Lack of debate on referendum reveals need for change

Mon, Oct 29, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:We must try to strike a better balance between democracy and regulation, write JANE SUITERand THERESA REIDY

THE ABSENCE of debate and engagement around the children’s rights referendum campaign as well as evidence from several recent referendums highlights a growing disjointedness between the needs of democracy and the heavily regulated environment for plebiscites in Ireland.

The negative result of the regulations is growing ever clearer. Earlier this month an Irish Times poll reported a dearth of public knowledge of the issues involved, with some three out of five potential voters admitting they didn’t know, or were only vaguely aware, of what the referendum was about.

Similar results were found by a Red C poll, while last week a photocall of interested TDs was cancelled due to an overly cautious interpretation of the regulations.

While Ireland has one of the most heavily regulated referendum environments in the EU, we also hold such public votes more frequently than most. There is an argument that if we are to use the tools of direct democracy then we should maximise the democratic outputs of the exercise.

Making it difficult for both sides of any campaign to communicate their message and educate the voters, thereby stymieing engagement, is not helpful and flies in the face of the reasons to engage in the first place.

Turning first to the funding rules, if we look to other EU countries that hold referendums, we can see many different models for regulation to achieve equity in funding and broadcasting while allowing for maximum voter engagement. One of the more sensible that could apply in Ireland is the Danish model. Indeed, a move to the Danish rules has been recommended in previous reports for Irish governments.

Under this system half of the referendum funds are allocated on the basis of each party’s representation in parliament. The other half is split equally between Yes and No groups. Structures could be devised to ensure that independents and senators are also included in this framework. Of course, providing any funding to political parties in the current economic environment would be unpopular.

The current system, under which the referendum commission operates with one hand tied behind its back, is given a few weeks to prepare for the campaign and is asked to maximise turnout without being able to really address the arguments, is a nonsense.

It is also a contributory factor to the low information level and low turnout at referendum elections, which averages just above 50 per cent. Thus almost half of the eligible electorate often choose not to engage in referendum decisions, while more report not having sufficient understanding of the topic.

Some 43 per cent said they did not understand the issue in the Oireachtas inquiries referendum, although voters in the fiscal treaty poll felt better informed.

Democracy is not free. We cannot leave the entire burden of the information campaign to the referendum commission unless we significantly change and widen its remit and powers. It should be able to fund civil society and party groups on the Yes and the No sides.

We need also to look at the broadcasting rules. Given the cross-party support for the children’s rights proposal, it is difficult to find TDs on the No side of the campaign, resulting in little debate on the airwaves.

The absence of public representatives on the No side means that we find ourselves in the unusual position where discussion of the issues is limited or cannot take place because representation from both sides of the debate is not available.

Even when groups do come forward to oppose the amendment, a further question emerges about whether these groups should be given air time equal to all elected members of the Oireachtas and any other groups who support the children’s rights proposal.

Uncertainly also prevails in relation to the campaign rules. An event organised by the Oireachtas health committee was cancelled and then rescheduled amid worries about whether the McKenna judgment might preclude such events.

This is absurd.

Our TDs are legislators, they are not part of the Government and thus the McKenna judgment should not apply.

While this uncertainty appears to have been resolved, it is disquieting that several of our elected public representatives were given the impression that they could not participate in a referendum event because it might contravene campaign regulations.

The Minister for Justice has argued that the McKenna judgment should be revisited in the courts because of the way it is being implemented. With plans for multiple referendums in the next three years, addressing both the broadcasting and funding restrictions should be done sooner rather than later.

Dr Jane Suiter is a lecturer in the department of communications at Dublin City University and Dr Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in government at University College Cork

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