Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator David Cullinane: I will continue where I left off, on the point that all Oireachtas Members, especially males, should support the legislation before the House. It is a tragedy that women are under-represented in politics. While this House has a good percentage of female Members, across the Oireachtas, unfortunately, that is not the case and the same applies to local councils. Male Members should not see gender quotas as a threat. We should embrace them as a means of bringing about equality in the Houses of the Oireachtas. We must ensure women and the voice of women are properly represented in the Seanad, the Dáil and local council chambers. I would even go so far as to apply it outside of politics. We can all point to areas in society in which women are under-represented.
While I support the Minister’s proposals in this Bill, it is important to remember they are not a panacea. Members referred earlier to a report published by Senator Bacik on this issue. When the House last debated this matter, I pointed out there have been many debates both inside and outside the Oireachtas on female representation in politics. The issue of quotas is only a small part of what we need to do to ensure more women engage in politics, stand for elections and join political parties. Funding, child care and unsocial hours have already been signalled by women as barriers to their engagement in politics which must be addressed. While I support the Minister’s proposals for gender quotas, does he accept we have to do more about those other barriers? How will the Government address them? If they are not addressed, then this legislation could just be papering over the cracks.
I support the Bill’s proposals on corporate donations. We need to move towards a complete ban on such donations. All Members accept politics has been tainted by accusations of corruption, the Galway tent, the close relationships between some political parties and large developers, businesses and the banks and all we have seen in the past that led to the economic crash. It ties into the broader issue of representation in politics. Many people have turned away from politics because of what they have seen. If the entire political system is to clean up its act once and for all, the Minister should be bold and brave and consider a complete ban on corporate donations.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The Bill marks an interesting development in dealing with corporate donations to political parties and women’s participation in politics. I support the reduction of the maximum possible corporate donation to €200, which is almost a ban. It will see the phasing out of corporate donations. Does it also apply to an individual or a sole trader?
To bring more women into politics the Bill proposes a gender quota with parties running at least 30% women candidates and 30% men candidates in general elections. If they do not, they will lose half of their annual State funding received under the Electoral Act 1997. The threshold will rise in time and Ireland will become the seventh country in the EU to implement a candidate-balancing mechanism in law.
While this provision acknowledges there is a problem, it will not solve it. We all know the stark figures of how few women participate in politics. There are barriers to women’s involvement in politics. How does the Minister expect political parties to use this new quota mechanism to look at these barriers? Four key resources tend to equate to electability in politics — experience, networks, time and funds. While funding is a critical resource, networks is a larger one. It ties in with culture, people’s political habits and how politics is perceived. How does the Minister see the gender quota mechanism changing these barriers fundamentally? How will Fine Gael — of which we are both members — use this quota system?
Given the persistent division of care in society, generally men are in a better position to take advantage of these resources than women. Just 16% of councillors are female, a particularly low figure and one of concern as would-be Deputies and Senators cut their teeth at council level. I would not be a Senator or have even entered council politics if it were not for a personal family arrangement with my husband. There was no other way it could have been facilitated as we have two young children and have had to work around that for ever and a day. A cultural change needs to be spoken about publicly by parties. These factors mean the candidate pipeline is dominated in the main by well positioned and electable men. Up to now — and it will continue to be the case — it takes a determined woman to come through these normal difficulties in political life.
The ideal situation for women at this time would be a partial quota system and meritocracy. A party will achieve the quotas set out in this Bill by having 30% of female candidates nationally, not by constituency. It is a pity the quota will not apply at constituency level because that would force a massive cultural change. If I recall correctly, Fine Gael achieved the 30% for female candidates nationally in the last general election.
When I refer to partial quota and meritocracy, I will use the example of a candidate selection convention to explain how it could be beneficial to women candidates. Let us say the quota at a convention is 130 votes for a candidate to be selected, putting it at 100 votes for a woman candidate would give her a leg-up, for want of a better word, to get started. It would recognise genuine barriers just like when a woman plays a man at golf, different handicaps apply.
It takes a long time for the discourse at national level to drip down to the local. The potential danger of the quota system is that it will reinforce the stereotype of women as the weaker sex. What type of public debate can we have to counter such stereotypes? These cultural barriers are the real issue.
Senator Terry Leyden: I welcome the Minister, Deputy Hogan, who has been very attentive to the opinions expressed in this House. This Bill will not be as controversial as the other legislation he brought before us recently. As there is general consensus on its provisions, he will not have to deal with many attacks by lobby groups on this occasion.
Senator Healy Eames is someone who fought her way through the system. She ran a great campaign for nomination and the two formidable Fine Gael women candidates in Galway West achieved 50% of the quota.
Section 27 of the Bill sets out the proposal in detail. I admire the Minister’s courage in grasping the issue. We have been debating it for too long without doing anything about it. He has taken a step in the right direction at least.
At a recent Council of Europe meeting, I received a copy of the report, Gender Sensitive Parliaments, which was published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The report examines ways of making parliaments workable for women who are raising families. It is practically impossible at present for a young parent to work in the Dáil or Seanad because of the unsociable hours we keep. The Council of Europe’s committee on equal opportunities for women and men is also preparing a report on best practices for promoting gender equality in political parties. The committee sent a questionnaire to the Government in December 2011 but has not yet received a response. I ask the Minister to investigate this matter.
The Minister has developed a practical proposal based on the overall number of candidates as opposed to candidates per constituency because while the latter may be desirable it would be difficult to achieve in the context of giving outgoing candidates the right to stand. Fianna Fáil supports the use of gender quotas to build up a fair and balanced representation that reflects society and encourages women to participate in politics. International experience points to the need to take a proactive approach to achieving gender equality and addressing historically low levels of female participation. My party has undertaken internal action to promote greater female involvement at all levels of the organisation. Gender quotas reflect the continuation of this policy at a national level. They offer voters a choice in who they want to represent them while also helping women to overcome fundamental obstacles to participation. I commend the Minister for having the courage of his convictions to bring forward this Bill. It is a step in the right direction.
On a technical note, I am unsure whether he left out the position of Seanad Éireann, which will continue to exist until a referendum decides otherwise. Gender quotas should also apply to the bodies which nominate candidates to the Seanad because political parties do not have control over nominations by outside bodies. The 2014 local elections would offer a good starting point for quotas but I am not sure if the legislation will cover them. There are only four women on Roscommon County Council out of a total of 26 councillors. They have contributed greatly, however.
The involvement of women in politics has been enormously helpful in terms of presenting different points of view and contributing to constructive debates. They have been thorough in their study of legislation. Overall, the women who break through the barriers can be extremely effective where the details of legislation are concerned.
However, the legislation will have to be coupled with reform of both Houses of the Oireachtas in order that we work regular hours which allow women, and men for that matter, to rear families while also attending sessions. This issue is more pertinent to places like Kilkenny, Roscommon, Mayo and Donegal than to the greater Dublin area. One can cope to some extent if one lives in Dublin but it is neither suitable nor necessary to call votes at 11 p.m. or midnight. Ingenious systems could be put in place for distance voting because we have the technology. Crucial votes, such as on no confidence motions, could still require Members to be physically present. I wish the Minister well with this Bill and I am sure he will be open to Members’ suggestions in regard to tweaking it.
Senator Paul Bradford: I listened with interest to the Senator’s sensible contribution. Six minutes is a ridiculously inadequate amount of time to speak on such important legislation. If we are trying to involve larger number of women and younger and older people in politics, we need to allow a space for debate. The system of politics itself needs to be reformed. In essence, the legislation before us comprises two Bills which deal with different issues, namely, the lack of female representation in politics and the funding of politics. Each of these issues requires substantive debate and I hope we will have an opportunity to expand on our thoughts on Committee Stage.
The Minister is attempting to make funding more accountable and transparent, which is welcome. My colleague from Sinn Féin asked that there be no corporate or outside funding of politics but, unfortunately, politics has to be paid for and if we do not fund political parties privately we will require the taxpayer to fund them. That would not be welcomed warmly. The Bill moves in the right direction towards a reasonable balance.
Most of the debate thus far has concentrated on the proposed 30% limit — I understand it is not deemed to be a gender quota. This represents a reasonable effort to encourage or facilitate women in becoming part of the political process, particularly at Oireachtas level. To reach that stage will require much more than candidate quotas or gender quotas. We need to consider the type of politics we practise in this country. We need to look at the place of work that Leinster House is and how it facilitates or fails to facilitate certain people. Senator Healy Eames’s contribution was interesting in that respect. Our bizarre sitting hours and sitting days, and the way we do work in this House whereby the Dáil, the Seanad and several committees are sitting simultaneously, deputations are arriving, bells are ringing and meetings are being adjourned, would not encourage anybody into politics. I hope that in the course of the Minister’s term in conjunction with his Government colleagues he will try to reform the way this House does its business, the way Leinster House does its business and how politics is run. It is not even a debating place at this stage or even a talking shop because we do not get much opportunity to talk. How we practise politics must be not just examined but also acted upon.
It is obviously very desirable that more women should offer themselves as candidates at election time and be elected. I am not sure what the solution is. I recently watched the film about Margaret Thatcher and I doubt whether she would have been a gender quota candidate. A few weeks ago I read a biography of the former Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, who intervened to save Israel when it was being wiped off the map. I doubt if she would be a person who would have required a gender quota or a candidate quota. It is probably not the perfect solution — I do not know what the perfect solution is. I know the culture in this House and in politics in general regarding how women are treated, written about and discussed needs to be changed.
I never hear comments about how male colleagues dress or look. I am often bemused at the comments by female journalists about female politicians. These same female journalists, who are likely to give the Minister a standing ovation for introducing this sort of legislation, can write in very unusual terms about female politicians. If we want to have equality, there needs to be equality in how we talk and write about female politicians. In journalism colour pieces can be very funny, but I can remember down the years certain female politicians being described as “the lovely” this or that — almost a lovely girls competition. That kind of culture will not be resolved by having more women elected by virtue of a gender quota or a candidate quota. Our thinking will need to change and this legislation will not be enough in that regard. Again from a journalistic perspective the women who have been elected to this House down the years seem to be expected to have certain views and to sit on a certain place in the spectrum, and once they do so everybody is happy. However, if they think beyond the box of what women are supposed to do or say, suddenly everybody is upset.
Six minutes is completely inadequate to talk about anything substantive and I hope we can return to it on Committee Stage. That culture and thinking needs to be changed first and then we can start getting real results. I commend the Minister on doing his best to try to bring about a numbers change, but much more will be required if we want to bring about a culture change.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I welcome the Minister. What an interesting debate on a fascinating topic we are having. The Minister has a difficult challenge. I disagree with something Senator Bradford said — I get great comments about my socks.
Senator Feargal Quinn: Some do not even have ties. I also went to the film about Margaret Thatcher, which was very interesting. It was a reminder to us that some women with children can break through that barrier. With all the challenges we talk about it is possible. I do not know if Chancellor Merkel has children and what ages they might be. I know the US Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton, went into politics when her daughter was comparatively young. Therefore, there are success stories. I am on the board of a European organisation representing 6 million shops in Europe. I was chairman of the body and the new chairman to be elected shortly will be one of two women candidates, one from London and one from Athens, both of whom are mothers. I do not know how they fit that in — it is a very difficult challenge. We need to find some way to get more women into politics and I am not sure how we will do that.
Linking quotas for women and funding is more complex than it first appears. How far we should take quotas is also a good topic for debate. It is not correct to say that women are not well represented across the political spectrum. The academics, Fiona Buckley and Claire McGing, recently provided figures indicating that women are very involved in the local echelons of political parties, accounting for 42% of the membership of Fine Gael, 37% in the Labour Party, 34% in Fianna Fáil and 25% in Sinn Féin. However, it seems that running for election is not as attractive to women as it is to men. They pointed out that research undertaken with party women reveals a vicious circle of supply and demand barriers. Women are less likely to contest selection conventions because they believe they lack the local support base required, but they are also less likely to be approached to run by party selectors when an electoral opportunity opens up. Of the 18 candidates added to tickets by Fine Gael headquarters following selection conventions for the 2011 election, only two were women. Only two of the eight candidates added by the Labour Party were female. Should we at least get them on the ballot paper and let the voters decide or will political parties be reduced to tokenism?
Senator Leyden raised a very interesting point for those of us who sit on these benches when he talked about quotas for political parties. Of the six university Senators — I have been a Senator for almost 20 years — we have always had one woman. It is Senator Bacik at the moment and prior to her it was Dr. Mary Henry and earlier on Dr. Mary Robinson and others. I believe there has always been only one. However, how can a quota be put in? I believe we had 24 candidates on the NUI panel in the last Seanad election and I cannot remember how many were women.
Senator Feargal Quinn: It may have been 27. How can a quota be applied to Independent people running for election? There are challenges and it is not easy to solve. Must political parties and the voters take some of the blame themselves? By definition political parties are purely tactical machines. I recently read that in the UK the Liberal Democrats lost disproportionately in constituencies in which they ran a female candidate. They then changed tactics for the next election and did not run the same campaign. While I do not have the figures for Ireland, given that political parties are so tactical I would guess that they decided not to run female candidates in certain constituencies as they had a better chance with a particular male candidate. While it is hard to prove, the parties could be doing something similar here in Ireland. While political parties are the target of the legislation — they will need to run a female candidate or lose funding — and are supposedly anti-female institutions, they are in fact still getting funding.
I am sure the Minister will have read a recent article by Daniel K. Sullivan in The Irish Times, in which he stated: “Take the constituency of Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment — unless one of his recently elected male party colleagues stands down, Fine Gael will be compelled to run an extra candidate where there is no realistic chance of a fourth seat and, in so doing, will imperil at least one of the party’s three seats, in the face of a strong SF and FF challenge.”
Senator Feargal Quinn: I had not thought how complex it was and had not thought about Independents. I would prefer to see a great deal more Independents in both Houses. However, our challenge is complex. Let us consider the Minister’s example of Daniel K. Sullivan who has written about the Minister’s constituency. It reminds us how difficult this is. Let us be careful about how we challenge it.
Many women join businesses but tend to concentrate on certain jobs because they are more child-friendly. Often, these are jobs in accountancy or in the office rather than on the shop floor in manufacturing. Sometimes, this means the core business lacks their expertise at board of directors level. We must face up to this challenge but it is interesting to note that we have faced up to it in this area and we are looking to find a way. There must be information available in other countries and we could see how they do it. France and Norway have introduced similar legislation not limited to political parties; it applies to businesses as well. Let us look around the world and see how it has succeeded elsewhere.
Senator Mary Moran: I welcome the Minister back to the Seanad. I wish to focus on Part 5. As previous speakers have said, this is a vast Bill and we simply do not have time to speak in detail about all the areas. I will hone in specifically on the gender balance question. Many of the facts and figures have been discussed and have arisen between today and last week. When we reflect on the 15% of women in the Lower House and that only 86 of the 566 candidates in the general election were women, it serves as a clear signal that it is time for us to change. If someone had asked me one year ago whether I was in favour of quotas, I would have been hesitant and I would have had major reservations and, until some months ago I would have held my reservations in tow. Now, when we consider the success they have had throughout Europe I believe it is important for them to be introduced.
The population ratio is 50:50 but only 15% of women are in the Lower House. Until this is changed and until our democracy is more representative of the population, certain issues will never be addressed by the political system. Therefore, I have changed my mind on the matter. I still hold reservations. Women are more than capable of being elected on their own merits once they are given the opportunity. However, this is the lesser of two evils and we should introduce quotas.
During the last general election some constituencies had no women candidates. In my constituency of Louth, I was the only female candidate to run. I would not have considered running in politics one year ago. I was not involved at all and I was not on a council but I was involved in local issues and I was on local committees. I do not suggest it is all women but the driving force on many of these committees, including parent’s councils and such organisations and groups, are women. When I was offered the opportunity by the Labour Party I had never thought about it but I believed strongly enough on certain issues and I decided to stand up and be counted. I am glad that I did so and that I was given the opportunity to stand. Upon my appointment to the Seanad last May I became the first female Member from County Louth, something of which I am very proud.
Senator Mary Moran: It was a momentous decision and one that is more pressing for female Members who must try to juggle things, especially when one has a family without support. We need the men and their support as much as they need us.
Senator Mary Moran: That is what I am saying. I agree with Senator Leyden that it should be a 50:50 arrangement. We need the support. I agree with the speakers who raised the matter of anti-social hours and long debates. They do not take into consideration that one might have small children or a family at home. Today, I received a telephone call from a school about one of my children who is sick. I am 52 miles away but it is always the mother that one comes looking for.
Senator Mary Moran: I am lucky that I have the support and that I can go on. I hope this can be considered as part of the reforms and, as previous Senators have said, I hope that the whole system can be reformed and made more desirable for women to put forward their names. The main problem is taking the initial step. However, if we give women the opportunity then more and more will take it.
I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, on the excellent conference in Dublin Castle two weeks ago on how to elect more women. It was impressive to see so many women in Dublin Castle. Many valid points were made. Many women who have great ideas were there and they should be given the opportunity to come forward. As others have done, I call on the Minister to consider the possibility of introducing gender quotas at local level for local elections.
Senator Paschal Mooney: I wonder whether a covert operation was under way given the announcement that Lar Corbett is retiring. Had the Minister anything to do with influencing him to make things easier for Kilkenny this time out?
Those of us on this side of the House are pleased to give the legislation a fair wind despite some reservations on how it will be executed and the impact it will have. A great deal of rhetoric surrounds this issue. I wish to nail my colours to the mast in that I was privileged to have been a member of the Irish delegation to the Council of Europe between 2002 and 2007 where I sat on the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men. Members will note that it was referred to as the committee for women and men. I was the rapporteur for a report, adopted unanimously by the assembly in 2004, calling for more participation by women in politics. It is on the website for anyone who wishes to examine the deliberations and recommendations.
Having said that, I question whether the legislative route is the way to go. Several facts jump out. There are legislative models throughout the world which apply under various guises, whether to do with seat selection, candidate selection or simple quotas. Despite all of these improvements and developments, one interesting statistic is that, internationally, only 19% of women serve in parliament.
There is an old chestnut thrown out from time to time to the effect that political parties in smoke-filled rooms with men in grey suits have deliberately and conspiratorially gone out of their way to ensure good women are prevented or denied the opportunity to put themselves before the electorate. Let us consider the last elections. Only 11% of women put themselves forward as independent candidates. If there were such a vast cohort of women who sought to get involved in the political process, going independently would not prevent them from doing so. Therein lies a particular difficulty. All surveys and facts suggest that, at least in this country, a significantly higher proportion of women are involved in the voluntary sector than men. Somehow they do not make the jump from being actively involved in the voluntary sector to political participation and electoral politics. Therefore, the question arises whether it is as much about the institutions that run the country and the manner in which they are run which prevent women rather than any conspiracy. This is about reform of the Dáil and making it more user-friendly, especially for women with families who live far from the Parliament and the other elements surrounding the issue.
I was pleased and honoured to co-author a book with Maedhbh McNamara, senior research assistant in the House, in 2001. Among the conclusions we came to was that the most advantageous position was to be a male incumbent and the most disadvantageous position to be was a female challenger. Therein lies a real difficulty facing women in getting into political activity. I hope this legislation will address this but I have serious doubts about it because I believe several things will happen. One is that the quotas will be adhered to, but these women candidates will end up as token candidates. I have no doubt that when these candidates go out on the hustings, the male and female candidates running alongside them will tell the voters not to worry about them because they are only token female candidates. There are many good women in politics in this and the other House and one of them has taken a brave and courageous stand in this regard in that she has challenged the perceived wisdom. That person is Deputy Joanna Tuffy, who served with distinction in this House. She has made a point I have heard repeatedly down through the years within my party. Many of my dear departed sisters since the most recent election are vociferously opposed to quotas on the basis that they believe they were elected on merit rather than because of a quota.
To nail my own colours to the mast, I agree there is a need for some form of quota in the short term. Otherwise, this glass ceiling will not be pierced to an effective degree. While a quota system is not required to work in the long term, it would work in the short term. All I question is the manner in which the Minister is going about it. There are constitutional questions surrounding the issue and the Minister has allayed fears in that regard, but some eminent lawyers are raising a question with regard to a quota somehow interfering in the process. Also, when it comes to how the candidates will be selected, no matter the party, it will come down to whether the person is electable — whether it is the right place and whether the person has a local connection and is capable of being elected. I do not believe any woman would want to be put in a position where she would be seen as a token candidate.
One of the last things I said when wrapping up the debate at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which I attended with all of my colleagues from the committee for equality between men and women, was that the last thing that women would want would be to be seen as coming into any parliament as a result of an artificial quota. They would want to be seen and perceived as taking their place in parliament on merit, because they had put themselves forward before the people and had been elected and therein lies the flaw with quotas. I am not sure the proposed quota system will work. I know the Minister holds out the threat of reducing moneys, but I believe he will return to this House in the lifetime of the Government with a review of this. I ask for nothing more from the Minister now than that he gives some indication of whether he will monitor how this works when put into practice. I am not talking about compliance with the law, but whether it will achieve the objectives purportedly set out in the Bill, namely, to increase significantly the number of women parliamentarians. I fully agree with those who have put forward the view repeatedly in this House and beyond it, that unless women have a critical mass in parliament — of the order of 30% to 35% — they do not have the effective influence on legislation they can have. I welcome the Bill, but what are the Minister’s thoughts with regard to monitoring its progress and a review of it at some point?
I commend the Minister for his work on this issue. I remember asking the Minister a question at a Fine Gael Party conference meeting once on this issue and remember commenting that I had never come up against any difficulty because of the fact I was a woman at that point in my life in politics. I was on the council at the time. However, since coming into this House, I have found it a very male environment and believe it will take time to change it. I can speak with some qualification as a member of the legal profession and women are now at the top of that profession across the board. It did not require any legislation to get them there. Perhaps it is because tradition is that politics is a male environment that it is difficult for women to break through. In the case of the legal profession, it is almost entirely run by women now and there is a significant percentage of women partners and many of those in high positions, such as the DPP, are women.
I cannot understand why there is such a problem with politics and until I came into the House I did not see it. Democracy is intended to be representative of society rather than reflective of it. Our opinions are too diffuse and our characters too disparate to ever properly reflect our population through quotas or percentages. If we were to account comprehensively for the under-representation of other groups, we would need to have all sorts of minority groups represented here, which is unrealistic.
While I agree with the principle of increasing the participation of women in politics, I wonder whether there is a better way towards getting more women involved. I suggest a combination of a phased quota and a more deliberative, systematic programme of support for women in branches, local elections and general elections that would eliminate the difficulties, such as child care, confidence, cash, culture and candidate selection, that women experience. Perhaps that would bring about a more rounded form of participation. I commend the Minister for his work on this issue.
Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Phil Hogan): I join the Cathaoirleach in welcoming our former distinguished Member of the House, Gemma Hussey, to the House. She championed the cause of many issues relating to both women and men throughout her political career in both Houses of the Oireachtas.
I thank the Members of the Seanad for their thoughtful and detailed contributions to the Second Stage debate on the Bill and particularly acknowledge the generous reception given to the Bill by Senators who contributed during the two days of this debate. Many points have been raised and I will attempt to deal with some of them now. I hope we can deal with all the issues and tease them out in more detail on Committee Stage. The range of views expressed by Senators reflects the wide scope of the Bill. Points have been raised about gender balance provisions, corporate funding of politics, political donations and political party accounts. Some Members have raised more general concerns that relate to political reform and others have raised matters that go beyond the immediate scope of the legislation. Overall, the contributions reflect positively on the diversity and ambition of the Bill.
Senator Feargal Quinn referred to the fact that I might find myself in a dilemma in Carlow-Kilkenny if we had a female candidate on the ticket along with three Fine Gael Deputies. I would not have difficulty with that and am sure we would still win three seats with our four candidates. However, that is another day’s work.
Deputy Phil Hogan: I have a track record in terms of the promotion of women from Carlow-Kilkenny in politics. I am glad to be able to tell Senator Quinn that in the most recent local elections for the county council, some five out of the 12 people elected for Fine Gael were women. Therefore, we have well in excess of the quota required for those elected. We in Carlow-Kilkenny do not just operate on the basis of greater participation and opportunity, but have people who in their own right are well able to go out, get votes and get elected. I am particularly proud of that achievement in terms of the encouragement those particular candidates received from our party in Carlow-Kilkenny.
The gender balance provisions have generated a good deal of comment and I welcome the constructive manner in which points have been made. I acknowledge that some of Members are reluctant converts to the approach taken in the Bill. However, unless we take action, experience has shown that the current gender balance in Irish politics is unlikely to improve to any great extent. I also recognise that many Members, including some within my party, would like to see the Bill go further than it does. When I introduced the Bill at the start of this debate, I reflected on the fact that the legislation before us is a significant step. I reiterate this view, but the Bill only represents a small step in the approach needed to achieve gender equality.
I also outlined how the gender balance provisions are to apply and why the provisions are structured as they are. They are designed to be ambitious, effective, fair and legally robust. The measures in the Bill link the payments made to qualified political parties by the State under the Electoral Act 1997 to candidate selection at a general election. Payments are made under that Act to parties that contest general elections, based on their performance at those elections. There is no linkage between these payments and local elections or elections to the European Parliament. I am, therefore, not in a position to apply a similar measure to candidate selection at local or European elections, as has been suggested by many speakers. However, I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, will bring forward additional proposals to promote and assist political parties and others to ensure we have greater participation of women in Irish politics in all elections.
A number of Senators have suggested that the gender balance measures should be applied at Seanad elections. I welcome the enthusiasm shown by Members of this House to embrace the spirit of the Bill and I note how far people are prepared to go. I note in particular the contributions of Senators Mark Daly and David Norris but they fail to realise that the nomination process for Seanad elections is very different from that of the Dáil. It would not be feasible to apply a gender balance provision to a registered nomination body for one of the vocational panels or to an individual who nominates a university candidate.
There is an idea that the Bill should have a sunset clause, as has been suggested by Senator Power and others. I realise the thinking behind the proposal is that after a certain period of time and once the desired effect has been achieved, the gender balance measures would lapse. It is an interesting proposition but I am not inclined towards it on this occasion. People on vocational panels and who wish to nominate candidates have the right to do so and give an opportunity for people of both genders to contest. I do not want to be overly prescriptive and put a certain number of candidates on each vocational panel.
There are people who oppose what is in the Bill and while I disagree with them, I respect their right to hold a differing opinion. I reject the suggestion made by Senator Mullen that the Bill represents some form of social engineering. Such a term is not only unduly emotive, it is utterly wrong. I agree with the comments made by Senator Hayden as what we are doing here is providing an opportunity for women to stand before the electorate. It is a matter for the people to decide who is elected for a constituency, so this modest proposal is designed to facilitate greater participation of women in Irish politics. Senator Mullen and others have quoted from an article written by the former leader of the Progressive Democrats, Mr. Michael McDowell, in the Sunday Independent last November opposing the gender balance provisions. It is not the first time Mr. McDowell has indicated that pieces of legislation which have gone through both Houses were unconstitutional and I do not believe he was right in what he wrote. The article grossly misrepresented the legislation before us and it included deliberately repugnant scenarios designed to mislead and scare people, particularly in mentioning issues relating to emigration.
I categorically reject this analysis. The Electoral Act provides for funding to democratic political parties that contest general elections and that have support from the electorate. On the legal points raised in the article, Senator Bacik’s response — published in the Sunday Independent a week later — rightly challenged and roundly rebutted the arguments that were put forward.
Senator Bradford has correctly pointed out the cultural changes required in politics in general, and it is a matter for political parties to be encouraged and lead by example in ensuring that the spirit of what we are introducing in legislation is brought to the fore in implementation at national level. All of the executive councils, political parties and other relevant groups should be conscious that it would be foolhardy to ignore the new provisions in this legislation for Dáil elections in respect of selecting candidates for local elections.
In contributions to the debate, reference has been made by Senators Keane, Cummins, Power, Norris, Mac Conghail and others to the current and past failings in the system of political funding in this State. Senator O’Keeffe made reference to her own direct and difficult experience in courageously attempting to reveal these failings. I again reassure Senators that the measures contained within the Bill are comprehensive and far-reaching. In developing this Bill the Government has had particular regard to recommendations made in the Moriarty tribunal report, published in March 2011, which I now want to address.
The tribunal report did not recommend that corporate donations be banned, although it noted that the desirability and feasibility of a complete ban on privatepolitical funding is pre-eminently a matter for the Oireachtas, and for public debate and consideration, having regard to constitutional issues that might arise and to the national financial exigencies. It is therefore my view that the restrictions to be placed on corporate donors in the Bill will go beyond what the tribunal was in a position to recommend.
The provision in the Bill for the publication of political party accounts will address the Moriarty tribunal recommendation that all income of political parties be disclosed. It will go beyond this recommendation by providing that the expenditure of parties is also reported and open to public scrutiny. The tribunal recommended that all political donations, apart from those under a modest threshold, be disclosed. I believe that the reductions in the donations thresholds we are introducing are substantial and significant, and they address this recommendation.
Senator Mac Conghail specifically raised a point about the party leaders’ allowance and payments made to Independent Members of these Houses. This issue was also alluded to by other Senators during the debate. My colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, has responsibility for the legislation dealing with the party leaders’ allowance, which is the Oireachtas Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Act 2001. I understand the Minister is giving active consideration to the introduction of reforms to the arrangements in place and intends to bring proposals to the Government shortly.
Currently, Independent members of these Houses do not submit an audited statement in respect of their use of this funding and the leaders of political parties do so, and that issue must be examined. The matter, raised by Senator Mac Conghail and others, falls outside the scope of the Bill before us but I assure him that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, has been made aware of the views expressed by Members.
Senator Power, in leading the Fianna Fáil response to Bill, stated that the measures dealing with political funding do not go far enough. Reference was made to a Bill from her party on political donations that came before the Dáil last May. The Government voted against that Bill because it was too limited in scope. The principal measure in the Bill was to restrict corporate donations but loopholes would have allowed a number of corporate-type bodies to continue to make political donations unhindered. The measure to enable the publication of political party accounts in that Bill would have placed the responsibility and cost of auditing the accounts on the Standards in Public Office Commission rather than on the political parties. This approach was not consistent with existing audit requirements that apply with the State funding of parties under the Electoral Act and through the party leaders’ allowance. The Fianna Fáil Bill provided for a reduction to €2,500 in the maximum donation that may be accepted by political parties, which is the same as the figure in the Government’s Bill. For a candidate and elected representative, the maximum donation was to be reduced to €1,000, which is also the same as the figure in the Bill before us.
The Fianna Fáil Bill in 2011 did, however, recommend lower thresholds for the declaration of donations than the Government Bill, although the party had the benefit of having seen our proposals in the programme for Government. It is the right of an Opposition to suggest that we would do more and be more radical but all reasonably thinking people would see this as a fair and balanced approach.
There has been criticism that the Bill, while restricting corporate donations, does not provide for an outright ban. Reference has been made to a Fianna Fáil Private Members’ Bill on political donations debated in the Dáil in November 2011 that sought to have a constitutional referendum on this question. The constitutional issues that could not be overcome were referenced by Senator Power. This Bill will work to that end to the maximum possible effect in reducing and restricting donations. Even if it were feasible to ban corporate donations to political parties in Ireland in a constitutional way, issues will arise with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights and the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. An outright ban on corporate donations raises particular questions with reference to the provisions of Article 40 of the Constitution, relating to freedom of expression and freedom of association.
The Fianna Fáil Bill did not have sufficient regard for the compatibility of the proposed constitutional amendment with other legal and justifiable constitutional commitments. The wording did not fit those requirements, and it is a fair conclusion that the amendment was being inserted in a part of the Constitution that would be inappropriate to the subject matter. The proposed new article would have been sandwiched between Article 29 on international relations and Article 30, which regards the Attorney General. It was the wrong amendment in the wrong place, which is why the Government voted against the proposal.
Deputy Phil Hogan: The measures in the Bill before us will restrict corporate donations, having regard to the need to respect Ireland’s Constitution and our commitments under international and European law. Perhaps more importantly, they will significantly enhance openness and transparency by requiring corporate donors that intend to give a political donation of more than €200 to be listed on a public register.
I thank Senators for their comments and observations, and agreeing to this ground-breaking Bill. I look forward to further consideration on Committee Stage of the specific provisions in the Bill. I also look forward to hearing Senators elaborate on some of the ideas and proposals mentioned in contributions over the two days of debate so far. I commend the Bill to the House.
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