One more referendum?
THE GOVERNMENT is proposing to hold 10 referendums during its remaining four-year tenure in office. So far, it has lost one referendum; to grant extra powers to parliamentary inquiries conducted by the Oireachtas. Now a senior Minister, Pat Rabbitte, has suggested voters should be asked to reconsider the issue, but next time in a modified form to reflect public concerns raised during the referendum campaign last October.
Mr Rabbitte strongly favours the Oireachtas having adequate investigative powers to enable a parliamentary committee examine issues of major public importance – like the banking collapse. Few other parliaments in the democratic world possess such limited powers as the Oireachtas. Since 2004, following the Supreme Court judgment in the Abbeylara case, its investigative powers have been further eroded. There, the court decided the Oireachtas could not exercise a “quasi judicial” function, make findings of fact, or attribute blame to individuals.
The constitutional amendment, which sought to reverse the Supreme Court decision, was narrowly defeated. The proposal was that a parliamentary inquiry into a matter of “general public importance” would have the power to consider, and to make findings of fact about, any person’s conduct. The Oireachtas would act as arbiter in deciding the balance between the rights of those involved in the inquiry and the requirements of the public interest. But whether any decision by the Oireachtas could be appealed to the courts was unclear, and disputed. That caused some public concern, and contributed to the amendment’s defeat.
Certainly, the Oireachtas does require adequate powers to perform its proper parliamentary role, to ensure accountability and to exercise effective scrutiny of the executive, and others. But whether – as Mr Rabbitte might like – a new and modified constitutional amendment could be proposed, win public approval in a referendum, and be in place in time for a parliamentary inquiry into the banking collapse, is doubtful.
Before the Government can be sure that any rerun of the referendum could succeed next time, it first needs to show the public that it has learned from its own past mistakes, both in preparing for referendums, and in organising and conducting campaigns. Last year, the proposed constitutional change was inadequately discussed in parliament. It was inadequately debated in the referendum campaign, where the issue was greatly overshadowed by the presidential election. And the Referendum Commission was left with two weeks to inform the public on the issue, which proved too short.
The Government has in the area of constitutional change set itself a daunting challenge including so many referendums by 2015 . In addition, it is due to establish a constitutional convention to consider “comprehensive constitutional reform”. For a Government that is due to take over the presidency of the European Union for six months from next January, and that continues to face a considerable economic challenge, its political schedule now looks seriously crowded.