“One should not allow the perfect be the enemy of the possible”

Last Tuesday, the chamber debated the Electoral Amendment Bill 2011. There are important proposals that being brought forward, such as a lower spending cap for Presidential elections, and a maximum delay of 6 months for by elections. I spoke in favour of the Bill.

I welcome the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011. It constitutes an important advance and as other speakers have noted, it forms a single element of a highly ambitious programme of reform the Government has set out to achieve and introduce. It is important that Members bear this point in mind.

One of the most important measures that has been agreed in the programme for Government is the establishment of a constitutional convention. I heard Deputies Pearse Doherty and Éamon Ó Cuív making a number of points earlier that I thought had great validity such as, for example, a suggestion about a list system. In addition to a number of suggestions from other speakers, such a change could only be dealt with or addressed through constitutional change, which is the reason it will be extremely important for the Government to turn its attention as quickly as possible, hopefully later this year, to establishing the constitutional convention once it has got through the more immediate proposals regarding constitutional change and the referendums that already are on the blocks. It is only when such a constitutional convention is established that it will be possible to consider all these issues in the round. It will be possible to consider matters more widely.

Electoral reform and the electoral system for the Dáil is one of the priority items in the programme for Government the constitutional convention is to address. It will provide the opportunity to deal with questions such as whether there should be a list system, the broader question of elections or perhaps the establishment of a permanent electoral commission. In itself, that measure would not require a constitutional change but broad questions on what electoral system it is best to have or how best to elect people to this Parliament can be addressed in the context of a constitutional convention. I hope such a convention is brought forward as early as possible in the autumn.

Nevertheless, simply because one states it is necessary to have a broader debate on such issues and on how to have constitutional change, this does not mean there are no measures that can be taken now. One should not allow the perfect be the enemy of the possible or the more immediately achievable measures such as those contained in this legislation. It contains three discrete items, each of which can and should be dealt with at this time and which should not be obliged to wait for the broader programme or agenda. The question of by-elections manifestly should be dealt with as quickly as possible and it is good the Minister has brought forward this measure so quickly. The Government may consider itself to be under a certain amount of pressure on foot of the High Court decision but notwithstanding that, it still is commendable that the Government has brought forward this proposal as quickly as it has.

I am unsure whether to describe myself as an unwitting victim or beneficiary of the delay in respect of fighting what would have been my second by-election within the lifetime of the previous Dáil. However, it is important to get away from the temptation that exists for all governments but which was particularly unacceptable and remarkable during the last Dáil, when for naked political advantage, there was a clear attempt to avoid facing the people and to avoid being obliged to face a position in this Chamber in which the Government’s majority manifestly would be threatened if not brought down. This measure is highly important and I congratulate the Minister for bringing it forward so quickly by way of legislation.

There has been much debate recently on the relationship between the Executive, the Parliament, the courts and the Judiciary but it should never be necessary in a democracy for any citizen to be obliged to apply to the courts to vindicate what is the most fundamental democratic right he or she has, which is the right to cast a vote and be represented in Parliament. It really should never be necessary. The Minister referred in his speech to the choice between three, four or seven months and, in my view, the choice of a six-month period is correct. It is also wise to maintain the current system for that six months, in other words, that parties are allowed to maintain the convention of bringing forward the writ within a six-month period and, if this is not done, the mechanism is triggered as per the legislation.

As regards the number of Deputies, I admit that I am sceptical about the reduction in numbers. I will support the proposal but I hope the commission will find it necessary and appropriate to err towards the higher number of the interval proposed by the Minister. I understand all the arguments about change from the top and cost but the level of representation of the people in Parliament is extremely important and we must ensure a level of representation. The Minister referred to the numbers in the combined Houses, the Dáil and Seanad, of 226 Members and he applied this number to the population of 4.5 million. Realistically it should be computed on the basis of the Dáil. The Seanad is an important Chamber and we will have to deal with the question of whether it is to be retained. However, it is not representative in the way this House is. If we were to choose the median number of 157 Members, it would end up that the ratio would be one Member to approximately 30,000. This is equivalent to the representation in Denmark and New Zealand and these other countries to which the Minister referred. I maintain my scepticism but I support the Minister on this issue.