Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill Speech

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011 and to urge its acceptance by the House – it denotes a landmark day for Irish Politics. This proposed legislation puts forward a structured, comprehensive and legally sound basis for transforming how politics is funded in our country and for making our democracy more transparent and achieve greater representation of all sectors/gender balance in society more equal.

This Bill, if passed, will be a positive and historic new change in how politics is conducted in Ireland. It will break the ties, perceived or otherwise between business and politics which has long been advocated from all sides of this House but, as yet, has gone undelivered.

This Government has an ambitious programme for the reform of political funding arrangements, and this Bill is wide ranging in scope and in depth.

In terms of political donations, the maximum donation that can currently be accepted by a political party is €6,348, while the maximum that can be accepted by a politician or candidate is €2,539. In keeping with commitments made in the programme for Government this Bill provides for the reduction of these amounts to €2,500 and €1,000 respectively.

Section 8 of the Bill proposes the introduction of a register of corporate donors where a donation exceeds €200 in a particular year. This must also be welcomed as it makes the donating process more open and transparent.

I also welcome the provision within this Bill to place an onus on companies to declare any donations they have made to political parties or political actors in their annual reports. The new public register of political donors will be maintained by SIPO and will include the name of any corporate donor intending to donate more than €200 to any political party or individual over the course of a calendar year. And certain corporate donors including companies, trade unions, societies and building societies – must report the recipient and the amount of any donation exceeding €200 in their annual report. Minister does that include all monies raised overseas? I hope it does?

Further, parties are required to have independently-audited, publicly-available accounts which will give the public greater knowledge about the financing and spending by political parties. The measures regarding corporate donations will have the effect of to preventing corruption arising from the relationship between money and politics by controlling the amount of money received by political actors, enhancing accountability and safeguarding against illegitimate donations by making the public aware of who finances political parties.

The Moriarty tribunal recommendations must be mentioned in any discussion about political funding in Ireland represent as its findings have a substantial contribution to consideration of policy in this area. The recommendations from this tribunal are made in a report that lays bare the failings in the system that existed at the time. Although rules and regulations have been changed since the 1990s, some of the failings identified still prevail.

This Bill addresses the difficulties surrounding corporate donations, by providing for the substantial reduction in the level of donations that can be accepted and the significant reduction of the level at which donations must be disclosed.

It may also be noted that the recommendations and views put forward in the Moriarty tribunal report taken on board in the drafting of this Bill, have some similarity with recommendations made by other bodies.

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 that would be made public in a timely and accessible way.

The same study recommended the extension of the election spending control period, pointing out that expenditure outside of this period is not disclosed. Stronger investigative powers for the Standards in Public Office Commission are also advocated.

I welcome the provision in the Bill that will penalise political parties by halving state funding if they do not have at least 30% women candidates & 30% male candidates at the next general election, which will increase to 40% by 2025, if a general election takes place that year.

The debate on the introduction of gender quotas in politics is clearly a controversial one where the arguments on both sides are compelling. Twenty years ago and indeed up to 3 years ago I was of the view that there should not be quotas, but I suppose I have had to change my mind as looking at International evidence the countries that fair best in equality of representation are the countries that have introduced quotas.

The international community today recommends that a number of measures be taken in order to promote a more balanced representation of men and women in decision-making bodies.

This shift in equality policy towards affirmative action policies is supported by the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

One of the 12 objectives of the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted at the Fourth World Conference for Women in 1995, was formulated as women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision making.  There is a clearly stated aim in the document to achieve gender balance in the nomination process as well as in all decision-making processes.

I think this move is to be welcomed as a stepping stone on the road to the greater participation of women in Irish politics. A minimum of seven years is a realistic target for a considerable increase in the number of female general election candidates.  However, perhaps this period could be extended as it has been suggested by some political science academics that it takes at least three electoral cycles for quotas to be reached.

Gender balance in decision making is a stated goal of the European Union, and recommendations for the introduction of legislated, regulatory and incentive measures to redress the underrepresentation of women in decision making have been adopted by all the EU’s major institutions.

Ireland is still lagging behind its EU counterparts when it comes to female participation. If we are to change this we have to take affirmative action. Over the past 15 years, female representation has increased significantly in almost all other EU member states. Today, average participation rate in EU nations is 24%.

In Sweden 45% of the national elected representatives to the lower house are women. The figure for Norway is 39.6% and the figure in Germany is 32%. We must follow suit and introduce them here in Ireland. The fact is that countries like Lesotho, Sudan and Iraq have higher rates of female representation in their national parliaments. This 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 has never reached more than 14% in Ireland. This is a poor reflection of our representative democracy and it is time that the appropriate measures were taken to address that.

The 2009 Sub-committee on women’s participation in politics chaired by Ivana Bacik produced a report that recommended the adoption of gender quotas and the Government has taken on board many of the recommendations it made.

While the introduction of quotas is necessary if we are going to achieve higher levels of female representation in politics, I believe that we must look at the best quota application for the PR STV system that is in place in Ireland.

Section 27 of the Bill provides for a reduction of 50% in the funding of political parties that would come into effect at the next General Election.  Alternative methods of encouraging more women to present themselves for election must also be encouraged which would help to increase the pool of aspiring candidates and make the transition to the conditions of this new legislation more seamless.

These indirect measures could/should include supporting women & men in education and provisions to reconcile family and public life, available childcare facilities and good maternity and paid paternity leave. The work life balance of the male and female politician has to be examined

I would suggest if measures like these should be considered to enable us to achieve our aim of 30%, followed by an increased quota of 40% seven years later, There needs to be a bottoms up approach alongside this, it should begin at grassroots level, in our schools, in our homes and as I said in the promotion of work-life balance for all members of political life.

Section 27of the Bill also amends section 17 of the 1997 Act  and I would suggest that in addition to parties being required to furnish the names of candidates elected and not elected, the constituency of the candidate be submitted to SIPO as this would be useful for academic research after the elections – seeing at a glance which constituencies fielded female & male candidates – was it balanced between 3/4/5 seat constituencies etc.

PR STV presents more difficulties for the election of women because of the small number of seats in each constituency (low district magnitude). This is borne out by the fact that there is tendency for there to be higher levels of female candidacies in the larger (4 and 5-seat) constituencies. Women accounted for 13.8% of candidates in 3-seat constituencies, 15.4% in 4-seat and 16.2% in 5-seat constituencies in the 2011 general election – and I must tank Fiona Buckley UCC & Claire Mc Guane NUI Maynooth for this research and indeed all of the 50/50 & women for election group for their work to date in helping all parties be more prepared for today’s debate.

Parties must encourage local-level selection conventions to select women candidates possibly with financial incentive and this may not be done on a voluntary basis so legislating for this might have to be examined as well.  Preferably women should not have to be added as additional candidates just for the sake of meeting quotas as this will mean that she may not have the support of the party organisation and may not have adequate support throughout an election campaign to win. We all know the benefit of the party grassroots canvassing on the ground to aid or hinder the success of a candidate be they male or female.

There is an onus on all central party organisers to raise awareness amongst candidate-selection committees locally and engage in exercises of actively seeking women candidates from existing members of the party or community.  How the organisational committees in parties run selection-conventions for example the timing of a convention, transparency of what funding/help might be available to enable candidates of no means or very little means to put themselves forward – this stops a lot of candidates male and female.

Although gender quotas at national level are of course, to be welcomed, the Government must consider implementing them at local authority level also. Local government is where politicians ‘cut their teeth’ and gain the experience and profile that aids their candidature for Dáil election.

If politicians do not have significant local profile and name recognition, they oftentimes experience difficulties coming through party selection conventions.  Currently, women account for only 17 per cent of all county councillors.  A key problem is that with so few numbers of women in local government, political parties often times do not have ‘experienced’ and ‘qualified’ women politicians to select at Dáil elections – so maybe Minister with my suggestion to provide nominal funding for local elections – as in general elections we may be able to cross that hurdle of ‘we can’t impose penalties on parties therefor we can’t implement legislation that we can’t enforce – I know you like hurling being a Kilkenny man – you might be able to jump that hurdle?

It has been demonstrated that when women enter the political ‘pipeline’ through involvement in local government service they are statistically more likely to win a Dáil seat.  

Evidence has shown that gender quotas have worked as a solution to gender imbalance in various EU countries. For example, in Belgium and in France where legal gender quotas have been introduced, over ten and eight year periods respectively, women’s representation at the most recent elections in both countries has risen by 13% in the case of Belgium and almost 8% in the case of France.

Overall the provisions within this Bill are to be welcomed and they represent a progressive step in attempting to achieve gender balance in our political system and making political financing more open and transparent. I hope that all sides of the House will support its passage through the legislative stages.

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