By Vanessa Liston (CiviQ.eu)
Opinion polls are built into the fabric of our political system. We look to them as a fountain of knowledge on people’s minds, as we search for clues and cues in meandering a fractious course to the polling booth. Yet, given the outcome of the Seanad referendum, that quite dramatically violated most poll predictions, it should be of concern that there are few alternatives to understanding public opinion in such significant decision-making events.
While the focus during the campaign was on opinion polls, commentary and analysis, there was a gap in understanding the structure of public opinion. However, embedded within the flow of diverse and passionate opinion, punctuated with witty quips and inspired oration, were the reasoning, motivations and beliefs of the nation on the issue of Seanad abolition.
This opinion stream was, and remains, a gold mine. It is valuable not only in substantive terms, but in its potential for revealing coherent perspectives and how these vary across opposing groups. By asking citizens of opposing views to rank-order a set of completely different opinions according to how closely that opinion relates to their view, it is possible to identify alternative coherent perspectives and the most important areas of consensus and difference.
To illustrate our point, we conducted a study on perspectives on Seanad abolition in the last few days of the campaign. We used Q-methodology, developed by William Stephenson, a physicist and psychologist (1902-1989) to study subjectivity. Its aim is to uncover the structure of how people think about an issue and, in contrast to large samples required for opinion polling, it requires a small sample of individuals of diverse views.
For the study we took a sample of 200 opinions from the media, citizen conversations and documents. We invited 50 people of opposing views across lobby groups, political parties, civil society groups, bloggers, journalists and citizens to evaluate a representative sample of 43 most diverse opinions. Twenty two of this sample responded from across each stakeholder group. Participants sorted the opinions according to how closely they represented their view, on a bell shaped grid scaled from -4 to +4.
Findings* showed that among the sample of participants with opposing views, three distinct perspectives were identified, which can be summarized as follows:
1. Reform the Seanad. This perspective fears the wider impact on democracy in the absence of the Seanad. An important concern is the unchecked centralisation of power in the Dail. This perspective is generally positive about the Seanad as an important space for debate and scrutiny of legislation, while acknowledging its need for reform. This perspectives argues for the Seanad to be retained and reformed.
2. Abolish the Seanad. This perspective believes that the Seanad is an undemocratic institution and should be abolished. It is dysfunctional and there will be little impact after its removal.
3. Mix – Seanad Ineffective but keep until Dail reformed. This perspective is a mix of both 1 and 2 above. It believes the Seanad could be abolished when Dail is reformed. This perspective is generally negative about the Seanad seeing it as irrelevant and ineffective. However, there is a strong need to first reform the Dail to avoid concentration of power in the Executive.
Interestingly, all perspectives agreed that the removal of Article 27 from the constitution is unnecessary. There was also positive consensus that Parliamentarians are ‘ruthlessly precluded from thinking’. What the analysis further shows is that the government’s argument relating to cost saving was not important for any of the perspectives. The Abolish camp are more of the view that no savings will be made by abolition whereas Reform and Mixed are neutral on this statement.
The areas of consensus suggest that in its later stages, the debate was ideological with the government’s main instrumental arguments on cost being of little consequence in defining how people thought about the issue. The argument of the Seanad having no power, was relevant only to the Abolish perspective. Both the Reform and Mixed perspectives both disagreed with this opinion, but with different implications. For reformists, that meant reforming the Seanad so it is more effective and has more power. For the Mixed perspective, it meant that the Seanad can be retained and do no harm while the appropriate reforms are put in place to safeguard democracy. Then it can be abolished.
While a full analysis of results and limitations of the study will be provided elsewhere, the approach shows how investigating underlying perspectives in public opinion can add insights to supplement opinion polling. For example, McGee suggests in the Irish Times (Oct. 7th 2013) that the notion of ‘power-grab’ was influential from early in the
campaign. Results from the study indicate support this assessment. Opinion on the need to restrain Executive power was highly ranked by the Reform (+3) and Mixed (+4) perspectives who strongly felt that ‘Part of the danger of only having the Dail is that it gives the government too much power’.
Such an approach to understanding public opinion is one we should consider more, as issues become more complex and proposed responses more simplistic or populist. This argument is not new. It is core to Dryzek and Niemeyer’s innovations in discursive representation and deliberative democracy. It is the basis of numerous influential studies on environmental and public policy in the Netherlands and Australia. So, while opinion polls have value, reliance on them alone during referenda, can limit our understanding of issues. To supplement, a small sample study of diverse opinion holders, demonstrates the potential for rich information on perspectives and how these relate to each other. Such information could lead not only to a more in-depth understanding of public opinion, but also more inclusive and reflexive political processes.
Vanessa Liston is Co-founder and Director of CiviQ.eu, a start-up focusing on new ways to structure and visualise public opinion.
* More detailed analysis is forthcoming on civiq.eu/seanad-abolition-perspectives