Dáil Éireann - Volume 639 - 10 October, 2007

Other Questions. - Political Donations.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I remind Deputies that supplementary questions should last one minute and the Minister has one minute to respond.

Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he plans changes to the law governing financial donations to politicians or political parties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17164/07]

  Deputy John Gormley: The Agreed Programme for Government contains a commitment [519] to the establishment of an independent electoral commission which will take responsibility for a range of electoral matters including, inter alia, the functions currently exercised by the Standards in Public Office Commission relating to election spending. The electoral commission will also examine the issue of financing of the political system. I will be developing appropriate proposals in regard to the establishment of the commission.

In addition, the Agreed Programme for Government commits to publishing a Green Paper on local government reform. One of the issues the Green Paper will address is the question of expenditure limits at local elections. There are currently no such limits, although expenditure, as well as donations over a €635 threshold, must be disclosed. I have set in train a process of public consultation prior to the preparation of the Green Paper and established a related consultative committee. Work on the Green Paper should be completed by the end of this year with final proposals to be settled in a White Paper next year.

I am satisfied that the proposals for the electoral commission, together with the initiatives which will emerge from the Green Paper, provide an appropriate framework to progress our extensive and complex agenda for electoral and local government reform.

3 o’clock

  Deputy Joanna Tuffy: Will the Minister answer the question I asked, which is what changes he plans to make in the law governing financial donations to politicians or political parties? Will the Minister ban corporate donations, for example? The Green Party, in its election manifesto, promised to ensure adequate State funding of political parties based on electoral results and to ban corporate, institutional and foreign based donations. Deputy Ciaran Cuffe told a press conference that ending corporate donations was a core principle of the Green Party. What has happened to those undertakings? The Minister now appears to be saying he will replace the Standards in Public Office Commission with another standards in public office commission. He went on to speak about local government reform, which has nothing to do with my question. What is the Green Party position regarding the legal reform of political donations and banning corporate donations?

  Deputy John Gormley: Deputy Tuffy appears to be obsessed with the Green Party. I am anxious to get on with the business of government.

It would be disappointing if Deputy Tuffy dismissed the electoral commission. Its establishment will be a huge advance. An electoral commission would deal with the issues she raises. [520] There is a problem regarding expenditure limits at local elections. No limits currently exist. Limits should exist at local elections. I am sure Deputy Tuffy has seen candidates spend obscene amounts of money at local election time. This needs to be addressed. The best fora in which to address this issue are the electoral commission and the consultative committee on local government reform, which I have established. I have invited a number of the Deputy’s colleagues to take part in this process and three Labour Party people are on the consultative committee. I am happy to facilitate the Labour Party in putting forward their ideas. I believe they have constructive ideas and I congratulate the party on its initiatives when in government. Deputy Tuffy will also see the Government taking an enlightened approach to this matter.

  Deputy Ciarán Lynch: The Minister is aware that Mr. Justice Smith, chairman of the Standards in Public Office Commission, has called for increased transparency and greater scrutiny of party expenditure. Are these measures part of the Government’s legislative programme or are the organisers of the Galway tent safe in sending their deposits to book their space for next August?

  Deputy John Gormley: It is not only Mr. Justice Smith who calls for scrutiny and transparency. The Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights was invited by the Department of Foreign Affairs to observe this year’s general election. It concluded that the Electoral Act, which governs election spending, was rendered obsolete by its narrow scope. I am aware of that. Much spending takes place between elections. By the time the election campaign is officially called many of the bigger spenders have spent considerable amounts of money. That needs to be addressed. The proper forum for this matter would be the electoral commission.

It would be regrettable for Deputies to dismiss the electoral commission. It offers huge scope for reform. I have spoken to colleagues who have tried in the past and failed to establish an electoral commission. It would be an enormous achievement to establish an electoral commission. It would deal not only with funding but also with the question of the electoral register and other matters which need to be addressed.

  Deputy Tom Sheahan: When and how will the Minister implement the result of the plebiscite and rename An Daingean as Dingle Daingean Uí Chúis? Will this be done by ministerial order, primary legislation or departmental regulation, or will we, perhaps, have another commission? The result of the plebiscite is available. When will the Minister act on it?

[521]   An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy is to be congratulated on his efforts but this does not come within the scope of the question.

  Deputy Phil Hogan: The Minister is happy to answer the question.

  Deputy John Gormley: The Deputy’s supplementary is unrelated to the question.

  Deputy Phil Hogan: The Minister refuses to answer.

  Deputy John Gormley: If he submits a parliamentary question I will be happy to answer it.

  Deputy Tom Sheahan: We do not have an answer.

  Deputy Joanna Tuffy: I do not object to an electoral commission. The Standards in Public Office Commission does a fine job and if it were given the teeth to do more it could be very effective. However, the electoral commission is not a Minister, and only the Minister can introduce legislation. The banning of corporate donations is a core principle of his party. What legislation will he introduce in the area of political donations?

  Deputy John Gormley: Deputy Tuffy is correct in saying the electoral commission is not a Minister. Last evening I heard much talk about the establishment of quangos. On the one hand she asks me to set up a national fire authority — I do not exclude that possibility — while on the other she seems to pour cold water on the idea of an electoral commission. It involves the Minister giving away power to a commission but it is, nevertheless, a positive and constructive idea. It will transform the face of Irish politics and address numerous issues, including the question of political donations.

  Deputy Phil Hogan: People have tried this before.

  Deputy John Gormley: People have tried and failed. I hope I will succeed.