Ireland and its multi-million Presidential election postal farce

PRESIDENTIAL election costs to the tax payer look set to soar because the candidates have failed to agree a joint postage strategy.

Postage costs alone could end up costing as much as €11million.

If a joint strategy had been agreed by last week, the total cost to the tax payer for postage during the election would have only been – at most – €1.67million, or as low as €1.4million.

But dithering among the candidates now looks set to cost the tax payer an astonishing €10million – simply because they still can’t agree on a single postage strategy.

Under a current arrangement between the Department of Finance and An Post, all candidates in a presidential election have been eligible to a free posted leaflet drop since the foundation of the State.

Candidates do not have to take up this eligibility and even if they do, they can vary the extent to which they do.

Candidate Sean Gallagher was the first to suggest – back in August – that all the candidates share the same leaflet, thereby cutting down massively on postage costs.

But none of his fellow candidates agreed how to achieve this joint leaflet initiative – in part because of the late arrival to the contest of candidates like Dana Rosemary Scallon (who only announced her bid to run on September 19) – and the suggestion has now been ditched.

 Norris: ‘It is the responsibility of presidential candidates to minimize the burden on the exchequer.

The election was called on September 26, but candidates had just two days in which to get their art work for their leaflets into An Post by the 28th.

At least five candidates – including Sean Gallagher and Martin McGuinness (whose party Sinn Fein is renouned for its well-oiled election campaign machines) – had their art work in by this date.

The regulations on the size of the leaflet and the design are closely regulated.

Each one has to be approved by An Post before they will agree to deliver them.

Deliveries will start after October 7, by which time all candidates availing of their ‘free’ leaflet drop have to have their actually leaflets printed up and delivered to An Post.

The postal company will then make sure all the candidates leaflets are delivered to 3.1million voters before the day of the election, which is on October 27.

If all seven candidates take up their eligibility for a free postal leaflet drop for the 2011 race, that means 21.7million leaflets will end up being posted to each of the 3.1million potential voters.

The cost of delivery is estimated to be between .46c and .54c.

If each candidate ends up sending one leaflet to each of the 3.1m voters – as they are entitled to do for ‘free’ – the cost to the tax payer will be between €1.4million and €1.6million.

This comes to a total cost of the candidates’ leaflet drops to the tax payer of €11.69million.

If, however, they were to put their differences behind them and agree to share their delivery – the entire drop could cost considerably less.

If they had all agreed to share their details on the one leaflet in the first place, the postal drop would have ended up costing little more than €1.67million with An Post.

And if City Post - the second largest postal service in Ireland – had been even given the opportunity to tender for the contract, the costs could have been reduced even further.

The company says that it is – on almost all fronts – cheaper than An Post. Astonishingly, the Department of Finance said it would require a change in legislation to allow City Post tender for the contract to deliver letters in a presidential election.

At the moment, candidate Mary Davis is planning to have leaflets sent to 1.9million households instead of 3.1million voters.

This will work out at a saving of between €644,000 and €796,000 compared with the estimated €1.42million to €1.67million postal costs Labour’s Michael D Higgins, Martin McGuinness and Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell will each incur if they go ahead and have their own leaflets delivered separately to 3.1million voters.

Based on what is known about the leafleting plans of Davis, Higgins, McGuinness and Mitchell – the postage costs of their combined leafleting campaigns look set to cost between €5.15million and €6million.

Gallagher: ‘To spend this money on postage stamps is a scandalous waste of money.’

If they can agree to share an envelope instead of each sending their leaflets separately, this could save millions – although obviously the weight would be a factor that would drive the single cost for each envelope up considerably.

And although it was not immediately clear last night what the other candidates Sean Gallagher, Dana and Senator David Norris will be doing, it is likely they will all now follow suit.

If they follow Mary Davis’ example – of mail bombing 1.9million ‘homes’ rather than 3.1million voters, they will collectively add an estimated additional cost of between €2.62million and €3.07million.

But if, however, they follow the example of the others, they will collectively add an additional cost of between €4.27million and €5million to the over-all presidential postal bill.

At the worst case, but almost inevitable scenario – whereby the candidates end up not agreeing to even share an envelope – the total postage bill could be as high as €11million.

Davis: ‘I will be sending leaflets to 1.9million households instead of 3.1million voters.’

But given that the postage rate agreed between An Post and the Department of Finance is unknown and unlikely to be a published rate – and therefor subject to VAT – the total estimated cost could be lower, at €7.7million.

This would be conditional on the remaining three candidates opting to have leaflets sent to 1.9million homes rather than 3.1million voters.

If they follow the Higgins, McGuinness and Mitchell, the total estimated cost will end up being between €9.4million and €11million.

Last night, Mr Gallagher described the situation as a ‘scandal’ and urged his fellow candidates to agree to having their leaflets delivered in a single envelope.

He said: ‘Where candidates may have their leaflet now printed or in print, I believe that consideration must be given to a joint envelope.

‘Spending vast amounts of tax payers’ money on an election at time when families and communities are really struggling is obscene.

‘I’ve spent the last four months visiting community, voluntary, advocacy and disability groups around the country and I know only too well what they could do with the money that could be saved.

‘To spend this money on postage stamps is a scandalous waste of money.

‘The transition year students I have met in my time around the country could show more initiative in how to save public money.’

A spokesman for gay Mitchell said last night: ‘Gay Mitchell suggested cost-saving measures when he entered the campaign but got little or no proper feedback.

‘We have always found the suggestion of a joint leaflet both impractical and unworkable, especially with nominations coming in so late in the game.

‘And when we voiced the suggestion that leaflets should be dropped into the 1.9million households, we were told by An Post that this was not practical.’

A spokesman for Michael D Higgins said: ‘We accept that the postage costs involved are wasteful and excessive.

‘But it is too late to look at this matter now and we see this is an area of reform in the future.’

City Post: ‘It’s not accurate to say An Post is the only company in the country to do this job.’

Senator David Norris said last night: ‘I believe it is the responsibility of all presidential candidates to minimize the burden on the exchequer.

‘I would be in favour of any ways in which to address this.’

According to Section 34 of the Presidential Election Act of 1937, ‘each candidate shall be entitled to send by post, free of any charge for postage, to every person registered as an elector in any register of electors for the time being in force one communication relating only to the said election and not exceeding two ounces in weight.’

A Department of Public Expenditure and Reform spokesman said: ‘An Post have agreed to a discounted rate on all material delivered to them in a timely manner.

‘The Department is satisfied that the discount received is competitive in relation to other service providers.

‘The position of An Post in relation to postage of candidates’ election material is set out in legislation.

‘An Post is in a position to deliver to all households in the country within a narrow time frame between nomination of candidates and holding of the election.

‘Election legislation provides for the entitlement of each candidate to free postage of their material.

‘Any change to the method of delivery will entail legislative amendment or ideally agreement between the candidates and political parties to an alternative streamlined approach.’

They added: ‘In relation to the free postage arrangements provided for under election legislation, An Post remains the relevant postal service provider, until such time as the Minister decides to designate alternative providers.’

A spokesman for An Post said last night: ‘An Post delivers material relating to the Presidential Election as per the requirements of the State.

‘A candidate’s entitlement to mailing(s) is determined by legislation.

‘The service ensures that all citizens in the State are treated equally and receive the same material to a schedule agreed by all parties (i.e. all those involved).

‘The volume in question is a matter for the candidates. A candidate may choose not to avail of their entitlement to a national mailing (i.e. some may choose to concentrate on certain areas and not others).

‘An Post’s provision of service for a large-scale national mailing such as this is a commercial matter and significant commercial discounts are applied.’

And they added: ‘An Post is the only company capable of providing a quality, time specific, value-for-money, quality distribution and delivery service.

‘No other operator has the necessary mails infrastructure – processing technology, distribution network, staffing, fleet, local knowledge and expertise to provide such a service.’

City Post operations manager Oliver Durkin disagreed.

He said: ‘If City Post had been given the chance to put in a quote for this contract, we would have been able to provide the service at a discount to the tax payer.

‘It’s not accurate to say An Post is the only company in the country to do this job.’

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