. It is a landmark day in Irish politics, and for Irish women in particular, and I thank the Minister for introducing it in the Seanad. The proposed legislation puts forward a structured, comprehensive and legally sound basis for transforming the way politics is funded in our country, making our democracy more transparent, achieving greater representation in these Houses in terms of gender balance, and ensuring a more equal and fair society. If the Bill is passed it will be a positive and historic change in the way politics is conducted in Ireland. It will break the ties, be they perceived or otherwise, between business and politics which has long been advocated from all sides of this House but has yet gone undelivered.
The Minister outlined the various changes made regarding political donations and there are huge reductions in that regard. For instance, donations of €6,300 can currently be accepted by a political party but that is being reduced to €2,500 and donations to a candidate are being reduced from €2,500 to €1,000. That is a major change.
I welcome section 8 which proposes the introduction of a register of corporate donors where a donation exceeds €200 a year. That must be welcomed as it makes the donating process more open and transparent, which is what everybody wants.
I welcome the provision in the Bill to place an onus on companies to declare any donations they make to political parties and the new register of political donors, which will be maintained by the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, and will include the names of any corporate owners intending to donate more than €200 to any political party or individual over the calendar year. Furthermore, parties are required to have independently audited accounts. I will not go into detail on that as the Minister outlined it in his contribution.
The Moriarty tribunal recommendations must be mentioned in any discussion about political funding as its findings have made a substantial contribution to the consideration of policy in this area. The recommendations from the tribunal are made in a report that lays bare the failings in the system that existed at that time. While I acknowledge that rules and regulations have changed since the 1990s, some of the failings identified prevailed until today when major changes are being made. It must be noted also that the recommendations and views put forward in the Moriarty tribunal are taken on board in the drafting of this Bill, as well as some similar recommendations made by other bodies.
Ireland is a member of the Council of Europe Group of States against Corruption. In 2009 that body undertook an evaluation study of Ireland’s political system, specifically examining the issue of party funding. Among the recommendations made was that all registered political parties should prepare independently audited accounts that would be made public in a timely and accessible way. The Minister has done that today.
I welcome the provision in the Bill that will penalise political parties that receive State funding if they do not have at least 30% female candidates and 30% male candidates in the next general election. That figure will increase to 40% by 2025. It is hoped that eventually there will be a quota of 50:50, which is the aspiration of the group present in the Visitors Gallery, and mine, in a general election.
The debate on the introduction of gender quotas in politics is controversial and the arguments on both sides are compelling. Twenty years ago when I was elected first and new to politics, and even 15 years after that, I was against quotas. Sadly, I had to change my mind because the international evidence is that countries that fair best in equality of representation are those that introduced quotas. At the rate we are going it would take us over 200 years to reach any mass. We must introduce quotas. The international community today recommends that a number of measures be taken to promote more balanced representation of men and women in decision making bodies. The shift in equality policy towards affirmative action policies is supported by the 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It is now 33 years later, and that is the reason I changed my mind.
One of the 12 objectives of the Beijing Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 was formulated as women’s equal access and full participation in the power structures. The clearly stated aim in that document is to achieve gender balance in the nomination process as well as in all the decision making processes. The platform refers to discriminatory attitudes and practices, unequal power relations, shifting the focus from women, lack of resources, and the practices of political institutions and parties. Consequently, the affirmative actions we are taking under this Bill today are recommended, even if the controversial word “quotas” is not a favourite.
Gender balance in decision making is a stated goal of the European Union. Ireland lags way behind its European Union counterparts when it comes to female participation. If we are to change we have to take affirmative action. During the past 15 years female representation has increased significantly in almost all EU states. Today, the average participation rate in the EU nations is 24%, which I am aware is poor. In Sweden, 45% of the national elected representatives in the Lower House are women. The figure for Norway is 39.6% and the figure for Germany is 32%. Why are the figures greater in those countries? It is because quotas are in place in those countries and they have had successful outcomes. We must follow suit. We do not want to look bad compared to Lesotho, Sudan and Iraq which have higher rates of female representation in their national parliaments. That is a cause for alarm when we consider that these are developing nations which have been war-torn for many years.
The failure of successive Governments and political parties to confront gender imbalance has meant that female representation here has never reached more than 40%. That is a poor reflection of our representative democracy and it is time appropriate measures were taken to address it. I commend the Minister, Deputy Hogan, for taking those measures today.
While the introduction of quotas is necessary if we are to achieve a higher level of female representation, we must examine the best quota application of the PR-STV system that is in place in Ireland. I refer to section 27 which proposes that a reduction of 50% in the funding of political parties will come into effect at the next general election. Alternative methods of encouraging more women to present themselves for election must also be encouraged. That would help to increase the pool of aspiring candidates and make the transition to the conditions of this new legislation more seamless. The direct measures could include supporting women and men in education, provision to reconcile family and public life, available child care facilities, and good maternity and paid paternity leave. The work-life balance of the male and female politician must be examined if we are to encourage balanced representation in these Houses. Measures such as those I have outlined could be considered to enable us achieve our aim. A bottom-up approach must be taken alongside this, which should begin at grassroots level in our schools and homes to promote a work-life balance for all people in political life.
Section 27 amends section 17 of the principal Act. In addition to parties being required to furnish the names of candidates elected and not elected, I suggest that the constituency of the candidate should be submitted to the Standards in Public Office, SIPO, Commission also as this would be useful for academic research after the elections as well as being able to see at a glance the constituencies in which female and male candidates were fielded, and whether there was a balance in terms of three, four and five seat constituencies, to ensure females did not end up in the no hope constituencies, if there are such constituencies.
Senator Cáit Keane: The PR-STV system presents more difficulties for the election of women because of the small number of seats in each constituency. This is borne out by the fact that there is a tendency for there to be higher levels of female candidates in the larger constituencies. Women accounted for 13.8% of the candidates in three seat constituencies, 15.4% in four seat constituencies and 16.2% in five seat constituencies in the 2011 general election.
I thank Ms Fiona Buckley, UCC, Ms Claire McGing and those involved with women for politics in the Visitors Gallery for all the research done on this issue for every party in this House and for all the documents we have read on this subject in recent years, and I commend all the groups that have been recently set up.
Parties must encourage local level selection conventions to select women candidates as this may not be done on a voluntary basis, as we know given that we have to introduce quotas. Preferably women should not have to be added as additional candidates simply for the sake of meeting quotas, as this may mean they may not have the support of the party organisation and may not have adequate support through an election campaign to win. We do not want it said after an election that women were given a chance but they fouled it up.
We all know the benefit of the party grassroots canvassing on the ground to aid or hinder the success of a candidate be it a male or female candidate. There is an onus on all central party organisers to raise awareness among candidate selection committees locally and to engage in the exercise of actively seeking women candidates from existing members of the party or community. The way the organisation of committees and parties run selection conventions, the timing of them and the transparency of what funding or assistance might be available to candidates with little or no means stops many potential male and female candidates putting themselves forward.
Although gender quotas at national level are welcome, I suggest that the Government should consider implementing them at local level. I know the Minister spoke about that and why he could not do it at this stage. Local government is where politicians cut their teeth and if representatives do not have a significant local profile, they will not get it at national level. There is no direct funding mechanism attached to local elections.
Senator Cáit Keane: The Minister might examine putting in place direct funding for local elections in order that there would be some comeback for making parties adhere to that provision. Perhaps the Minister might come up with an innovative way to jump that hurdle for us. It is very necessary. Quotas are not my favourite solution, but we have to do it.
Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I very much welcome former Senator, Dr. Mary Henry, to the House. I acknowledge the work of many people to get us to where we are in our consideration of this Bill today. Senator Mac Conghail’s statement will focus on the transparency and disclosure aspects of the Bill. I wholeheartedly share his views on this. My statement will focus on the gender quota dimension of the Bill. I commend the initiation of this Bill by the Minister, Deputy Hogan. I thank him for initiating it in this House and giving us the opportunity to start the discussions. It is a strong Bill, which the Minister has outlined.
I am not necessarily a cheerleader for gender quotas. If anybody looks to my history he or she will note that when I was president of the National Youth Council of Ireland I lobbied hard for the removal of the gender quotas from the council’s constitution on the basis that it was no longer required. However, I believe in quotas when necessary and I believe the introduction of gender quotas for candidate selection is extremely necessary here.
Women account for half of the Irish population, yet we are vastly under-represented in the policy and decision making process that shapes our future. This is not because women are disinterested. I know from personal experience with the girl guides and civil society organisations the passion and commitment of many women and the vital role they play in shaping Ireland for the better. One need only go to any town or community in Ireland to see this role very clearly demonstrated.
The historic and persistent under-representation of women in Irish politics is problematic in the interests of democracy and from a human rights perspective. We recently celebrated the passage of 90 years since women in Ireland first won the right to vote and since the election of Countess Markievicz as the first female Deputy and MP elected. The intervening years have not boded well for gender parity representation in Irish politics. Ireland has one of the worst records of women’s representation in national parliaments worldwide. We are currently ranked 22nd out of 27 EU member states and 79th in international rankings. Since the foundation of the State in 1918 our Dáil has never had less than 85% male representation. As leader of an independent group of Senators I am part of a group with 57% female membership. That has not done us any harm but it is an anomaly. Out of a total of 1,620 Seanad seats filled between 1922 and 2009 only 9.3% have been by women. It is fitting that the Bill should be initiated in this House and that we are making a move towards balanced gender representation by way of affirmative action and the application of a legislative gender quota. For those who remain sceptical about the effectiveness of gender quotas, it should be noted that of the world’s top ten democratic parliaments in terms of representation of women, eight employ a genderquota.
I have two concerns with respect to the Bill. Are we missing an opportunity by not applying a gender quota to European and local elections? I agree fully with the 50:50 Group and its contention that for quota legislation to be meaningful and work, it must be extended to local government. By failing to do that, we run the risk of making the same mistake as was made in France where women who do not come from a political family are effectively excluded from entering local politics and thus gaining political legitimacy within their constituency.
I am sure the Minister will agree that we must ensure that the gender quota is not only implemented in isolation but that we must also encourage women to run for election. In this regard, I commend the initiative of Women for Election who endeavour to inspire, equip and inform women to run for political office and to provide tailored training and support programmes for interested women.
First, I congratulate the Minister on introducing the Bill, and particularly on introducing it in the Seanad. The Bill is historic and a profound opportunity to enhance the political culture and the participation of citizens in our republic. Yesterday, the Minister carried out a consultation process on local government, which has many connections with today's debate. Both debates demonstrate that the political forum agenda is firmly on the national agenda too.
Without wasting the House’s time, I state categorically that I am in favour of affirmative action via quotas, as a short-term strategy to redress the historical balance of the lack of women participating in Irish political life. I have had to do the same in my own life with regard to women playwrights at the Abbey Theatre. In the last 100 years since the State was founded, the Abbey Theatre has produced very few women playwrights. I felt there was no point in just waiting for plays to be written by women. I would still be waiting. We had to put a programme in place actively and affirmatively to resolve this issue. We commissioned women writers and produced their work. I got plenty of criticism from a particular critic for this strategy, but it worked. For the first time in the history of Irish theatre we produced and presented four new world premieres of plays by women writers in a row in the last 18 months.
Irish political life has no choice now but to regulate, for the time being, candidate selection for elections. It is a reasonable option to take and we need to compel all the political parties to achieve the candidate quota for men and women. I implore the Minister to go straight away to the 40% quota on candidate selection. The Minister has given reasons for not doing that, but I would like to tease this issue out. I do not understand why we cannot start at 40% and maybe even go to 45%. If we do not do that we will need to wait until almost 2021, which is over ten years from now, to achieve the 40% candidate selection quota. We should be radical and visionary here and introduce the 40% quota for men and women immediately.
The Bill does not include provisions that affect the gender quota of candidates in local or Seanad elections. I would like to hear the Minister’s reasons this is not the case. I understand the reasoning in terms of local elections, but I would like to tease out this issue, which Senators Keane and Power also mentioned. Does the Minister expect the referendum on the abolition of the Seanad to be passed and is this why Seanad elections are not included in the Bill? This might be seen as peremptory. The Minister’s vision on local government reform is evident. We should put a quota in place for the 2014 local elections, starting at 30%. On Committee Stage, we might find a way to support the Minister’s evident political reform agenda.
To support this provision in the Bill the Houses of the Oireachtas also need to reform their practices and procedures. Leinster House has to adjust to a modern way of doing business within daylight hours that is supportive of family life. It behoves the Oireachtas to plan its business better, and we do not need legislation for that.
Equally critical in the Bill are the requirements of transparency and disclosure with regard to private and public funding. Under the existing Acts there is no specific requirement that parties keep proper books and accounts, nor any requirement to publish audited accounts of income and expenditure. I welcome the provision in the Bill that additional requirements on disclosure are included and that the Bill proposes to make payment of public funding dependent on political parties providing annual externally audited accounts to the Standards in Public Office Commission for publication.
With regard to donations, it is important to state that every citizen has the right to donate and contribute to any political party or cause and we should not see this as something unseemly or undemocratic. Political parties should not receive funding only from the State. Through encouraging political participation, donations by citizens should be an elemental part of this.
We know political parties survive on two forms of State funding. One is based on the party’s first preference performance in previous general elections and is made under the Electoral Acts. The second payment is made under the Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Act 2001 and is known as the leaders’ allowance. It is based on the number of elected members of a party. This leaders’ allowance is also made available to Independent Members of both Houses. The Bill makes no reference to individual Members or non-party Members of the Dáil or Seanad. Qualifying parties relate only to political parties. I would like to propose that all Independent Members of the Oireachtas, including myself, should have a statutory responsibility to provide detailed accounts of donations and public funding to the commission on an annual basis. This should include the leaders’ allowance. I am in receipt of the leaders’ allowance. There are guidelines for the use of this allowance but there is no requirement to vouch or keep accounts. I suggest that the Standards in Public Office Commission draw up requirements for disclosure by non-party Members of the Oireachtas. Moriarty tribunal findings state that “appropriate measures should be adopted to ensure that all equivalent obligations apply to Independent or non-party candidates”. We might include that as an amendment to the Bill.
I would love corporate donations to be banned. I understand there is a debate on their constitutionality. The programme for Government undertakes to abolish them. My concern is that the Bill suggests that the disclosure of corporate donations should be done within six months of the year end in question. If there is an election in the month of January disclosure need not happen until June of the following year, which is too late for citizens to be informed before casting a vote. The report of the Moriarty tribunal mentions that donations should, if possible, be disclosed in something approaching a real timeframe, as in immediately, and that this should be important, particularly during a general election. In other words, if we cannot ban corporate donations entirely I advocate full and immediate disclosures of all corporate donations. I hope to bring amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage in the areas I have outlined.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I am delighted to be here to speak on Second Stage of the Electoral (Amendment)(Political Funding) Bill 2011. I am particularly pleased and grateful to the Minister that the Bill is being introduced in the Seanad. It is most appropriate that it be introduced here.
The Bill will make important reforms to political donations, increase transparency in our system of political donations and place important and significant new restrictions on corporate donations. We all very much welcome those changes.
I want to focus on Part 5, relating to State funding of political parties and gender balance, about which I have already communicated many times with the Minister and I am very grateful for his generous and full responses to my submissions to him. I am also grateful to the Labour Party spokesperson on the environment in the Seanad, Senator Denis Landy, who has generously given way to me and Senators Susan O’Keeffe and Aideen Hayden, who particularly wanted to speak about Part 5 of the Bill and to focus on the historic change it will bring about in Irish politics.
Before discussing Part 5 of the Bill I welcome, as others have done, the large group of men and women who have worked for many years to see the change brought about by the Bill happen and who are here to support it. They are in the Gallery and in the audio-visual and overflow room, because we could not accommodate them in the Chamber. They include academics such as Professor Yvonne Galligan, Claire McGing and Fiona Buckley. We have members of Women for Election, the 50/50 Campaign for Democracy, and the National Women’s Council, who have all been pushing very hard for this. We have many activists and councillors from the Labour Party, including Sinéad Ní Uallacháin and Kirsty Hanafin from Labour Women, and students of women’s studies from Trinity College Dublin. We have a huge array of people. I also welcome former Senator Mary Henry and the former Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach, who have also done a great deal to push this issue.
Many of us were in Dublin Castle two weeks ago for Deputy Kathleen Lynch’s excellent conference on how to elect more women. That, too, was overbooked and could not accommodate everyone who wanted to take part. There is a real momentum on this issue. While, as Senator Keane has said, controversy surrounds the question of quotas, a momentum is clearly building in support of the principle.
The rationale behind Part 5 of the Bill is clear. It will provide, for the first time in Irish law, enforceable gender targets, or quotas, for political parties to adopt in their candidate selection procedures. It will impose significant financial sanctions on those parties that do not reach the target of 30% at the next general election. That will rise to 40% subsequently. Only 15% of candidates in the last general election were women.
Why is this necessary? At one point in recent Irish history it appeared quotas would not be necessary. In 1990, when we elected Mary Robinson as our first woman President, Ireland was in 37th place in the international world rankings of women in lower houses of parliament, when 14% of our Deputies were women. It seemed as if this would increase. Sadly, that did not prove to be the case. Our International Parliamentary Union ranking has disimproved significantly since 1990. We have fallen to 79th position in the world table, with only 25 women Deputies, or 15%. It is, as the Minister said, the highest number we have had but it is only 1% higher than in 1990. We have made no significant increase and it means the Dáil remains 85% male and has never been less than 85% male. This status quo has been stuck for a long time. The people who argue that it will change organically have stopped doing so, because it is clear that will not happen without some positive action. Claire McGing has pointed out that only 91 women in Ireland were ever elected to the Dáil in more than 90 years of the existence of the State, which is a different way of portraying the same appallingly low figure. As other speakers have said, the current Seanad is better and it looks a lot better today as the attendance is about 90%. The Minister and Senator Mac Conghail are blessed among women today. In fact, the Seanad has 18 women Members out of 60, a total of 30% exactly. The Labour group, which I am privileged to lead, has 50% female representation, six women and six men——
Senator Ivana Bacik: I thank Senator Norris. This is as a result of positive action as regards the nominees of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. In any case, international rankings are based on the lower house in parliaments or on those parliaments which are unicameral. We know that the Seanad has not increased representation organically and we know that the Dáil will not do so unless positive action is taken. The evidence from other countries bears this out. Countries ranked around the same place as us in 1990, at 30% representation, have increased their rankings significantly through adoption of positive action measures. I refer in particular to Belgium, which is now ranked 11th in the world, with 39% women in parliament and Spain, now 16th, with 36% women. It is not just a case of looking at the Scandinavian countries, although they are very important because they were among the first to adopt positive action measures. We can now look at countries which were at the same level as us in 1990 and which have increased their representation.
The very clear lack of women Members in the Dáil and Seanad was something that struck me forcefully when I was first elected in 2007 and in December 2008, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the first election in which women could vote, in December 1918, and when Constance Markievicz was elected, I initiated an Oireachtas women’s day in the Dáil Chamber, inviting in all women still living who had ever been elected to the Oireachtas to be present in the Chamber. A very striking photograph was taken. In recognition of this historic legislation, I ask the Minister if we might arrange to have that photograph displayed in Leinster House. I had previously arranged this with the former Minister of State with responsibility for equality, Mary Alexandra White, but the Government fell before the photograph could be displayed in Leinster House. I would like to see this happen as it is a very important and striking visual representation of a Chamber nearly half full of women. This sends a very important message.
Other speakers, including the Minister, have referred to the report of which I was an author and with which I was ably assisted by Aoife O’Driscoll of my office. The report was adopted unanimously by the justice committee in 2009. The report deals with women’s participation in politics. I am happy to say that instead of gathering dust, it has fed into this legislation. I refer to the sub-committee hearings leading up to the publication of the report at which we heard numerous arguments, particularly from Professor Yvonne Galligan, about why we should be bringing in legislation like this. As she told us, the current lack of women candidates is a serious restriction to voter choice. She and others have identified the five Cs as the obstacles to women’s representation, namely, child care, cash, confidence, culture and candidate selection procedures. As other speakers have said, we made a series of recommendations aimed at addressing problems of child care, difficulties with raising cash, the introduction of mentoring programmes and leadership training programmes to address women’s lack of confidence. It is more difficult to address the cultural issue. We looked at examples from elsewhere, from Iceland, where a public advertising campaign was held with prominent politicians of each gender confounding gender stereotypes, with images of a male politician wearing high heels and a female politician Minister shaving in front of a mirror——
Senator Ivana Bacik: It is all about transgressing boundaries. In Norway, a national databank of potential women candidates was established in order to get over the perceived difficulty that women do not put themselves forward for election.
The most significant recommendation was the need for the sort of legislation we are discussing today. We recommended the model of an opportunity quota which is quite a modest proposal, already adopted in over 100 countries and first used in Latin America, in Argentina. It is not a European invention but it is relatively modest, enhances voter choice by increasing the numbers of women going forward to face voters in an election but does not restrict them by placing a quota on the numbers of seats in parliament, something which would be problematic in this country and under European law.
The Seanad held two debates following publication of our report, in April and May 2010, and I note the significant cross-party support at that time for the principle of that legislation. Labour Women also published a Bill to bring forward the same principle and therefore, a good deal of work has been done on this legislation. The commitment to introduce this legislation was placed in the programme for Government and the Minister introduced the Bill in December 2011. I am delighted it is being initiated in the Seanad.
The Minister has referred to the public debate since the Bill was published. I wish to mention briefly the argument that it might be unconstitutional. Like the Minister, I believe there is no substance to this argument and I have robustly contested that view in the Sunday Independent on the basis that there is no basis for it. To suggest that a political party has a right to any particular level of State funding is misguided and there is no premise for it in the Constitution which does not in fact recognise political parties. The freedom of association is very restrictively framed but this can be surmounted.
On the issues of whether the Bill goes far enough, I accept the Minister’s point that 30% was the target we recommended in 2009. It is more ambitious for some parties than others. Clearly, the Labour Party is already close to that figure but I accept that for some parties it will be much more difficult to reach and therefore it needs to be a realistic but achievable target, given the level of sanction.
I suggest we should look again at extending the provisions of the Bill to include local and European elections, as recommended in our report. I can see the difficulty with the funding issue but this might be reviewed. We might wish to review the sunset clause. In practice, this has tended to lapse in any case. Denmark, for example, removed the law on quotas because they had reached a level of women’s representation that was self-sustaining. Once a critical mass in politics is achieved, it will sustain itself.
I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill. I also thank all colleagues and hope we will have all-party support in this House. We know from experience that this Bill is necessary, that the sort of measures it introduces is the best way to increase the numbers of women in politics to ensure our democracy will no longer be unrepresentative and incomplete.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Ba breá liomsa freisin fáilte a chur roimh an Aire and fáilte a chur roimh ár n-aíonna. I wish to be associated with the welcome to our distinguished guests because it is always a very good sign when members of the public and people who have thought a lot and contributed a lot to public debate on issues are present when matters such as these are debated in the House. However, I hope to demonstrate that one does not need gender quotas in order to have dissent. I think this Bill is full of humbug and missed opportunities. If fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as Eliza Doolittle. Our distinguished theatre director and the amateur thespians here will remember that Eliza was asked by Professor Henry Higgins to pronounce the phrase, “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.” Of course, poor Eliza jumped all the wrong fences and failed to jump the right fences when she said, “In ‘ertford, ‘ereford and ‘ampshire, ‘urricanes ‘ardly hever ‘appen.”
Senator Rónán Mullen: ——is with regard to corporate donations. If we are serious about making politics better, we should be having a much more courageous look at corporate donations. Merely providing for registration is not the way to go.
When it comes to the question of public funding of political parties, there are questions to be answered there as well. I welcome what Senator Mac Conghail had to say. If I were to be asked which is the greater evil, the public funding of political parties or the absence of corporate donations, I would have to say that public funding and corporate donations raise issues that in my view are more serious than the absence of gender quotas. Notwithstanding Senator Bacik’s attempts to reassure us, in my view, there is a constitutional issue. I am in agreement with her colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Joanna Tuffy, and I am with our former Tánaiste and Attorney General, Michael McDowell, who have pointed to serious problems with this Bill. I also note comments made by Dr. Eoin Daly regarding freedom of association. He has posed a question as to whether constitutional freedom of association protects the internal organisational autonomy of political parties.
Mr. Michael McDowell, in his inimical fashion, points out the far simpler and more obvious course for those Government parties, which have a massive majority in the Dáil, would be to amend their own rules, so as to give effect to gender quotas. If one wants to change the world, perhaps one should start by changing oneself.
Senator Rónán Mullen: Mr. McDowell has asked whether it is open constitutionally for a majority in Dáil Éireann, even with the support of a majority at the last election, to introduce discriminatory funding into the political process in pursuit of their particular policy as to the type or types of people whom they feel people should elect or who should be nominated at the next election to the Dáil. He asked us to consider whether a future all-women, feminist political party should receive only half the political funding of a future anti-immigrant political party which manages to field a gender balanced panel of candidates. The answer to the constitutional question becomes pretty clear. I do not think one can wish away those reflective constitutional points.
Senator Rónán Mullen: It may very well be, she will have to go before Bishop Gilmore perhaps. In France they have only managed with the change in the law to achieve a 19% representation of women in their Parliament. She has pointed out that the countries that are frequently cited for having achieved greater participation of women in parliament, Sweden for example, have not done so with the aid of gender quotas.
Let me make it clear that I support much greater participation in politics and would like to see many more women in the roles of Deputies and Senators. One does that in more thoughtful and less intrusive ways than by introducing gender quotas. One does it by helping to create more family friendly workplaces here and encouraging women’s participation in political parties and by the political parties adopting measures to try to attract the best and the brightest and arranging meetings and structuring political activities to suit them. That is a much more mature way to go about solving the problem. It is all very well for Senator Mac Conghail to point to the excellent example he gave of the Abbey Theatre, and I accept the Abbey Theatre receives public funding, but he is essentially a private entity. One cannot compare that with party political life. This is the national Parliament and people should be given maximum choice in all the decisions that have to be made around the process of selecting public representatives. It is not a good idea for the national Parliament to engage in social engineering of this particular kind. This is not the way to advance women’s participation. One can do at the cultural level, at one’s own political level, but one does not foist one’s particular ideological and political views on other parties. It is to be noted that it is in the ranks of the Independent Members, where the political failure is most evident. Just look at the performance of political parties in terms of fielding women relative to the number of women who stand as Independents — one cannot do anything about that.
I am very sorry to be disagreeing with Members whom, on other issues touching on the dignity of women, I am very glad to share the road, for example, Senator Katherine Zappone, and I suspect she is a supporter of this Bill. I am very happy to walk the road with her on issues relating to prostitution and the sex industry.
I do not think this is good legislation in terms of advancing the interests of women. It invites scepticism and cynicism among the public about the quality of women’s participation, that people should feel that the only way to get women into parliament is by this kind of attempt at a discriminatory mechanism. It is very ill-conceived. It is very interesting to note the number of Members who have felt the need to say that this is some kind of a necessary evil——
Senator Rónán Mullen: ——and we will not do this for any longer than we have to and look forward to the day when we can remove these quotas. What will happen if the situation starts to slip? It is very revealing that at some level Members feel the need to apologise for this. That in itself should prompt a reconsideration. This is an issue where change should be allowed to happen organically.
It was pointed out that the State should be ideologically and politically neutral. This changes the goalposts. This goes against the spirit of things like the McKenna judgment, which were designed to get the apparatus of State out of dictating to people what way they should go on particular issues. This is the antithesis of what one would expect in a liberal democracy. There is nothing liberal about the proposal. While I believe the Bill may advance the situation, because by definition more will be selected, it may not advance the number of women who get elected. It will diminish in the longer term the appreciation among the public of the importance of getting more women elected. I certainly intend to reflect some of these concerns in amendments on Committee Stage. I agree with everything in relation to the five Cs. It is only in the Irish language, however, that the quota begins with a C. It is a big mistake. I look forward to tabling amendments.
Senator Maurice Cummins: I thank the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan for coming to this House to present this Bill. I thank him for his commitment to the objectives in this Bill and to this House.
This is a Seanad Bill and it gives this House a real opportunity to influence the legislation that will be enacted. I know that fine suggestions will be forthcoming from Seanad Members. The Government faces an historic challenge in these straitened times. The trust of the nation has been invested in it and I know the Government is committed to honouring that trust. While the economic difficulties need to be tackled as a priority, there is a clear need for the political structures to be improved. To this end the political classes in Ireland must embrace change, share the burden and lead by example. The Fine Gael-Labour Party Government includes an ambitious programme for reform of the political system. If our political system is to regain credibility and relevance, it must change. Our system of government must modernise and start to deliver better services with less resources. To that end the Government has introduced this Electoral (Amendment)(Political Funding) Bill 2011 to endeavour to enhance the openness and transparency of political funding and to provide a more equal and representative political system by increasing the number of women in politics.
The Bill proposes to increase the barriers to corporate donations by reducing the cap on donations and increasing transparency. The Bill also proposes to use the existing public funding of political parties in Ireland to promote greater gender balance in both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Bill marks a very important step forward in increasing transparency in order that in future expressions such as “golden circle”, “crony Government” and “crony capitalism” will be consigned to the dim and distant past. The public deserve and should be entitled to expect that their voice and representation is not trumped by big monied vested interests. The creation of a new public register of public donors which will be maintained by the Standard in Public Office Commission, and will be readily available and accessible to the public, is a major step forward. Lowering the thresholds for full disclosure of political donations from €5,078 to €1,500 is another step in the right direction. By increasing the duty of disclosure by politicians and political parties, this Bill will undoubtedly help to diminish the perception among the public under previous Governments that public representatives were abducted and influenced by private sector vested interests. This type of reform is a critical starting point in rehabilitating the image of politics and politicians in the minds of the Irish electorate. It will start a debate from which we in the Seanad could learn as we seek to improve our image with the electorate.
I have tried in the short time I have been Leader to introduce change and while some of it has worked and has been well received, changing habits and deeply ingrained practices is never an easy task. On that point I wish the Minister well with the Bill.
I do not propose to spend too much time on the gender balance aspect of the Bill as it may have been addressed by my colleague, Senator Keane, and will be addressed also by my party colleagues, Senators Clune, Henry and Healy Eames. Suffice to say I am a strong supporter of the Government’s ambitions to increase the representation of women in the political system. This commitment was reflected by the Taoiseach, as has been mentioned by Senator Averil Power, whereby seven out of the 11 nominated Senators were women. It is heartening to note that there are 18 women Senators, out of 60, and that we are doing considerably better than the other House which has 25 women Deputies out of 166.
Some of the best and most successful ambassadors of the Seanad have been women. In particular, I call to mind Dr. Mary Robinson who very graciously spoke to the Seanad recently on her reflections as a woman in Seanad Éireann in 1969 where there were just six women Members of the Seanad. Dr. Robinson provided us with a most amusing anecdote when she described how she was politely informed by lady Members of the Seanad at that time that women should wear hats. Times have changed and moved on since then. We all appreciate the significant contribution that women have made and continue to make in the House. I thank and acknowledge the presence of former Senator Mary Henry in the Visitors Gallery who was one of the finest Members of the Seanad in my time. Her contributions, certainly to mental health issues, were excellent at a time when mental health did not receive the prominence that it rightly and thankfully receives now.
The Bill marks a significant step in addressing the under-representation of women in the Dáil. I wish the Minister well with its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I am sure we will have a productive and informative debate on the issues on Committee Stage.
Senator Mark Daly: I welcome the Minister to the House. This is important legislation on the gender issue and is a step in the right direction; it is not a big step but a baby step. I note it does not cover the local election issue or the Seanad. I realise the Minister may be pre-empting another referendum and we may be “tsunamied” with referendums. As the Minister is talking about reform and funding for political parties being based on candidates for one particular House, without saying anything about this House, perhaps it is an issue that will be addressed by Labour Party and Fine Gael colleagues on Committee Stage. It would be presumptious of the Government to decide the will of the people in advance of any referendum on the Seanad. There is merit also in being a little bolder if the Minister was to consider a gender quota for the Seanad. While the quota might be tied in at 30% or 35% in the Dáil, a 50:50 quota for candidates for political parties at a Seanad election would be looked upon favourably. As the Minister may be aware, commentators often say the Seanad is an ante-room for the Dáil, a kindergarten or a retirement home.
Senator Mark Daly: I take that as a great compliment. Perhaps the Minister, the leader of the Labour Party group and my Fine Gael colleagues would consider a 50:50 quota in the Seanad. If provision is made for such a quota in the legislation, any subsequent referendum will take care of all those issues, whether the people decide for or against it. However, it would be a step in the right direction given that we know the difficulties, which have been outlined, when it comes to Dáil elections. We have failed abysmally for reasons too numerous to mention. That is simply not good enough whereas other countries, such as Scandinavia, have managed to increase the quota. I realise we are talking about sunset clauses but a step in the right direction would be in respect of this House.
The funding issue was mentioned but I will not elaborate on it. However, I welcome the provision for gender quotas. It is a step in the right direction and has to be done because we have continually failed in the political process. It is modern day gladiators when it comes to politics and conventions. The system will ensure that great people can be blocked out and it is very hard, as one of the Acting Chairman’s colleagues said recently — I assume I should take it as an insult as should all males but we will take it in the spirit it was intended — she wanted to see the day when Leinster House would elect mediocre women.
Senator Mark Daly: I note the point. I presume that if mediocre women were nominated that mediocre women would be elected to the Houses in the same way that she hinted that mediocre men were nominated and elected all the time. I do not think that remark was addressed to the Acting Chairman, or any of the males in this Chamber. However, I ask the Minister to look specifically at the Seanad where political parties would have a 50:50 quota in any election. I am speaking against myself and the Chair’s best interest on this issue but in light of the facts, which are obvious in my party, it is difficult given that policy will follow the money. If the money is provided only if 50% of the party’s candidates in the Seanad are women, that will happen. Aspirations, guidelines and hopes are no good as they do not bring about the required results. Irrespective of the Minister’s views of this House, I ask him to include a provision for what is required, otherwise he may get a bloody nose in any Seanad referendum, by which time the legislation would have passed and the opportunity to provide for the quota for political parties in Seanad elections would be lost.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: Cuirim fáilte romhaibh go léir, agus le mná na hÉireann go speisialta. I welcome the Minister, who spoke about this being ground-breaking legislation. It is ground-breaking, and it is great to be able to agree with that expression, as it is used insincerely sometimes. I welcome the former Senator, Mary Henry, and the former Minister, Ms Niamh Bhreathnach, to the House, and many in the Visitors Gallery have worked very hard, discussed the issues and made this day possible. It is a day in which politics in Ireland has changed.
I also welcome in the Bill the greater transparency for political funding and financing for political parties. Once upon a time I had the temerity to suggest that Charles Haughey had received donations from big business and that did not go down too well; it went down very badly, as I know to my own cost. Some 20 years later there is legislation to begin to change that culture of golden circles and the unhealthy relationship between business and politics, which I also welcome.
I will address my comments to the gender quota aspects of the Bill, and I am glad the quota applies to having more women on the ballot paper. That is not to say places will be reserved for women in the Houses and we are not telling people how to vote. We are giving people the option of having more women on the ballot paper. Voluntary quotas for parties were suggested by a former Minister of State, Mary Alexandra White, and they were not taken up. The Minister would not have brought forward this legislation if voluntary quotas had been taken up, as they were very successfully in Sweden. That country did not need legislation like this as quotas were met voluntarily.
Now is the time for us to embrace the legislation and we must grow up as a country. We want men and women to be represented equally because we are equal in terms of rights and population. We are mothers, sisters, daughters and wives. We are teachers, police officers, bank officials, managers and bosses, and we contribute everywhere in society, including in the home, schools, communities, hospitals and voluntary organisations. In the place where key decisions are made, we are somewhat absent. We are missing from the place where we should be the most, and we are missing in numbers where we could contribute, make an impact and bring about a difference.
As women, we operate differently and sometimes we have different priorities and approaches. We can also work differently, which is okay because it is the difference that matters. We want that difference in public and political life, in the Dáil, the Seanad, the Government and the Cabinet. We need that difference because it will be effective. This difference — the inclusion of women — is not emerging through normal procedures, and we are not making progress. It could be 250 or 350 years before that happens, so we cannot afford to wait any longer. This is an urgent matter which goes to the core of who we are and how we look after ourselves, our country and future. Whether it is believed or accepted, there is an invisible quota firmly in place, and it has always been supported and encouraged. Most importantly, it is pretty much expected that men would be in politics and have the power to make decisions. In part, that is because of what is reflected when we look around. Where I live in Sligo, one must go back to 1961, when Mary Reynolds, having been a Deputy for a very long time, lost her seat, for the last time there was female representation in the area. There has been no female Deputy or Senator in Sligo-Leitrim since then until now.
The status quo is what we have and what we are used to. It is what people know and what is comfortable. I know that people do not change banks easily, for example, and equally they do not change religion, politics or voting habits easily. This will be a long process but it is starting today. Voting for a woman may be difficult for some but there will be a choice. Some may find it impossible to vote for a woman but if there are not enough women to vote for, it will not happen. We could see that as how it is and part of life. We should tell that to cancer patients whose lives have been made better by medical and scientific interventions or the many people who have been improved by all kinds of interventions.
We could talk about how important it is for more people to become involved and hope this will rub off on the public. When Mary Robinson became the first woman President of Ireland, that did not rub off. We could try instead to intervene and level the playing field, indicating that political parties must make an effort, change their attitude and help to change the status quo. They should welcome and support women. We must get women to make the effort, change their attitudes and break the status quo. Women are not entitled to be involved in politics but rather they are obliged to be involved. It is our country and we are all responsible. This legislation is only part of that process. When it comes down to it, this process will involve organisations like the 50:50 Group, of which I am proud to be a founding member of the north-west branch. It covers almost the entire nation and the 50:50 Group has encouraged and supported debate, conversation and argument in this regard, which will go hand in hand with this legislation.
A new group, Women For Election, has received great funding from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland to do what many critics say is missing, such as running workshops, lecturing, offering training and mentoring to women interested in and who want to know about a life in politics. When the people involved were canvassing for the Lisbon treaty, they discovered that many women were genuinely interested in politics but did not know how to get in. They felt excluded and thought that potential candidates might have to be part of a dynasty or know everything about politics. There was a realisation that some women just needed a little support.
Such movements will operate hand in hand with this brave and welcome legislation. Together, by women and for women and with the encouragement and support of men, this can work. I remind men that when more women move into the Houses of the Oireachtas, they will not be sitting on men’s knees. Some men will have to move over or even out, which is okay as it is progress. Otherwise, we will not have in these Houses the kind of representation reflecting life outside on the streets. This will make a difference and as a woman, I see a 50:50 split as the only correct form of representation. I welcome this legislation as part of that jigsaw.
Senator Imelda Henry: I welcome the Minister and take this opportunity to welcome the new legislation. I know there are mixed views on quotas but we know this is necessary to address the problems facing female participation in politics. Unfortunately, politics in this country has always been dominated by men, although we have seen changes in the number of female doctors, engineers, architects, as well as those in other professions. We must encourage more women into political life and change the environment in which they would operate.
The main problem for some women, particularly those outside Dublin, is their families. It can be difficult for young mothers to put themselves forward, leave home and base themselves in Dublin for three days. Men cannot have babies, thank God, but they can do everything else. Some 45% of the Swedish Parliament consists of women and one would often see men pushing prams while women are debating. Equality in Sweden starts in school, as boys and girls are given the same opportunities, with girls outperforming boys in education. Almost half of the PhDs awarded today in Sweden go to women. An important factor in Swedish equality is parental leave, and new fathers get ten days off work when the child is born before sharing with their partner a further 480 days of paid parental leave. This allows women to continue to pursue their careers and facilitates men in playing a larger role in their children’s formative years.
Men and women must have a choice. I was a candidate for the general election in 2007 and the rest of the field in the constituency consisted of nine men. Some people believe that women vote for women but research shows this is untrue. We must give people the choice of voting for the best candidate, male or female. I hope political parties will not use this as a token gesture to women, and when women are on the ballot paper to run for the general election, all parties should give the encouragement and support to ensure election.
Senator David Norris: I welcome the Minister to the House and the introduction of this Bill. I agree that it will fundamentally change the way politics is conducted. In fact, I would go so far as to say it has the potential to transform the political landscape in the State in a very positive way. As the longest serving continuous Member of the Seanad — the father of the House — it is a matter of pride to me that the constituency I represent has always met the target of 30% female representation. Past Senators for the University of Dublin have included Mary Robinson, Carmencita Hederman and Mary Henry. The Deputy Leader, Senator Ivana Bacik, is the latest woman to be elected to the constituency.
It is very important that any suggestion of corruption, golden circles and so on should be cut away, as is clearly the Minister’s intention. He referred to excessive and secretive corporate funding. I remember when that type of situation was very much worse. It has improved gradually in recent years and this Bill represents another step in the right direction. It was referred to as a “baby step” by one speaker. On the contrary, it is a very significant measure in several respects.
While the Minister spoke about the balance of representation in the Dáil between men and women, he was challenged on the omission of the Seanad in this regard. I will not extend that challenge other than to express my agreement with colleagues’ observation that the Seanad’s exclusion is curious. That is especially so given the point made by the Minister in his opening contribution:
The Minister paid tribute to the essential role played by Seanad Éireann in this area, yet he has omitted to include it in these proposals. I hope the Seanad’s acknowledged contribution will be taken into account when it comes to making a decision on a referendum on the future of this House.
My colleague, Senator Mary White, has drawn attention to considerable discriminatory practices within some of the farming organisations, observations which were subject to widespread comment. I took part in the debate in 2010 in which I indicated my support for the proposals put forward. In regard to donations, not only is the Seanad excluded but the question of Independent representation is not properly addressed. Instead, the entire proposal is once again skewed in favour of the political parties and against Independent Members. If the Minister wants to equalise matters in regard to women, he should also equalise them in regard to Independents. While parties have access to enormous resources, the Minister is reducing even further the miserable amounts permitted to Independent Members.
In each of the last few elections I received nothing because I considered I was already in the system and sufficiently funded. However, one of my colleagues received €30,000 in a large number of equal denominations. That is interesting. I am referring here to Senator Rónán Mullen. If I am wrong, I will withdraw the statement. It is very valuable to have the Senator's voice in the House, because it is a contrary one which is against the current of the times. We need that type of exchange of different ideas. However, I maintain that it was perfectly appropriate for me to point out, when he spoke earlier about cultural elements, that the largest Christian denomination in this country is not at all a cultural leader in this area. The word "organic" contains the notion of growth, but I am ashamed that we have slipped backward rather than moving forward. That is not organic; it is a form of decay.
Hitting people in the pocket is the most practical form of political persuasion at one’s disposal. The proposal that 30% of a party’s list must be women is very welcome in a context where they are a majority in the State. It is astonishing that they are not there already. This provision should be extended to local authorities for the clear and simple reason of public profile. In the old days a large number of people in this House came through the local authority system and cut their teeth there. If women are not given the same opportunity they will not have the same profile and will be less likely to be elected. As it stands, they account for only 17% of local authority members. Imposing a candidate gender quota for the 2014 local elections would pave the way for the next general election, which is due to take place in 2016. The idea of twinning lists, which has been tried successfully in Scotland, would serve to maximise the opportunity for participation.
I have reservations in regard to proposals for a favourable order of placement for women candidates on the ballot paper, as suggested in a submission to me by the 50:50 Group in Cork. There is certainly a clear advantage in a higher placement. My own name, starting as it does with an “N”, is too near the bottom. I wish it started with a “B” like Senator Bacik.
Some of these proposals have been under consideration for many years. In fact, some of the sums referred to in the Bill were originally designated in another currency back in 1997. Likewise, it is a long time since the Minister’s former party colleague, Jim O’Keeffe, brought forward legislative proposals on changes to the method of nomination for presidential elections. I hope the Minister will review that matter, which is another example of inequality.
Senator Aideen Hayden: I join other speakers in welcoming the Minister to the House on this historic occasion. I also welcome the former Minister, Councillor Niamh Bhreathnach, and the former Senator, Mary Henry, to the Visitors Gallery, as well as members of the research and policy communities who have investigated and campaigned for this legislation for years. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my party colleague, Senator Ivana Bacik, for her work in this area.
It is a pity Senator Rónán Mullen is no longer in the Chamber. I found it slightly offensive when he referred to this measure as representing a form of social engineering. The latter suggests a manipulating of outcomes, but that is not what this legislation is about. Rather, it is about presenting opportunities, namely, giving the people the opportunity to vote for a woman. It is about ensuring enhanced democracy. It is clear that the Senator does not consider the dominant position of the Catholic Church in, for example, the education system, which restricts parents' choice of where they send their children to school, to constitute a form of social engineering, yet he considers giving women access to democratic representation in this country as exactly that. There is a significant inconsistency in that position.
Senator Mullen mentioned the legal opinions of the former leader of the Progressive Democrats, Michael McDowell, as somewhat persuasive and as presenting valid reasons that this legislation does not hold water. I would like, because she did not have the opportunity to do so herself, to refer to some of the comments made by Senator Bacik in her response to Mr. McDowell in the Sunday Independent on 27 November 2011. She noted that Mr. McDowell failed to cite substantive constitutional grounds on which the law could be challenged. She suggested that there was no prohibition in the Constitution against political parties adopting these types of measure. The Constitution does not refer to parties. If I read the Senator's article correctly, she found no reason to prevent the measure from being adopted.
Other issues with the funding of political parties have not been set down in the Constitution and are perfectly open to being set down in legislation. Senator Bacik, an eminent lawyer, pointed out that, constitutionally, this is robust legislation and does not represent anything dramatic. It is a modest proposal. Doctors differ, patients die and this matter may need to be tested in the courts, but so be it. It is an important consideration and will progress.
Senator Mullen mentioned Sweden and the fact that, in certain societies, there is no need for this type of “social engineering”. He was right, as Sweden is an equal society that has developed over many decades. Ireland is not an equal society. As other Senators have mentioned, we have not managed to achieve anything approximating the democratic participation of women. We are not Sweden and do not have its type of equal society. I wish we did, as we cannot rely on the organic growth of the participation of women in politics. Therefore, this modest legislation is necessary.
Equal societies generate greater participation by women. According to research, equal societies are more successful. This measure is one of a number that will not only address the participation of women, but also the participation of other disenfranchised people, for example, the elderly and people with disabilities. We should examine the electoral system to determine how to encourage the participation of gay, lesbian and transgender people and others whose views are not represented in society.
This Bill will probably be the Minister’s most important undertaking in office. In the past week, he has been subjected to what I would loosely term the septic tank debacle. This measure will set him apart as a Minister. I welcome the legislation and the debate to come. It represents a watershed in society and a watershed for women.
Speaking as a male politician, I say this legislation is long overdue. One of the country’s greatest scandals has been the under-representation of women in politics and, arguably, in many other strands of society. I find it offensive for any politician to claim that this measure is a form of social engineering. The fact is that women represent 51% of the population. They should be properly represented in the Houses and on local councils.
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