New electoral commission could be in place within two years

Government says body would oversee political advertising on internet and social media

John Paul Phelan, Minister of State at the Department of Housing and Local Government. The electoral commission “is up there with Seanad reform as a nettle that has never been grasped”, he said. Photograph: Collins Courts

John Paul Phelan, Minister of State at the Department of Housing and Local Government. The electoral commission “is up there with Seanad reform as a nettle that has never been grasped”, he said. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

A new electoral commission with powers to oversee political advertising on the internet and social media could be up and running within two years, the Government has said.

The Government has also accepted it will have to have some temporary measure in place to monitor and regulate such advertising in advance of the European and local elections this year.

The emergence of internet and social media advertising, much of it being funded from outside the State, became a big issue during the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment earlier this year. Following an effective campaign to highlight the potentially distorting impact of such advertising, both Facebook and Google blocked all advertising relating to the referendum originating from outside the jurisdiction.

The establishment of an electoral commission has long been promised by successive governments and is included in the Programme for Government of the Fine Gael-led coalition.

Best options

The Minister of State with responsibility in this area has launched a consultation to explore the best options for setting up the new body, which will oversee the running and governance of elections in the State.

John Paul Phelan, Minister of State at the Department of Housing and Local Government, said the idea had been floating around for many years. The request for a permanent electoral commission is consistently made in the final reports of referendum commissions.

“It is up there with Seanad reform as a nettle that has never been grasped,” said Mr Phelan in a briefing earlier this month.

New powers

This consultation is being launched on the basis that a commission will be established. Mr Phelan said views were being sought on whether the commission should run on a statutory or non-statutory basis initially, and the extent of the powers it would have.

One of those new powers will be regulating and overseeing politically-motivated advertising on social media and the internet. The body with responsibility for regulation of advertising in Ireland is the Advertising Standards Authority, which is partly funded by industry.

Resources

The authority has neither the resources or remit to investigate this new form of advertising.

“That’s the piece that has to be worked out between now and the European elections,” said Mr Phelan.

“I absolutely have a view on that. Social media companies have not lived up to their responsibilities [in terms of] protecting people and their data.

“Politically and socially and morally it is an imperative. The new commission will have a job to do in that regard.”

He said that any political advertisement would have to be clearly identified as such. He said he was not a “great fan of banning things” but that an effective system of monitoring was needed.