Post by David Farrell (October 30, 2011)
The failure of the referendum on Oireachtas enquiries by 47%/53% is, to say the least, a ‘disappointment’ for the government. But is the result all that surprising? Quite apart from the intense debates over the merit of the proposal (including in a series of posts on this forum), the plain fact is that this referendum fell foul of the well-worn adage: ‘if you don’t know vote no’. It also didn’t help that citizens were not given a greater say in the process leading up the defining the referendum question: the rationale for and design of the referendum question was imposed from the top without any effort to engage with citizens in advance.
In a fascinating presentation at last week’s annual conference of the Political Studies Association of Ireland, Professor Paul Whiteley (Essex) reported on British Election Study research of the recent British referendum on electoral reform. Their findings showed conclusively that lack of information was a key factor in the abject failure of that campaign. Voters need to be sufficiently informed if they’re to make informed choices. That was at the heart of the failed British electoral reform referendum, as it was here too.
Such survey data as there were indicated that most voters were (and felt) ill informed about the referendum on Oireachtas enquiries. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties were right to condemn the Referendum Commission and government for not doing enough to inform voters in advance of polling day (see here). In future, there could well be arguments in favour of not holding referendums on the same day as a national election: this way the referendum question should have a better chance of receiving the attention it warrants.
By their nature, referendums are blunt devices: often complex issues are distilled down to simple ‘Yes/No’ choices. But in a fixed-Constitution system like ours, there is no other alternative. More than anything else this speaks to the need for the issue to be explained clearly and comprehensively.
But it also speaks to the need for citizens to be consulted at every stage in the process – not just on polling day. A process of prior consultation with citizens in advance of setting the referendum question might have gone some way to:
• help fine-tune the details (so reducing criticisms over details, such as those relating to paragraph 4 of the proposal),
• test how arguments might play out (e.g. such as over whether this is the right time to pose this question before wider reforms to the role of the Oireachtas have been implemented),
• increase the prospect that whatever referendum question ultimately emerges has better chance of a fair electoral wind.
If a government is to trust the citizens it needs to consult them.