The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, is dodging and weaving on political funding. Following publication of a report by the Standards in Public Office Commission, Mr Ahern appeared to forget that the Minister for the Environment, Mr Cullen, had given a firm commitment, last October, to increase the amount of money that could be raised from corporate funding. No legislation was listed, Mr Ahern told the Dáil, while allowing that the matter was under review.
For some years now, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have been chipping away at the 1997 Electoral Act which, for the first time, placed limits on spending by politicians and political parties at election time and established disclosure limits for political donations. Before last year's general election, the former Minister for the Environment, Mr Dempsey, increased the amount of money that could be spent by candidates in their constituencies by up to 45 per cent and he raised the disclosure limits for corporate donations. When the Standards in Public Office Commission sought to include all pre-election material and activity as relevant spending under the Act, the Minister objected. As a consequence, only expenditure incurred following the dissolution of the Dáil was taken into account.
The Taoiseach yesterday seized on this development to justify a possible increase in corporate funding. Otherwise, he suggested, the ability of wealthy candidates to spend unlimited funds in advance of elections would eventually result in a Dáil composed of millionaires. It was a bizarre conclusion, given the approach suggested by the Standards in Public Office Commission and the rejection of its advice by the Government.
The report has been an embarrassment for Mr Ahern and for the Coalition. In addition to raising spending and donation limits in the 2001 legislation, Mr Dempsey excluded the use of Oireachtas and ministerial facilities from being reckoned as election expenses. That decision was declared unconstitutional before the election. Most ministers and sitting TDs were, as a result, found to have exceeded their spending limits when the use of such facilities were taken into account. Taking into account these benefits-in-kind of ministers and TDs was a positive development.
Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats were the big spenders in the last general election and they clearly intend to retain that advantage. But tricking around with corporate funding as the various tribunals grind on would not contribute to public confidence in the political system. The Coalition Government should think again.