Fourth Report of the Constitutional Convention on the Dáil Electoral System: Statements (Continued)

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 862 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Ann Phelan: Information on Ann Phelan Zoom on Ann Phelan] I will begin with the recommendations for change to the Dáil electoral system. The convention recommended providing for larger constituencies with the smallest constituency size being a five seater. The Government is of the view that the three, four or five seat Dáil constituency arrangement has served the State well since 1948. It has provided for an appropriate balance in representation across the country while, at the same time, allowing for regard to be had to the terms of reference set in law for boundary review. The Government, therefore, will not accept the recommendation that no constituency should have less than five seats.

The Convention recommended the retention of more than 159 Members. In the convention report the recommendation to have more than 159 Members is associated with a range of one Deputy for every 30,000 or fewer of the electorate. The Government does not accept that such a ratio should be provided for and does not, therefore, propose to hold a referendum on an amendment to the Constitution in this regard. There is scope within existing legislation to provide for constituencies to return between 153 and 160 Members. The most recent constituency commission recommended an arrangement of constituencies for the election of 158 Members and the Oireachtas has provided for this in the Electoral (Amendment) (Dail Constituencies) Act 2013.

The convention recommended the establishment of an electoral commission. In April this year the Taoiseach advised this House of the Government's acceptance of this recommendation which reflects a commitment in the programme for Government. The preparatory work on this task has commenced in the Department and the Government Legislation Programme provides for the publication of an electoral commission Bill in 2015. Last night in the Seanad, my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, spoke with great passion and enthusiasm and in some detail about his commitment to this issue. He outlined his intention to bring proposals to Government in January to commence the pre-legislative phase of the Bill and this was well received by Senators.

The convention then recommended changing from the alphabetical order of candidates on the ballot paper and giving greater access to postal voting. The Government proposes that in due course an electoral commission be tasked with considering these issues and advising in detail on the electoral and operational implications, including costs, of implementing changes in these areas.

The convention recommended that measures be introduced to improve voter turnout. The Government accepts this recommendation and will continue to seek to implement measures to achieve improvements in voter turnout.

The convention recommended extending polling hours and polling days. Under existing law polling hours can to be set for a period of at least 12 hours between 7 a.m. and 10.30 p.m. on any day of the week. However, in the context of any new arrangements for running elections that would be put in place when an electoral commission is established, the options for implementation of the convention recommendation to extend polling hours and to provide for polling on more than one day should be examined. The costs and the electoral and operational implications of such options would need to be identified in that examination.

The convention recommended improving the accuracy of the electoral register. The Government fully agrees that the highest levels of accuracy should be a constant and continuing objective for all with responsibility for the register. This includes the voting public, local authorities and the Department. The Department will continue to work with stakeholders on improving the accuracy of the electoral register. This issue also exercises county councillors at election time.

The convention recommended the introduction of a relevant education programme in schools. Much is being done in this regard. There is a civil, social and political education programme in place for post-primary schools. The new junior cycle student award is underpinned by 24 statements of learning which include that the student "values what it means to be an active citizen, with rights and responsibilities in local and wider contexts". Earlier this year, it was announced that politics and society is to be introduced as part of the suite of subjects available to students at senior cycle.

The convention, in its fourth report, also made a small number of other recommendations unrelated to the Dáil electoral system. The first of these was that there should be a referendum to permit the appointment of non-Oireachtas members as Ministers.

The convention recommended providing a right for citizens to petition on influencing the legislative agenda and to petition for referenda. In response to these recommendations, I would point out that constitutional referenda are relatively common in Ireland and that there is nothing to prevent citizens presenting petitions. The Government has also substantially opened up the legislative process to citizens both via the work of the convention itself and the various packages of Dáil reform that we have introduced since 2011.

As the Taoiseach recently said in this House, the convention has been a valuable innovation in our democracy. I also commend the members and staff of the convention for their work on this report and their work generally over the lifetime of the convention.

Deputy Barry Cowen: Information on Barry Cowen Zoom on Barry Cowen I join the Minister in paying tribute to, and thanking, the members and staff of the convention for their input over many weekends and in acknowledging the report. It affords us the opportunity to examine issues in a different light considering the recommendations that emanated from it. I am glad the Government made a comprehensive response to them.

I agree with the Government that we should maintain the current mix of constituencies and not be confined to large constituencies. The Constituency Commission only recently made recommendations regarding the number of Members and the ratio of representation throughout the country is consistent. The commission's recommendations were accepted by the House and these should not be altered in the immediate future.

The other issues, as the Minister of State said, could in the main be dealt with by an electoral commission. It is disappointing that the Bill to establish such a commission was not brought forward at an earlier date. I acknowledge the commitment to do so next year but the Minister of State did not outline a timeframe for that to be introduced. I ask that this be done speedily to ensure the commission is in place before the referenda announced earlier this week are held next May. It is important considering the failure by the Government to secure approval for amendments to the Constitution in recent referenda and. more particularly the apathy towards them, as reflected by voter turnout, indicates the need for a commission to meet urgently and make recommendations to address these issues.

I am conscious of the Government's commitment to reform but mindful of the lack of reform, despite significant statements during the previous election campaign and in the programme for Government, and the lack of follow through in that regard. The recent McNulty affair exposed the shallow nature of the Government's reform agenda and the misuse of that board appointment to maintain a slender Seanad majority shows the Government has not learned any lessons. The history of the Government's measures to date illustrates its failure to grasp the nettle of reform in a meaningful way.


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