Ceann Comhairle, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 and to urge its acceptance by the House.
This proposed piece of 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.
This Bill, if accepted, will be a positive and historic new departure in how politics is conducted in Ireland.
It will break the link between business and politics which has long been advocated from all sides of this House, but as yet, has gone undelivered.
All of us in public life recognise that the allegations of improper payments from businesses to politicians, which have flowed from the Tribunals over the past decade, has done immense damage to the public perception of politics.
It has a created a perception that big business can buy influence by financially supporting the election funds of parties or candidates.
If we are to renew politics, we need to overturn this damaging impression.
The reality is the only way we can conclusively do this is to ensure that campaign financing is not reliant on business or commercial interests.
The basic principle underpinning our proposals in this legislation is that elections should be funded only by people entitled to vote in them.
Specifically, the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 contains a commitment to the introduction of an effective ban on the receipt of direct donations given to political parties and candidates from businesses and corporations.
This commitment is intended:
to deliver further openness and transparency in the funding of political parties and political activity in order to assure public confidence in the operation of the political system;
to ensure the funding of political activity through smaller contributions from individuals, rather than larger contributions from businesses and corporations;
· to improve the reputation of Ireland’s democratic structures and electoral processes at an international level, which is very important in today’s difficult and competitive economic climate.
As well as effectively ending corporate donations, our bill will also:
· implement key recommendations of the Moriarty Tribunal relating to political funding;
· cuts donation limits so no large-scale individual donations are possible, meaning that no one can attempt to distort a campaign through deploying their own personal fortune.
· provides for an annual audit of all income from public or private sources paid to political parties;
· dramatically increases levels of transparency in political funding and expenditure.
I believe this Bill, if enacted, will put in place a fair and transparent system of regulation of political fundraising and spending, which will begin the process of restoring confidence in our politics after a long and damaging run of controversies relating to political donations.
At the outset, I want to say that I hope that this debate can be conducted in a constructive manner and free from point-scoring.
We do not need the type of partisan debate which says Fianna Fáil had a tent in Galway and Fine Gael has one in Punchestown, while Labour coined in compulsory subs from the unions from many people who don’t even support their party.
These sort of debates generate more heat than light and go to the root of why so many people are now apathetic to politics and politicians.
The debate on the Moriarty Report was not a very positive occasion. The government benches are filled with many new members elected on the basis of stirring commitments to change politics. In light of this, the complete absence of any form of self reflection about what the report said about their parties last term in office was striking. That they spent most of their contributions on a report which dealt substantially about Fine Gael fundraising preferring to talk about Fianna Fáil was textbook old politics.
If you cannot accept any criticism of your leaders and parties how can you actually change anything?
If we are honest with ourselves as public representatives, we should all accept that over the years, the fundraising practices of all the main parties have done damage to politics.
That is why today our debate must be about change and how we give effect to it.
And for the record, I readily admit that in relation to my own party, there have been some unedifying and, frankly, unacceptable abuses in relation to fundraising and donations.
I deeply regret that.
I am determined that on my watch as Leader of Fianna Fáil, this will neither be tolerated nor possible.
From the moment, I took over as leader of my party, I made clear my intention to bring an end to corporate donations.
During the General Election, I ensured that Fianna Fail committed to the introduction of a Bill banning corporate donations within one month of the reconvening of a new Dail and that we would seek all party support for it.
This is also a position that Fianna Fáil had took in the previous Government and we had prepared a draft bill which we had intended to introduce in February had an earlier that planned election not intervened.
On Monday 11th April we published the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 following through on our election commitment.
In this respect – and in fairness, it should be said – we are only following belatedly in the footsteps of Deputy Michael Noonan, who to his credit was the first political leader of one of the main parties to come out categorically against corporate donations.
It was a brave stance and one in which he was ahead of his time.
This position was reversed by the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, as one of his first acts when he became leader of Fine Gael.
Since then, Fine Gael has engaged in significant corporate fundraising and the Labour Party, too, has not been slow in accepting in corporate donations.
Passing this Bill will create a new level playing pitch for everyone in Irish politics where corporate donations no longer impinge on our political life.
This is now within our grasp.
The Fine Gael Party in their famous – or infamous – five point election plan committed to banning corporate donations.
The Tanaiste, Deputy Gilmore, on behalf of the Labour Party, has made a similar public pronouncement.
It is worth emphasising that because of these factors, this Bill should not be contentious, unless this House is going to revert once again to the same old charade of politics as usual.
We all agree that corporate donations should go, so the message from these benches is – Let’s get on with it.
We all agree, so why delay?
The only conceivable reason the Government will have for voting down this Bill tomorrow night is that we, on this side of the House, have introduced it.
It is to be really hoped that politics in this country is ready to move on from this stale and cynical approach.
The facts are the current stated position of all of the main parties in this House is that corporation donations should be banned. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour have all given real and concrete commitments to this effect – as did other parties and independents on this side of the House.
As I said earlier, each of these parties campaigned on getting rid of corporate donations during the last election.
Indeed, as recently as 11th April, this year, the Taoiseach told Mid West radio that banning corporate donations is a priority for his Government.
This Bill will specifically test that commitment.
It gives everyone the opportunity to deliver on their election promises and to walk the walk on banning corporate donations.
I believe this Bill can and should be accepted by the Government.
Especially, given that the government has said in the past that it supports all of the measures in our bill, we expect them to let it proceed to committee
To do otherwise brings their credibility into question.
After 10 weeks in office, it is very surprising that the government has yet to put a single new piece of legislation before the Dáil or to publish a policy white paper. The contrast with the first ten weeks of the new British government is dramatic.
We think it’s about time that the Dáil started enacting changes promised to the electorate rather than just talking about them.
It is clear there are no principles in this Bill that the Government parties oppose, or at least are publicly opposed to at election time.
I believe if we in this House are being straight up about our commitment to finally consign corporate donations to history, there is no need to delay any further.
Stalling only creates further doubt about the willingness of politicians to reform and to change the way we do politics.
It does this House no service and it erodes further confidence.
Specifically, the Dáil should be seen to act decisively and without delay on the recommendations of the Moriarty Tribunal on how we organise the regulation of political funding for the future.
Hand-wringing and foot-dragging on these recommendations is not good enough.
The public are right to be cynical if the body politic can’t get its act together to implement the recommendations within a reasonable time-frame
On 29th March, the Taoiseach came into the Dáil and told us that the Government will act definitively and decisively on the recommendations of the Moriarty Tribunal, with Government Departments to report back within four weeks on how they should be implemented.
When the Government promised action on the findings of the Moriarty Report within one month, we took this in good faith.
However, that deadline has passed by almost two weeks and, having heard nothing further but silence emanating from the Government benches, we are now taking forward our own initiatives.
The Government has missed their own self-imposed deadline for action on Justice Moriarty’s recommendations and with legislation – almost entirely initiated by the previous government – now piling up, Fine Gael and Labour may be tempted to quietly put this issue on the backburner.
But this isn’t good enough and this Party will not be complicit in letting the Government of the hook.
The issues at stake are too important.
I will return to Justice Moriarty’s recommendations, which I believe are crucial to restoring confidence in politics, and how our Bill specifically addresses these later in the course of my remarks.
I understand that the Government has committed to bringing forward a similar bill to that which we, in Fianna Fáil, are proposing tonight, but we see no reason to postpone action indefinitely by waiting for that Bill.
The fastest way of addressing these crucial issues which go to the core of the conduct and the credibility of politics is to pass our bill to Committee.
Should there be a need for any technical amendments, these can be considered and deliberated upon at Committee Stage.
Our objective is that corporate donations will be effectively banned before the summer recess and that a formal constitutional ban would take effect before the end of this year.
The issues involved aren’t complex and the measures we are proposing are based on clear legal advice, which we believe the government will have also received, that a formal ban on corporate donations would be at risk of being found to be unconstitutional.
The most significant part of the bill introduces a restriction on corporate donations from Companies, Trade Unions, Societies or Building societies to parties and politicians requiring the disclosure of any donation in excess of €100. This amounts to an effective ban.
This approach has been taken because of legal advice that a complete ban would be unconstitutional. We are separately publishing a bill for a referendum on corporate donations which could take effect this year.
Therefore, Section 5 of this bill states that it is not possible to prohibit the making of donations by Companies, Trade unions, Societies and Building Societies without a constitutional amendment since to do so would infringe their constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Our constitutional amendment will allow for a more comprehensive ban on corporate donations by ensuring that only citizens in the State who have the right to vote at any election or referendum shall be entitled to make political donations to organisations or people involved in political campaigning. Our proposal excludes those who are only entitled to vote in University seats for the Seanad.
In order to ensure there is no added significant cost to the taxpayer, we are committed to proposing this referendum be held on the same day as the presidential election later this year.
To ensure that this time-frame can be met, this morning I introduced the 29th Amendment to the Constitution No. 2 Bill, 2011, which I expect to be published and distributed later this week.
The Government seems to have accepted that a complete ban on corporate donations would be unconstitutional since it now too talks about introducing a referendum to ban corporate donations. We would urge the Government to follow our lead on this matter.
While it is not possible to introduce an outright ban on corporate donations until a referendum on the matter is held later in the year, what this bill today proposes to do is bring greater transparency to the way in which corporate donations are made and also makes it significantly more difficult for donations to be made.
Some of the key proposals in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 in this regard include:
Section 5 of this Bill provides that all corporate donations over €100 will have to be declared within 14 days, authorised by a general meeting and registered with the Standards in Public Offices Commission (SIPO).
Section 5 of this Bill also ensures any donation by a Company or Trade Union that exceeds €100 in value would be difficult to make and extremely transparent.
First, the Company would have to apply to SIPO to be registered as a “donating Company” or a “donating trade union”.
Second, it would have to provide SIPO with full details of the organisation, membership and shareholding of the Company.
Third, it would be required to have secured support for the donation through a vote of its members or general meeting.
Fourth, if a donation was subsequently made – which could not exceed €2,500 to a political party – the Bill requires that any donation in excess of €100 in value be published in the Company’s accounts.
Section 5 also introduces a new and welcome provision into Irish Electoral Law which is based on the recommendations of Justice Moriarty in paragragh 62.12 (vii) of his report. This provision is designed to ensure transparency and ensures the Company would also be required to publish in its accounts details of any government contracts entered into or that it intended to enter into at the time of the making of the donation if the contracts exceed €1,000 in value.
This builds on another important recommendation in the second report of the Moriarty Tribunal which recommended that a donor should be obliged to identify any relevant financial, commercial or other interests if their donations exceeded a certain threshold. This would also include identifying any government contracts or any involvement in procurement process.
This requirement is not simply limited to the Company but also includes its Directors, Shadow Directors or significant shareholders.
Section 6 ensures failure to comply with these requirements will be a criminal offence, which shall be punishable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months or to a fine not exceeding €5,000.
The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 provides for a major reduction in both the levels at which donations to political parties, third parties and candidates must be disclosed as well as a reduction to the maximum allowable donations.
As well as drawing on Justice Moriarty’s recommendations, this Bill draws upon recommendations made both by the Council of Europe and the Standards in Public Office Commission.
In 2009, the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption, of which Ireland is a member undertook an evaluation study of Ireland’s political system, specifically examining the issue of party funding.
The report makes a series of recommendations to enhance transparency and improve controls in respect of the funding of political activity in Ireland.
These include a recommendation that all registered political parties should prepare independently audited accounts that would be made public in a timely and accessible way.
It is also recommended that consideration be given to lowering the current disclosure threshold to an ‘appropriate’ level, although a precise figure is not specified.
These recommendations from the Council of Europe are covered in the Bill currently before the House and by passing it we can do our reputation some good. The Government should be cognisant of this in their deliberations on this Bill.
A number of the issues addressed in the Council of Europe Group’s report have also been the subject of recommendations by the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO).
The Standards in Public Office Commission addressed the issue of disclosure thresholds in the following terms:
“If the intention of the legislation is to provide for transparency and openness in relation to party funding and expenditure, then it is not achieving this aim.”
In regard to these and other recommendations, key changes contained in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Donations) Bill 2011 include:
Reducing the maximum allowable individual donations to political parties and third parties from €6348 to €2500, with the level at which these must be publicly declared to fall from €5078 to €1000.
It reduces the maximum allowable donation to a candidate from €2,539 to €1,000 in any one year; with the level at which these must be publicly declared from €634 to €500.
The bill also introduces an amendment to Section 23A of the Electoral Act 1997, which is based upon one of the recommendations in the Moriarty report on political funding which identified that there is a problem where one donor makes a series of donations all under the declarable threshold.
The amendment provides that where a donor makes a donation in the same year to two or more persons of the same party, these would be treated as one donation to a political party or third party ensuring no more than €2,500 could be donated in total per annum from a donor.
Another key recommendation of the second Moriarty Report regarding political funding stated that political donations should be disclosed in a reasonable time frame following an election. Therefore, this bill requires the publication of donation statements within 25 days of polling (currently 58 days for unsuccessful candidates and 31st March of the following year for successful candidates).
This bill provides for SIPO to audit the accounts of political parties each year, with the income and expenditure account, balance sheet and donations statement to be published.
One further recommendation by Judge Moriarty was that SIPO shall publish a record of all donations received by a political party, which shall include the size and amount of all donations and whether the identity of the donor is punishable or not. This will ensure that all income of political parties is disclosed to SIPO. This will also apply to independent candidates.
Ceann Comhairle, I believe that the measures as set out in this Bill are necessary, appropriate and desirable. They will put in place a strong foundation for a political system in Ireland that is, in Justice Moriarty’s words, “not subject to the invisible or disguised influence of powerful individuals or entities” as well as ensuring a new “measure of transparency and openness to scrutiny [which] is essential.”
I want to conclude by reading some insightful and wise words into the record of the House and I quote:
“All over the world, it is recognised that financial support from business to politicians is perceived by the public to have one purpose [namely] the securing of commercial advantage. Claims that such donations are made from disinterested motives are simply not believed. As the lurid tribunal scandals play out before our eyes, one thing is clear. We cannot restore politics until the perceived link between political contributions and public policy is broken.”
Those words were spoken by the current Minister for Finance in 2001.
I sincerely urge the Government to accept this Bill and help us to finally begin to “restore politics” and to break the perception of a “link between political contributions and public policy.”