Government’s €1 million information campaign during Children’s Referendum criticised by Commission
Referendum Commission report says two State-funded campaigns led to confusion and costs were hard to justify
Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan at the launch in Dublin yesterday with Kieran Coughlan, Clerk Dáil Éireann. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Referendum Commission has criticised the Government decision to mount its own €1 million information campaign during the children’s referendum, saying it caused confusion among voters and was difficult to justify on grounds of cost.
The commission’s report on last November’s referendum, which was published yesterday, also concluded that the amount of time it was given to prepare its guide and information campaign was inadequate.
The commission said that it needed a minimum of four weeks – not the two weeks it was given by Government – to prepare its information campaign and guides.
The body, chaired by Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan of the High Court, said that research conducted after polling revealed confusion among voters caused by the presence of two official information guides.
Last November, the Supreme Court held that the Government had acted wrongly in mounting a campaign that was “not fair, equal or impartial”.
In its report, the commission also concluded that the burden of having to read two guides might have deterred people from reading even one. It also said the cost of distributing two guides was “difficult to justify”.
The Commission recommended it alone should be allowed to run the State-funded information campaign without the potential confusion of a second information campaign.
The other major conclusion of the commission was that the time it was given to fulfil its mandate was inadequate. As well as running an information campaign, its other main function was to encourage citizens to vote.
In that context, it said the low voter turnout of 33.5 per was “disappointing”.
The research showed that only 48 per cent of voters found the commission’s guide very or quite useful. “The commission does not consider this satisfactory,” it said.
It ascribed this to the “significant time constraints” under which it operated.
“The citizens have a right to receive a clear, impartial explanation of the subject matter of a referendum proposal before being asked to vote on it.
“It is therefore essential, in the commission’s view, that any future commission is given an increased period of time … to prepare.”
It also recommended that the Oireachtas debate on a proposed amendment to the Constitution should last at least four weeks and that it should include hearings of Oireachtas committees and an open-ended plenary session in the Dáil, both of which would raise public awareness.
The commission said that two or three months would be the ideal time span to prepare a referendum campaign but recognised that this was not always feasible.
“[We] are strongly of the view that four weeks is the minimum period required. The commission only had two weeks for this work in the children’s referendum and believes that its information campaign may have suffered by reason of time constraints.”
Apart from Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan, the other members of the commission are Kieran Coughlan, clerk of the Dáil; Deirdre Lane, clerk of the Seanad; Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly and Seamus McCarthy, Comptroller and Auditor General.