I want to thank the Senators who have tabled this motion today. It gives us an opportunity to discuss and examine reforms to the governance of our electoral system. There are few issues more fundamental to the functioning of our democracy. And for me personally, this is an issue which is of the highest priority and one that I feel very passionate about.
I think there is general agreement between the Government side and most Senators on the need for an Electoral Commission in Ireland but there is a wide range of views on what exactly such a body will do and how it should work. Today’s debate is important because it helps to tease out some of the issues.
The motion tabled by the independent Senators provides that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government outline the progress and timetable for the establishment of an independent Electoral Commission. I am happy to do this. I welcome the opportunity of setting out my own and the Government’s intentions, and of making some observations. I am also particularly interested in hearing what Senators have to say.
The motion seeks information on a proposed timetable. On this point the Government Legislation Programme for Autumn 2014 provides for the publication of an Electoral Commission Bill in 2015. Work on this task has commenced in my Department and I remain absolutely committed to bringing forward legislative proposals in this area next year. This follows from the July 2014 Statement of Government Priorities which confirms the Government’s commitment. It states that, and I quote:
“Preparatory work for the establishment of an Electoral Commission is being advanced with a view to bringing forward legislation for the establishment of such a Commission in early 2015.”
I note that the motion before us makes reference to this commitment. The motion also refers to a recommendation made by the Convention on the Constitution.
The Programme for Government in 2011 provided for the establishment of the Convention. It was an innovative way of dealing with complex and oftentimes contentious constitutional issues. I believe it has been a great success in its work.
In referring to the Convention, I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge and refer to the work undertaken in 2011 by the Citizens’ Assembly project, “We the Citizens”, which was chaired by Senator Fiach MacConghail.
In many ways, “We the Citizens” proved that the idea of a Constitutional Convention could work in Ireland. As people with a track record in dealing thoughtfully and thoroughly with issues of political reform, the Government takes Senator MacConghail’s views - and those of the other proposers of the motion – as valuable contributions.
It is worth recalling again the recommendation in the Fourth Report of the Convention on the Constitution, which was emphatic on the issue we are discussing. When examining the Dáil electoral system at its meeting in June 2013, the Convention recommended that an electoral commission be established. The proposal was carried on a vote of 97% in favour.
In April 2014 the Taoiseach confirmed in the Dáil that the Government had accepted this recommendation of the Convention. The Government response to the other recommendations in that report is to be given in the Dáil tomorrow.
The recommendation on the establishment of an Electoral Commission was not prescriptive about the functions to be performed by the body. There is still a good deal to consider as we move from the principle that we should set up this new structure, towards actually doing it. So in terms of fulfilling the commitment that I reiterated earlier about bringing forward legislative proposals in relation to an electoral commission in 2015, there is a need to tease out some significant policy issues in order to inform that legislation. That’s what makes today’s discussion so important and it will need to be built on in the months ahead.
Establishing an electoral commission is a significant undertaking. It gives rise to a range of policy and organisational issues that will need to be addressed. It will involve detailed and considered work. I have previously referred to some of the issues that will need to be considered. These include:
· international best practice;
· the Commission's structure and functions;
· who it reports to;
· its relationship with other bodies currently involved in electoral administration;
· the approach to be followed in relation to the extensive legislation that will be required; and,
· practical matters including staffing and funding arrangements, amongst other issues.
When planning for change it is important to know what your starting point is. I think it would be helpful to this debate if I outlined briefly some particular features of the system as it operates at present.
The system as it operates currently
Currently, electoral administration in Ireland has as its central point of accountability the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. Indeed, I am currently performing one of my most important functions as a Minister. I am in the Seanad being held accountable by members of this House for Government policy. We are speaking and listening to each other – and we are contributing together to the further development of new policy.
The Programme for Government provides that an Electoral Commission would, and I quote, “subsume the functions of existing bodies and the Department of the Environment”.
My Department is responsible, under me as Minister, for policy issues relating to the electoral system generally and for preparing draft legislation on behalf of the Minister and the Government. My Department also supports the operation of the electoral system through the preparation of guidelines and the provision of other supports to election officials.
Operational functions are carried out with varying degrees of autonomy by a number of office holders and bodies:
· There are returning officers who act independently with reference to responsibilities defined in law for running Dáil, European and Presidential elections and referendums;
· Local authorities have responsibility in law for maintaining the register of electors, for running local elections and for the regulation of political funding and election spending at local level;
· There are statutory bodies established from time to time for specific purposes. These include the Constituency Commission, Referendum Commission and the Local Electoral Area Boundary Committee. Each of these bodies stands dissolved once their specific task is completed;
· We have the Standards in Public Office Commission as a permanent statutory body with regulatory responsibilities for political funding and election spending;
· And, there is the Clerk of the Dáil who acts as the Registrar of Political Parties.
The entire system is underpinned by a significant body of law comprising over thirty Acts of the Oireachtas. All aspects of electoral administration will need to be examined in undertaking the major body of work of establishing an electoral commission.
In addition to the existing responsibilities that I have just described there have also been proposals that an electoral commission might undertake additional tasks. Areas mentioned include voter education and election and referendum research. There is, therefore, a lot to consider as we proceed. But we are - I believe - starting from a good position.
Input and consultation
I think almost all political parties at the last general election committed to setting up an electoral commission, so there is a level of consensus on the need for such a body.
Some of the proposals that have previously been made have common, even overlapping elements. Others focus on particular responsibilities that can be assigned to an electoral commission.
I hope that the work in setting up this new body will be informed, not only by the views of members of this House, but by previous valuable policy inputs. These include:
· private members bills - including those introduced here in the Seanad;
· reports of Oireachtas committees; and,
· recommendations from other bodies.
This year, in June, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions published a report on the design and layout of ballot papers used at the October 2013 referendums. The Committee’s report recommended that a permanent electoral commission be established. It recommended that the Commission have a role in the distribution of information, on matters related to ballot paper design and the compilation of results data.
In 2010, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution published a report reviewing the system for the election of members to Dáil Éireann. It recommended that an electoral commission be set up and that it be given responsibilities in relation to:
· the registration of voters;
· postal voting;
· voter education programmes;
· the drawing of constituency boundaries;
· the counting of surplus vote transfers; and,
· the examination of the design of the ballot paper.
In 2008 the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government prepared a report on the electoral register. The Committee recommended that legislation be drafted to establish a new electoral administration body with responsibilities in relation to the voter registration and the operation of elections.
In 2008 the Geary Institute in UCD undertook a study on the establishment of an electoral commission. It identified four potential options for setting up such a body. The first was to establish a completely new electoral commission to perform the full range of functions intended for the body from the beginning. The second option was to take the Standards in Public Office Commission as the basis for a new electoral commission and make the necessary amendments to confer a complete set of new functions upon it immediately.
The third option was to create the new body in two phases. In phase one, the functions of SIPO would be extended to include those of the Constituency Commission and the Registrar of Political Parties along with a new function of co-ordinating and monitoring the maintenance of the register of electors. Then in phase two, SIPO would be renamed as the electoral commission.
In the fourth option, which was the one recommended, it was proposed that the new body would be titled the electoral commission from the outset. The functions of SIPO, the Constituency Commission, the Referendum Commission and the Registrar of Political Parties would all be transferred in phase one. In phase two the existing legislation would be replaced with an Act amending and consolidating electoral law and conferring a wider range of functions on the new electoral commission
These are just some examples of recommendations that have been made and there are many others. We can also learn from experience in other countries.
International experience has demonstrated that there are potential benefits in setting up a new electoral management body. The report prepared by the United Nations Development Programme titled, ‘Electoral Management Bodies as Institutions of Governance’, points to evidence internationally that independent electoral commissions are better for democratic stability and are more cost-effective than ad hoc arrangements. However, such bodies are differently configured across countries and can perform a differing range of tasks.
Applying the standard comparative terms used internationally, Ireland’s current model of electoral management is categorised as being ‘Governmental’ and ‘Decentralised’. However, it is possible for electoral management to be both governmental in form but independent in practice. Many countries, particularly in Western Europe, are in this category. However, we are amongst a minority of countries that does not have an Electoral Commission. Two-thirds of jurisdictions across the globe now have a system that is institutionally independent of government.
Ireland is also not unique as a mature democracy seeking to set up an Electoral Commission. The Australian Electoral Commission was established in 1984. The Electoral Commission in the United Kingdom was set up in the year 2000. More recently, in July 2012, the New Zealand Electoral Commission completed a 4-year programme to establish a single independent electoral agency responsible for all aspects of electoral administration.
In the case of Canada, it undertook a major programme of reform of its electoral register system during the 1990’s.
The experience in other jurisdictions of the establishment of electoral commissions and their operation should inform our work. This includes the transitional arrangements where functions are being transferred.
The key issue at this point is where we go from here in terms of “next steps”. In that regard, I wish to advise the House and to place on the record today that I will bring proposals to Government in January with a view to initiating a comprehensive pre-legislative process of consultation and engagement with all the relevant stakeholders in relation to what would be involved in the setting up of a Commission. That consultation and engagement will be of critical importance in shaping the proposals that will ultimately feed into the legislation. As part of that t, I will be giving careful consideration to the role that the Houses of the Oireachtas might play in supporting that important process of engagement and debate.
In conclusion, a Cathaoirleach, setting up an Electoral Commission gives us the opportunity of putting in place administrative and governance arrangements that most appropriately suit the particular features of Ireland’s electoral system.
While this represents an opportunity, there is also a challenge in not undermining elements of the current arrangements that are effective and that have strong levels of public credibility and support.
The existing system has served us well since the foundation of the State. But we are now in the 21st century. Times have changed and we need to be open to change.
In designing and putting in place this new body it is important that there is input from the many academics, non-governmental organisations and individuals who maintain an active interest in electoral reform. These important stakeholders have views on the roles, responsibilities and configuration of an electoral commission that can help in the design of this new body. As I said, it is also of critical importance that the Houses of the Oireachtas are centrally involved.
Our democratic system impacts fundamentally on the lives of all citizens and we must do the job right.
That is why today’s debate is important and is welcome. The independent Senators have done us a service in tabling this motion. I reiterate that I will listen to the views of Senators. I will consider them and I will see how they can best be reflected as we progress our work on this issue, to which I am personally committed.
Given the Government’s commitment to bring forward an Electoral Commission Bill in 2015, which I have repeated here today, there will be further opportunities for debate in the new year.
As we proceed, the Government looks forward to working across the political spectrum in advancing the establishment an Electoral Commission.
Go raibh maith agaibh.