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Committee on Finance. - Local Elections Bill, 1966: Committee Stage.

Tuesday, 18 October 1966

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 224 No. 10

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Question proposed: —“That section 1 stand part of the Bill”.

Mr. Larkin: Information on Denis Larkin Zoom on Denis Larkin Subsection (a) provides:

An election of members of every local authority shall be held in the year 1967 and quinquennially thereafter.

Has the Minister, I wonder, given any deep thought to this question of quinquennial elections in relation to members of local authorities? This has been in operation only since 1955 and one wonders if, in all the circumstances, this is the best procedure. I am speaking now from the point of view of elected members of local authorities and not just as one who has been elected on a number of occasions to a local authority. Prior to the provision for quinquennial elections, elections were held every three years. On two occasions, the elections did not take place at the end of the three-year period. In June, 1953, the life of the local authorities was extended to 1955 and in 1948, there was also an extension because of certain peculiar circumstances. It seems strange that members of local authorities should be elected for a five-year period when, even though the life span of the Dáil is supposed to be for five years, in actual fact, no Dáil has ever run its full course. In other countries local representatives are elected every two years. I doubt if Senators and Congressmen are elected for five years in the USA.

[1431] I raise the matter from the point of view of the continuous change taking place in the balance of population. The Minister may have power to make regulations between now and June, 1967, providing for a change in boundaries, but, as the position is, a candidate for election to Dublin Corporation, who is presently a member of the corporation, if successful at the next election will, as a result of contesting only two elections in a period of 12 years, have represented the people in that particular area for that 12 years.

Secondly, a candidate for any of the nine municipal areas will be elected to represent a very disproportionate number of the electorate in his particular area. This has occurred because of the change in the balance of population. May I cite the particular case of the No. I Municipal Area in which candidates elected in 1955 were elected from an approximate electorate of 30,000 but in 1960 the electorate in that area had gone up to over 40,000? Unless there is a change, candidates in the coming elections in that area may well have to go before an electorate of between 45,000 and 50,000. A councillor is not in receipt of any remuneration; he receives nothing for travelling expenses, the sole exception being members of Dublin Health Authority, to whom travelling expenses are paid, and a councillor is expected, with his colleagues, to look after the interests of a municipal area which is bigger than any Dáil constituency.

With the growth of tenants' associations, residents' associations, and so on, it appears that some redress is needed. Local authority representatives who should be immediately responsible in regard to local and other matters should be given the opportunity of reporting back to those they represent more frequently than once in five years. Possibly the reason why these quinquennial elections were decided upon was partly administrative convenience and partly the reluctance of this House, or of the Minister, from time to time to make provision for local authority candidates to have [1432] access to their electors by means of free postage.

If this election takes place next June, every candidate, whether he is standing for a corporation, a county council, or town commission, will, if he wishes to have any form of election literature conveyed to the electorate asking for their support, have to bear the cost of the postage, or else have the literature delivered from door to door within the area and this may prove expensive and onerous in cases where the area is large and scattered such as in the No. 1 Municipal Area, or in the No. 5 or No. 7 Municipal Areas. Such larger areas could impose a handicap on the candidates to the extent that they would not be in a position, having served the people as councillors fairly well over a period, to contact the electorate in order to place their records before them. Consequently, they are at a very serious disadvantage in contesting the elections. This is aside from the overall cost.

It may well be that the Minister will say that there would be added cost if elections were held more frequently, but on the other hand, more frequent elections would encourage the Minister and the Government to look at this whole question of the problems facing local government candidates not only in regard to their contesting elections but in regard to endeavouring to carry out their duties. The Minister, more than anybody else in this House, is in a better position to realise, because of legislation this year, last year and in the previous year, the burdens which fall on the shoulders of local authority representatives who are serving the community, and that these burdens are growing every year.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Cormac Breslin Zoom on Cormac Breslin Deputy Larkin will appreciate that on section 1, on which he is speaking——

Mr. Larkin: Information on Denis Larkin Zoom on Denis Larkin I am just explaining——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Cormac Breslin Zoom on Cormac Breslin If the Deputy will allow me? Section 1 deals with the years proposed in regard to local elections and the other matters do not arise.

[1433]Mr. Larkin: Information on Denis Larkin Zoom on Denis Larkin With respect, Sir, the section does deal with the years but the position may be affected by the fact that these elections take place every five years. In addition, there is the problem of the candidates who will stand for election in June 1967, as proposed in the Bill. Many of those who will be elected, and who will have been members of local authorities previously, will find that over a period of 12 years or so they will have been required to go before the electorate on only three occasions. This appears to me to be a matter which should be looked into.

This decision to have these elections held quinquennially arose out of the fact that on previous occasions municipal elections were postponed, possibly because they interfere with Dáil elections, or for some other reason, but if these elections are important, and I believe they are, I think the fact that it is proposed to continue to hold them every five years reduces their importance from the point of view of the electorate. This is the longest period between elections in this country, with the exception of the election of the President who, in many ways, has less responsibility to the individual citizen than a local representative has. Certainly it is in excess of the period for many elections to public bodies. I would ask the Minister if he has given this matter any consideration and I have taken the opportunity to raise one or two matters which he might also consider.

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): Unlike Deputy Larkin, I am not against quinquennial elections for the election of members to local authorities. It is a reasonable period for members to serve but I do not consider that five years should be the maximum. More important, however, is that members of local authorities should be elected for a definite, known time, and that at the end of that definite, known period, they should be required to submit themselves for re-election, if they wish to continue in office. If they do not wish to continue in office, they should be replaced by a [1434] democratic process, and not by co-option.

I am against this section, just as I was against the Second Reading of the Bill and for the same reason. I am against this section because the present serving members of local authorities were elected in June of 1960 for a period of five years. Since then, many of those who were elected at that time have died and their places have been filled by co-option, by people who have not been approved by the electorate. Many members elected in 1960 have retired or resigned from office and their vacancies have also been filled by co-option. Indeed, the whole pattern and the whole personnel of the local authorities has changed — I will not say entirely — considerably since 1960.

The elections were to be held last year but the general election was held in April, a couple of years, approximately, before its time. A Bill was then introduced into this House postponing the local elections for a period of a year. Irrespective of what the Minister for Local Government wishes to say, I want to repeat that the Bill was introduced here, and passed by this House, in the belief, perhaps not stated in so many words, that the local elections would be held this year on the same day as the Presidential election. Despite this, we have this Bill to further postpone those elections until next year. I say that is undemocratic and a waste of public money.

There is another very important and serious aspect about postponing those elections further, which is sometimes overlooked. It is the fact that members of local authorities constitute the electorate for electing the Seanad with, of course, the members of the Dáil and the members of the outgoing Seanad.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Cormac Breslin Zoom on Cormac Breslin I feel the Deputy is getting away from section 1, which is, very specific. The Deputy is entering into a Second Reading speech again.

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): I consider I am entitled to say why these elections are being postponed. They should not, in my opinion, be [1435] postponed until next year. I do not think I am doing other than giving my reasons why I consider they should not be postponed. I wish to put it on record that the local authorities, county councils, borough councils are the electorate for the Seanad. I say it is very important that nothing should be done which would have the result of electing a Seanad otherwise than in accordance with the wishes of the people. It might very well be that if those local elections were held this year, we could have an entirely different set of councillors and it could be that the electorate for the Seanad would be changed and changed very considerably. It is quite on the cards that a Seanad election might be held before June, 1967. If such an election were held, it would then be held on an out-of-date register, a register of people who quite possibly would not represent the wishes of the people.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Cormac Breslin Zoom on Cormac Breslin A discussion on the election of the Seanad would certainly be opening the debate very widely.

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): Is it not one of the functions — indeed it might be said one of the most important functions — of county councils and borough councils to elect members of the Seanad?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Cormac Breslin Zoom on Cormac Breslin I must point out to the Deputy that we are discussing section 1 of this Bill which deals with the authority for holding local elections.

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): This Bill refers to the postponing of local elections. I am trying to put forward an argument why, in my opinion, it is dangerous, unsafe and improper to do that. One of the reasons is that if it is done, you will not have an up-to-date register of electors for Seanad Éireann. I think, with all due respect, that is a relevant argument.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Cormac Breslin Zoom on Cormac Breslin The Chair feels that this would be opening the debate too wide.

[1436]Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): I do not want to argue with the Chair but the Chair's ruling could be pursued to the point where Deputies could get up and repeat ad nauseam:“I do not think the local elections should be postponed”. Deputies would just repeat that phrase without giving any reasons. That would be an intolerable state of affairs.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Cormac Breslin Zoom on Cormac Breslin Repetition is also out of order.

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): Deputies could get up and say: “I am against postponing those elections”. Surely that is not the ruling of the Chair? As I said, I believe the elections should be held every five years and they should be held on the date fixed before the councils are due for election. I think I have made the case I wanted to make for saying I am against the postponing of those elections, that it is undemocratic, that the councils are now filled considerably by the co-option of people who were not elected at the last election and that by postponing the elections further, the register of the Seanad electorate becomes out-of-date.

On a technical point, subsection (2) of this section is not very clear to me in one respect. I am not too clear what is the meaning of “after the commencement of this Act”. The subsection reads:

The terms of office of members of local authorities current at the commencement of this Act shall stand extended so as to be in accordance with the holding in the year 1967 of the elections of members of local authorities

We should then scrap the next few words and say:

and those elections shall be regarded as quinquennial elections.

Maybe there is some drafting reason for inserting the words “next after the commencement of this Act”, but it is not clear to me and I should be glad to have an explanation for it.

Mr. Moore: Information on Seán Moore Zoom on Seán Moore I shall be very brief. I just want to deal with some of the remarks of Deputy Larkin and Deputy [1437] T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan) on the desired length of the life of a council. Deputy T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan) complained about the postponement of the elections and the public necessity for them. I should like him to look back to 1960 and see the poll for the whole country in the election of that year. Speaking for my own area, I find that fewer than 25 per cent voted and here I should like to pay tribute to the Fianna Fáil Party because were it not for their efforts the voting would have been smaller. I feel that in attracting the right man to serve on a local authority many handicaps may be put in his way. The public do not respond by coming out to vote for him. In some cases, were there not loyalty to personal friends many a man would not be on a council today. I see no case for holding the elections oftener than every five years. There was a time when they were held every three years. I think that every five years is the ideal time for the election of any local authority. I also deplore the suggestion of Deputy T.J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan) that co-option should be done away with.

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): I never suggested such a thing; nobody suggested it.

Mr. Moore: Information on Seán Moore Zoom on Seán Moore I thought I heard it.

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): The Deputy is hearing incorrectly.

Mr. Moore: Information on Seán Moore Zoom on Seán Moore The point is that the five year period is the ideal one for holding elections. The public resent more frequent elections without cause. I do think the public should be given a chance every five years.

Mr. Larkin: Information on Denis Larkin Zoom on Denis Larkin We have not got it this time; it is seven.

Mr. Moore: Information on Seán Moore Zoom on Seán Moore Nobody will be more satisfied or glad than the elected representatives. Twenty-five per cent of the public turned out for the last election.

Mr. Larkin: Information on Denis Larkin Zoom on Denis Larkin It was not 25 per cent in the area I was in.

Mr. Moore: Information on Seán Moore Zoom on Seán Moore We look forward to the [1438] next election in 1967 when the public will have a chance of proving their allegiance to their elected representatives.

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): That would seem to be an excellent reason for holding them on the same day as the Presidential election — getting a big vote.

Mr. Moore: Information on Seán Moore Zoom on Seán Moore Even during civil strife, local elections are held. I do hope the public will show their appreciation for their elected members by coming forward in large numbers next year.

Mr. P. Hogan: Information on Patrick Hogan Zoom on Patrick Hogan (South Tipperary): I think that prolonging the time between the elections is not generally bad. I personally do not like elections. None of us likes elections. From my own point of view, elections mean canvassing and doing extra work. Every representative here and those on local bodies dislike elections because they mean extra work. There is, however, much to be said for having elections at more frequent intervals. I am speaking about local elections. I do not agree with Deputy Moore that five years is the optimum. Five or five plus Dáil election periods work out at five or five minus. Dáil elections are held more frequently than the period laid down and the tendency is for local elections to be held less frequently. For that reason while the three-year period might be a shade shorter than the three plus, I think if the elections were held in four-year periods or even in five-year periods, at intervals of four, it would be better than the five-year period.

For several reasons that would be desirable. The most important reason from my experience is that — and I hope I will not be decried as a public representative for saving this — every public representative deals with local problems. At an election time when I go around canvassing I find a lot of problems which I did not know existed and which were only brought to my notice while canvassing. A local canvass brings you into every household where you meet problems that you did [1439] not know existed. If you go into town every month some of these people would not come out of the house to meet you, but when one goes into the house during a canvass one finds distress problems that were unknown before. Local elections bring canvassers of the local representative face to face with, perhaps, social problems which he would never know about otherwise, and these are problems which he may be able to rectify.

My second reason is, I think, a good one. Very frequently local elections engender an interest in public affairs at local level. We on all sides agree that the public do not take sufficient interest in political affairs. We do not know the reason for this, but we do not give them an opportunity of more frequent elections to register their votes. That can best be done at local election level.

My third reason in favour of local elections is that if you leave a body too long, as Deputy Fitzpatrick mentions, and if there have been a number of co-options, that body is less representative of public opinion than when originally elected.

My fourth reason is that with changing political outlook a body elected for seven years may not be representative of public opinion. That would be my weakest argument because, with the pattern of voting we have, people do not seem to change very much, unfortunately. These are my reasons but the most important one is that which I mentioned first, that local elections tend to bring candidates and representatives into a degree of contact which no other method does as effectively.

Minister for Local Government (Mr. Blaney): Information on Neil T.C. Blaney Zoom on Neil T.C. Blaney Listening to the Fine Gael speakers amazes me by reason of the inconsistency they are showing. They made that point the other day and they are now really underlining that today so as to assure us of their inconsistency. Last year Fine Gael talked only of the postponement of the elections and they had no reservations about extending them to six years. [1440] How can they make this case with all fervour?

Mr. Cluskey: Information on Frank Cluskey Zoom on Frank Cluskey We would win now.

Mr. Blaney: Information on Neil T.C. Blaney Zoom on Neil T.C. Blaney I am trying to straighten out Fine Gael here. Of course people have been trying to do that for years and have not succeeded. It is true. Less than 12 months ago no objection to an extension to six years was made and now we listen here for 20 or 25 minutes to arguments that elections should be held every five years. I do not know of any particular thing that has happened since then that has changed Fine Gael in this matter and it only adds to the inconsistency we see through all the arguments they made on Second Stage.

It may well be that instead of the four nice handy little arguments which the last speaker used and some of those thought up by Deputy Fitzpatrick — I would imagine he was thinking them up as he went along — the real reason to emerge is that not only are Fine Gael inconsistent but they are in fact slightly off the beam, slightly off upstairs. Just one of those arguments makes sense from their point of view, that is, that they are so far off the beam at this moment that they believe that not only should we have local elections but that the electorate for the Seanad is the important element in these local elections and that, as a result of holding them now rather than postponing them, Fine Gael will get a bigger number of votes. It may be a personal matter for Deputy Fitzpatrick. It may be that he thinks that there may be a general election before next June and feels he may be looking for a seat in the Seanad. I do not know if this is so. If it is, it is a rather roundabout way to go about getting it. Hold local elections in order to get more Fine Gael people for the Seanad in order that if Deputy Fitzpatrick should slip up in the event of a general election and be going back to the Seanad he would have a better chance. It is a bit involved to believe that and I do not think I even believe it.

It does seem that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the handling of [1441] local affairs but is purely and simply a political matter which no matter how illfounded is this wishful thinking on the Deputy's part would seem to add up to a general election, a Seanad election, and Fine Gael want the local elections held in advance because they believe more voters will support them because there will be more of them beaten in the Dáil election. This may be their way of thinking but it does not ring true to me as a good argument for not postponing the local elections and not extending the term to seven years and should not adhere to the views being expressed today that never should we have a period longer than five years, considering that the same people, a year ago, implied, by not objecting, that the six year period was all right.

It is difficult to know what Fine Gael want. This is what bothers me. What do Fine Gael want at the moment? Do they want local elections? If they do want them it would be fair to ask why because they are not at all clear themselves. If they feel, as Deputy Fitzpatrick said, that last year they allowed this to go through because — it was never stated, mark you, and is not recorded — they believed that not only would the local elections be held during 1966 but — implied in some unknown way — that the local elections and the Presidential election would be held on the same day.

I put this counter-argument to Deputy Fitzpatrick. The law as we have it up to the postponement, indicated that the election would be held in June on a day to be appointed by the Minister for Local Government. In the present law, which is the one we are talking about, the first postponement, we did not even tie ourselves to June of 1966. We departed from what was in the law up to that and said:

The Minister may fix any day up to the 31st December, 1966, on which to hold the election.

I think it is much more likely that my version of what we did in the House a year ago on the last postponement Bill is the true one rather than Deputy Fitzpatrick's. It does show that we, in fact, contemplated the holding of these elections possibly even in December of [1442] this year, not in June, never mind to hold them on the actual same day as the Presidential election. I do not know where Deputy Fitzpatrick got this understanding but it is not recorded nor was it stated. All the facts concerning the whole situation seem to belie any intention that these two elections should be held on the same day.

I say to Deputy Fitzpatrick and to those who talk in terms of changes on local councils there have been and there always will be, for various personal and domestic reasons and indeed the death of members, changes on local authorities from year to year. These changes take place for their own reasons but the change that you get in a local council from the councillors going forward over 20 years is very small. Ninety per cent of them continue to be returned at the election whether the election is held every five years or every seven years. This I think is the experience of all local authorities. People who wish to serve on local authorities and are prepared to give their time to serve on them are continuously, election after election, returned, with very few exceptions. This story about the public not getting the opportunity to radically change the membership of local authorities by postponing them from six to seven years, is not a valid argument either because the facts do not support it.

I feel that Fine Gael have an exaggerated opinion of how well they would do in any sort of an election at the moment and no blame to them for that. Let them have these notions and hopes in their own minds. It is probably good and it sustains them in their not-so-good days that they have these notions but to try to translate those notions into causing the House to take certain action that otherwise it does not wish to take, is going a bit too far. Leave them with their notions and let them have these illusions of how well they will do. Let them enjoy them while they may and they can enjoy them for another six or nine months as a result of this particular section in this Bill because the disillusionment will come. As surely as I am standing here the local authorities will see that these are rash thoughts and illusions [1443] and Fine Gael will do no better, whatever about worse, in the next local elections.

To those people who brought up this little quibble about the drafting of whether you put the word “quinquennial” or “quinquennially” as it is in this Bill here is a matter that has been determined by the draftsman. I respect Deputy Fitzpatrick and his legal qualifications and without reflecting on them in the slightest degree I feel that the man who drafted this is a specialist. This is his job. This is the way he gives it to me to meet the certain circumstances and I accept it as being the appropriate wording to give us the particular result that we want in this particular law. I just say that we accept that and are leaving it stand the way it is.

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick (Cavan): On section 1, I do not propose to follow the Minister into the slick sort of political argument he seeks to develop. Indeed, I could find another name for it but I shall not even try to do that. The Minister tries to go back on the discussions of last year. There is no comparison, good bad or indifferent, between postponing the local elections from 1965 to 1966 and from 1966 to 1967.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.

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