Proposals to regulate political debate would be ‘nightmare’ to enforce, says Flanagan

Former minister for justice sceptical of proposals on latest round of electoral reform

The former minister for justice said he believed ‘the courts may be reluctant to become involved in monitoring the behaviour of election candidates and adjudicating on statements made in the heat of a campaign’. File photograph: Garrett White/Collins

The former minister for justice said he believed ‘the courts may be reluctant to become involved in monitoring the behaviour of election candidates and adjudicating on statements made in the heat of a campaign’. File photograph: Garrett White/Collins

 

Former Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has raised concern over recommendations in a draft report on electoral reform saying they would be a “nightmare” to enforce.

He was responding to an Irish Times report on proposals for the development of guidelines and standards for political debate during elections as well as sanctions for parties and candidates involved in “discriminatory actions or rhetoric”.

The Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of the Electoral Reform Bill 2020.

The Bill includes plans for a new electoral commission, an overhaul of the electoral register and the regulation of online political advertising.

The committee is to produce a report on its scrutiny of the proposed law.

An early draft of the report was prepared by Oireachtas officials based on contributions to committee meetings by various stakeholders, along with written submissions.

The draft includes a recommendation that the new electoral commission would be mandated “to develop guidelines and standards governing political discourse during referendum and electoral events”.

Another recommendation is that “the proposed Bill provide for the sanctioning of political parties or candidates who engage in discriminatory actions or rhetoric”.

The draft report does not offer a suggestion of what the sanctions should be or how they would be enforced.

In a Twitter post Fine Gael TD Mr Flanagan said he hasn’t seen the draft report but argued that the recommendations would be “a recipe for chaos and disarray during already heated campaigns”.

He said implementing them would be “challenging enough” and enforcement would be “a nightmare”.

‘Grim prospect’

Mr Flanagan also suggested it could lead to election campaigns being conducted through the courts which he said would be a “grim prospect”.

He also told The Irish Times: “We need to tread very carefully on these matters” and he suggested “constitutional issues arise also”.

The Laois-Offaly TD added: “I feel the courts may be reluctant to become involved in monitoring the behaviour of election candidates and adjudicating on statements made in the heat of a campaign.”

It is understood that the draft Committee report had not had direct input from TDs and Senators as yet and that the recommendations are subject to change.

Committee members had until Wednesday to submit amendments to the draft report ahead of discussions next week aimed at finalising the document.

One source suggested that there would be “difficulties” in implementing such recommendations questioning how breaches would be decided upon.

They also said that recommendations that do not offer detail on how they would be implemented are less likely to be taken on board by the Government as it drafts the final legislation.