Manifestos: Defamation, Privacy & Political funding

picture-1.pngAs I was having a look this evening at the various manifestos on the political parties’ websites, I wondered what each of them might have to say about the kinds of issues discussed on this blog.

Manifestos have yet to be published on the websites by Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin (who have a dedicated page on their election website for the manifesto, but it’s not there yet); and the Socialist Party seems to have avoided the use of the word manifesto for their election site.

Given that (as I have already noted here) the Defamation Bill, 2006 has fallen with the outgoing Dáil, let’s start with defamation reform. There’s nothing about it in the Fianna Fáil Manifesto Now, The Next Steps (pdf) (apart from a promise (p53) to enact a right of reply in the context of broadcasting reform), in the Green Party‘s Manifesto 2007. it’s time (pdf), or on the Socialist Party’s site. However, the Labour Party Manifesto, The Fair Society (pdf), says (p53):

We will enact a Defamation Bill to reform the law of libel and slander. We will review the necessity for a counterbalancing Privacy Bill when the defamation bill is enacted and when the effects of the Bill in practice have been fully examined.

And the Progressive Democrats‘ Manifesto, From Good to Great. Continuing Ireland’s Radical Transformation (pdf), says (p31):

Defamation – The Progressive Democrats will enact the Defamation Bill. The issue of privacy law reform will be revisited with a view to ensuring that injunctions cannot be used to muzzle the press on matters of genuine public concern.

These promises to enact “a” (Labour) or “the” (PDs) Defamation Bill are welcome, though there is no reason why it should not have happened already. Moreover, it seems that the issues of defamation and privacy continue to be yoked together. To be fair to the Labour Party, they are quite properly seeking to decouple them, and to callthe Privacy Bill in its current form into question. However, reflecting their conference promise (already noted on this blog [in a post that also referred to their café bar proposals, which are back, on p34 of the manifesto!]), the PDs are promsing merely to tinker at the edges of the Bill. More interesting still, though, is the fact that these are the only references to privacy in these manifestos: there is nothing at all in any of them about traffic data retention (all the more reason, then, to take Antoin‘s advice, and ask the candidates on the doorsteps about it).

Finally, there are some interesting nuggets on political reform in general and political party finances in particular. Though the manifestos of Fianna Fáil and the PDs are largely silent on these issues, the Green Party’s proposals include (pp 30-31):

  • a reduction in the number of TDs and Ministers,
  • an increase in Dáil sitting time,
  • a change to the electoral system to include some TDs elected via a national party list rather than PR-STV,
  • a devolution of central power to the regions, and
  • “adequate state funding of political parties, based on electoral results and [a] ban corporate, institutional or foreign-based donations”.

while Labour will (pp 88-89):

  • reform Oireachtas sitting and procedures
  • improve freedom of information, and whistleblower protection, and (by referendum) reverse absolute Cabinet Confidentiality,
  • repeal the Official Secrets Act and replace it with far more limited offences subject to a public interest defence,
  • review the law on spending by political parties with a view to developing a more rigorous system; and
  • “Given that it is not constitutionally feasible to abolish outright donations to political organisations, we will introduce legislation to restrict contributions to political parties and candidates …”.

In both cases, classic opposition stuff. The Labour Party package here, if enacted, would go a long way towards improving the process political debate in particular and the system of freedom of expression in general in this country. But I’m intrigued by that last quote from the Labour Party manifesto. First, why is a funding ban not constitutionally feasible? The issue has never been directly tested by the Irish courts (though the Green Party’s proposals, if enacted, might provide the occasion); the issue is at best a matter of conjecture, even if the best conjecture is that a ban is not constitutionally feasible. Second, even so, the constitutional position could be altered by referendum – and if the party is prepared to propose one in the context of cabinet confidentiality, why not also here?