A mixed message from voters

Sat, Oct 20, 2012, 01:00

THERE IS overwhelming public support for the referendum on children’s rights due to take place on November 10th, according to the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll. An understated political campaign and the absence of controversy has, however, resulted in a dearth of public knowledge of the issues involved and three out of five potential voters admit they don’t know or are only vaguely aware of what the referendum is about. In spite of that, the question may be carried by a margin of 14 to one.

The Government confined this referendum to a single issue because of concern that enshrining children’s rights in the Constitution might be misrepresented as an attack on the rights of the family. That strategy has certainly minimised public disagreement and the Referendum Commission will undertake an extensive information campaign. Whether the provision of detailed information will encourage voter turnout is uncertain. As things stand, nearly 40 per cent of respondents will not vote or are unclear about their intentions.

Uncertainty, ambivalence and distrust are strongly represented within the electorate at present. That may result from the economic crash, falling living standards and the dependence of the State on EU-IMF loans. Suspicion and distrust of EU leadership is starkly exposed. A near-three-to-one majority believes its June commitment to break the link between banking debt and sovereign debt for Ireland will not be honoured. In spite of such negative sentiment and current difficulties, a strong commitment to social equity remains. Approval for a means testing of children’s allowances was found within all political parties and across all social groups. Similarly, a strong majority favoured the reduction or abolition of State supports for fee-paying schools.

Ambivalence set in, however, when issues of personal taxation arose. Twice as many respondents favoured an increase in taxes over further cuts in services in the December Budget. At the same time, they vehemently opposed the property and water charges the Government has proposed. Only within Fine Gael was a majority found to favour the introduction of water charges. Majorities in all parties opposed a property tax.

The negative report cards given to six prominent Cabinet ministers by the electorate – an exception being Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton – is unlikely to cause immediate difficulties, but it has set a benchmark for future performances. Entering Government, Taoiseach Enda Kenny undertook to closely monitor the performance of Ministers and to replace those who failed to deliver.

The verdict of the public may not prompt a Cabinet reshuffle on this occasion because of the general unpopularity of the Government and of politicians as a whole. Mr Kenny attracts the highest satisfaction rating of all political leaders. But his dissatisfaction rating exceeds that of five ministerial colleagues and is only surpassed by those of Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Health James Reilly. Dr Reilly may be the most vulnerable minister, but few Cabinet members can afford to be complacent.

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