Kenny and his colleagues are the only ones confused about the Seanad poll
Opinion: Taoiseach appears to be only going through the motions of listening
It’s amazing how much people lie to pollsters, not only about what they might do but even about what they have just done.
This week, having sat on it for four weeks, the Government finally published the report of the Referendum Commission for the Seanad and Court of Appeal referendums held on October 4th.
The Referendum Commission, which is individually constituted for each referendum , is required to present a report on its activities to the Minister for the Environment.
While the commission is an independent body chaired by a superior court judge, it is the government that decides when and in what context the commission’s report is published. This is part of a now long-established pattern where the government gets weeks and sometimes months to consider reports from agencies and bodies, frame its response in advance and choose to publish when it is the most advantageous moment for the government.
So it came to pass that although the Seanad Referendum Commission sent its report to the Minister on November 29th last, it came to be published on a busy Wednesday evening before Christmas when a hole in next year’s health budget might otherwise have dominated the news.
It was no coincidence that the report was published just hours after the Taoiseach finally held a meeting with other Dáil and Seanad party leaders about the outcome of the referendum.
He met them at 11am on Wednesday, and by all accounts it was an insubstantial meeting. The Referendum Commission report was not published before the meeting, and neither the fact it was going to be published nor its contents were shared.
The Taoiseach presented no specific proposals for Seanad change to the meeting. The only documents handed out at the meeting were a summary of a recent Seanad debate on reform and a checklist of the contents of previous reports on the topic.
Those at the gathering described the Taoiseach as giving an impression he is still smarting at the referendum defeat and as a man going through the motions of listening to others.
Façade of consultation
It amounted to a façade of consultation by a Government already set on a course of minimal and largely meaningless change.
If that be the case then it is consistent with the Government’s lackadaisical approach to political reform generally.
While the Taoiseach was patting the Dáil and Seanad leaders on the head and talking vaguely of Seanad reform proposals, his media management elves were busy preparing to release the contents of the Referendum Commission report and wrapping it in colourful spin to distract from the criticism of Government contained therein. A largely compliant political media lapped it up.
Hours before the report was published the main media prepared and in some cases published news stories all singing off the same hymn sheet suggesting there was widespread confusion about the Seanad referendum. This contention, it seems, was based on Government pre-briefing about the contents of the report and on the unsophisticated reading that 13 per cent of those who voted Yes did so thinking they were retaining the Seanad and 6 per cent of those who voted No did so thinking they were abolishing it.
There were prominent assertions too in the news coverage that the majority found the layout of the ballot paper confusing and that this was the most important thing in the referendum commission’s report.
Many of the online pieces and news broadcast packages, including whimsical quotes supposedly in response from the Taoiseach, focused on the need to examine the design and text of ballot papers rather than any substantial questioning about Seanad reform.
Electorate confusion was not emphasised in the Referendum Commission’s own report and there is not much support for it in the actual data of the opinion poll posted on the commission website the next day. This would have been apparent to reporters if they had considered the full report and accompanying poll data but instead it seems they relied on and repeated the Government categorisation of what the report said.
The data published by the Referendum Commission relates to a recall opinion poll conducted by Behaviour and Attitudes four days after the referendum. Its results must be treated with extreme caution, not least because all figures in it are based on two false premises – the turnout is overstated and so too is the number of people who voted for the winning side. The poll was, of course, weighted appropriately and conducted in accordance with all appropriate industry standards. Notwithstanding this, however, 51 per cent of respondents said they voted in the referendum while turnout on the day was actually 39 per cent. Some 59 per cent of respondents said they voted No in the referendum whereas the actual No vote was just under 52 per cent. More than one in five of those said they had voted and one in six of those who said they voted No were also lying.
It follows that to break down what voters thought they were doing when voting is very speculative and unworthy of the prominence given to it in much of the reportage.
As media manipulation goes it was a good exercise for the Government. Coverage implying mass confusion in the Seanad referendum blunted the impact of the commission’s report which would otherwise have acted as an untimely reminder of the Government’s only substantial political setback this year.
The reality is less comforting for the Government. Although some were unhappy with the ballot paper layout, voters were not confused about the Seanad referendum. A clear majority came to see it for what it was, a power grab and a puff of smoke designed to distract from wider failures on political reform.
Enda Kenny and his colleagues are the only ones confused and in denial about that fact.