‘Votegate’ represents carelessness and nothing more
Proxy voting is a serious issue, but it should not be an excuse for political opportunism
The root of the current problem is that members are not complying with the existing requirement to vote from their designated seats. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The concern and alarm expressed at “votegate” is understandable and justified, given the implications if the credibility of the Dáil decision-making process is called into question. Since this issue arose last week it has been made abundantly clear from a variety of esteemed sources that proxy voting is a complete non-runner and is in direct conflict with the constitutional provision where a member is required to be “present and voting” in the Dáil chamber.
Thus the seriousness of the issue is openly acknowledged but, in any political crisis, especially those involving the constitutional role of Dáil members which is close to politicians’ hearts, it is difficult to assess how grave a threat is posed by “votegate”. In order to understand the implications it is necessary to dig deeper and examine the voting process itself. How could it happen that a member was recorded as voting when he was not present?
Dáil procedures providing for divisions are robust and have stood the test of time. The Ceann Comhairle can, for example, order a vote to be retaken if any irregularity has been detected before the result of the vote is announced. A crucial role in the process is that of the tellers, who are normally the designated whips of the parties or groups and thus are seasoned business managers in terms of the nuts and bolts of day-to-day Dáil business. The tellers have a major role on checking the accuracy of the votes cast before the result is signed off and declared by the Ceann Comhairle, and it is hard to understand how the discrepancy in the overall numbers voting and those present was not detected.
But is it? Given the revelations this past week that the practice has grown where members are recorded as voting, and, though present, are not in their designated seats – in breach of Dáil standing orders and effectively undermining the role of the tellers, who must find it difficult to keep track of the members who actually voted – the occurrence of an error is perhaps more understandable.
Slippage in practice
There are a number of factors which compound this slippage in practice. The first is that, in the era of confidence and supply, the life of a government is no longer dependent on the result of many divisions – especially more contentious ones at Private Members’ time. A loss on a Private Members’ motion, for example, in the past would automatically lead to a motion of confidence the next day, viz the Haughey government’s fall in 1982.
The current government has lost countless votes in Private Members’ time. Moreover, even in Private Members’ legislation a vote is diminished when more than 60 pieces of legislation have been blocked by the government awaiting decisions or have been refused money messages to cover incidental State expenditure in these Bills. In short, many Dáil divisions have lost their political edge.
A second factor is that divisions for the week (other than procedural ones taken at the time they arise) are taken seriatim at a set period on a Thursday – which may be a more efficient use of Dáil time, but members must be confused (or even more confused) as to what they are actually voting on.
The current difficulty of proxy voting would be remedied if the existing rule was rigorously enforced
The third factor is that for the first time abstentions are recorded at the same time as members are voting in this Dáil. This has contributed to a casualisation of the voting process and has meant that it may easier for a member to record the abstention of a colleague, as under Dáil rules recording an abstention is not a vote. In former times under a binary vote, it would never have been countenanced.
In regard to precedents there are not many incidents of note over the last 40 years or so concerning disruption of Dáil divisions, other than in 1982. On March 9th of that year, on the first day of the Dáil after a general election, on the election of the taoiseach, four members gained entry to the Dáil chamber during the Dáil division after the doors had been locked, by climbing through the press gallery. The subsequent Dáil CPP report on the incident resulted in the Ceann Comhairle ensuring that all areas of access to the chamber were locked in the future. No action was taken against the four members.
The root of the current problem is that members are not complying with the existing requirement to vote from their designated seats. The current difficulty of proxy voting would be remedied if the existing rule was rigorously enforced and tellers would be able to stand over the accuracy of the vote.
“Votegate” is serious but represents a carelessness across all sides of the House and no more. The complaint made to the Committee on Members’ Interests on the question of illegality in proxy voting smacks of political opportunism and is likely to lead to other such complaints against members of the Government side of the House, which ultimately is not in the best interests of the standing of the Dáil.
The Ceann Comhairle has instigated the necessary steps to ensure that the slippage in practice will be remedied by whatever changes are required. The Dáil Committee on Procedures is the appropriate place to do so, as the issue fundamentally concerns parliamentary privilege, and the matter should be allowed to end there.
Kieran Coughlan is adjunct professor at the Department of Government at UCC and a former clerk of Dáil Éireann