Time for referendums 'inadequate'

Mon, Apr 16, 2012, 01:00

The Referendum Commission set up to promote public awareness of the votes on judges’ pay and Oireachtas inquiries has complained that the time allowed to perform its functions was “grossly inadequate”.

Research carried out by the Referendum Commission has shown that a lack of understanding of the proposals influenced a significant number of voters either to abstain or to vote No.

The commission expressed concern that people’s choices could have been “influenced by their not having enough time to understand the proposal”.

The commission says the manner in which referendums are conducted in this State contrasts with the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Code of Good Practice on Referendums.

The referendums were held on October 27th last and the proposal giving the Government the right to cut judges’ pay was passed, while the electorate voted down the amendment giving wider scope to Oireachtas inquiries.

In an unpublished report for Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, the commission points out that it had “just five weeks” to prepare its explanation of the proposals, write the text of the guide and print and distribute it throughout the State.

The final chapter of the document, seen by The Irish Times, points out that amendments to the wording of both referendums were made at a late stage of the legislative process. “This added to the challenge of explaining the proposals in the short time available.”

Due to the brevity of the referendum campaign, the commission did not have time to “monitor in an ongoing way the campaign through research and other means, and explain, elaborate and amend its messages and materials if necessary”.

Normally the commission sought to deliver its explanatory guide to all homes in the State several weeks before polling day.

“In this case, the late passage of the legislation meant that delivery had to be done at the latest possible moment. When it emerged that delivery in some areas had fallen behind, there was no leeway to allow this to be rectified in time.”

Research carried out for the commission after the referendums – which were held on the same day as the presidential election, October 27th – “shows significant lack of understanding of the proposals and shows also that this lack of understanding influenced a significant number of voters either not to vote or to vote No”.

Although how people voted was a matter for individual citizens, “the commission is concerned that as many people vote as possible, and also that people’s voting choice is not influenced by their not having enough time to understand the proposal”.

The report says how referendums are conducted in this State “contrasts with the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Code of Good Practice on Referendums”, issued in March 2007. The commission has recommended the Minister review the referendum process “as a matter of urgency”, including the statutory remit of the commission itself.

The Minister is also asked to consider giving the commission “a period of at least three months to explain properly a referendum proposal”.

He should also look at the possibility of establishing a permanent independent body, such as the proposed electoral commission, which would “consolidate the various electoral functions, including those of the Referendum Commission,” it says.

Alternatively, the Minister should consider amending the Referendum Act 1998 to allow the commission to be established in advance of the date on which a Referendum Bill is initiated in Dáil Éireann, it says.

The commission “notes that the Taoiseach has recently said he will set up a Referendum Commission in spring 2012 so that it will have adequate time to prepare for future referendums”.

The report was submitted to the Minister on March 2nd. The commission was chaired by retired High Court judge Bryan MacMahon. The other members were: Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly; Comptroller and Auditor General John Buckley; Clerk of the Dáil Kieran Coughlan; and Clerk of the Seanad Deirdre Lane.

A new commission is now in place for the referendum on the EU fiscal treaty on May 31st, with High Court judge Kevin Feeney in the chair.

A spokesman for the new Referendum Commission said it had no comment to make on the report of its predecessor, but that the preparation of public information for the May 31st referendum was “at an advanced stage”.