Referendums are with us to stay, so we may as well start to run them properly
Opinion: The weaker the communication, the lower the turnout and the greater likelihood of a No vote
More serious, however, is the decision of successive governments ever since McKenna to use ad hoc referendum commissions, established in the period leading up to each referendum, to be the main source for public information. The constrained, genteel and rather formalistic manner in which these commissions operate can have the effect of killing off the oxygen of debate. What is needed is a permanent, properly resourced, professionally-managed electoral commission whose remit includes management of the referendum process, and which can adopt a more assertive, proactive role.
It is interesting to note that in the recently published report of the referendum commission charged with managing the Seanad and Court of Appeal referendums the chairwoman, Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne, recommended the replacement of ad hoc referendum commissions with a permanent electoral commission. The Government should heed her advice.
The poor management of Ireland’s referendum process has serious implications for policy. Whether we like it or not, referendums are here to stay, and therefore we should ensure that they work as effectively as possible. Civil Service-speak information leaflets through the letter boxes and 15 minutes on Morning Ireland just doesn’t cut it.
The weaker the communication of the issue, the fewer citizens engage with it and the greater the likelihood of low turnout. Our systematic analysis of all the referendums to date shows conclusively that low turnout increases the likelihood of a No vote. It is what we know anecdotally.
The Government has given itself more than a year to prepare for the next set of referendums. It should use the intervening period to its full advantage to bring forward urgently needed reforms to Ireland’s outdated referendum process.
Top of the list should be the following: legislation to guide the broadcasters on how to cover referendum campaigns; a reform of the State funding regime to support the campaigns of parties and civil society groups on both sides of the divide; and the establishment of a permanent electoral commission.
Failure to take advantage of this moment could backfire badly on a Government that will need every tool in its arsenal to get these referendums over the line – not least given the known fact that governments at the fag end of their term of office face an uphill struggle to win referendum votes. It would also be an important moment missed to once and for all fix our outdated referendum process.