Rushed referendums

Wed, Oct 12, 2011, 01:00

WHEN THE people go to the polls on October 27th to elect a president, they will also be asked to vote in two referendums to change the Constitution. But so far the debate between candidates on who should be president has greatly overshadowed discussion on the more abstract issues raised by these referendums – on the pay of judges, and the powers of the Oireachtas to hold inquiries. Both Bills to amend the Constitution were passed rapidly by the Oireachtas, where they faced little opposition and received inadequate scrutiny. The publication yesterday of the Referendum Commission’s guide, which sets out clearly what the electorate is being asked to vote on, has now left voters with a little over two weeks to inform themselves on both questions.

The public has been left with little time to decide, and is unlikely to be helped by much serious political debate given the limited amount of time and attention they gave to the referendum legislation, and their overwhelming support for both amendments. Democracy has not, in this instance, been well served by this process, where the public is being asked by the elected representatives to change the country’s fundamental law, but without the benefit of an extensive and vigorous debate, in which the politicians have been fully engaged. The recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll confirms a significant part of the electorate is undecided on whether or not to advance more powers to Oireachtas committees to make findings of fact about people. Clearly, a considerable amount of ignorance exists concerning the arguments for and against the 30th amendment.

Voters may have to place an overdue reliance on the neutral guidance that the Referendum Commission provides. The likely lack of serious political engagement and involvement by Oireachtas members in the referendum debate and campaign will leave the public less informed than they should be, and most probably less concerned about the outcome. In the plebiscite on the pay of judges, the amendment proposes to change the Constitution from one where: “The remuneration of a judge shall not be reduced during his continuance in office” to one where legislation could be passed to reduce the pay of judges in line with any cut in the pay of public servants, where the reduction was said to be “in the public interest”. Likewise, judges would be made subject to the public services pension levy, and other such charges, from which, at present, they are exempt.

An issue of greater controversy is the proposal to give the Houses of the Oireachtas power to inquire into what the Dáil, Seanad – or both Houses – regards as a matter of “general public importance”. In holding such an inquiry the Oireachtas would have power to consider, and to make findings of fact about, any person’s conduct. In such inquiries the Dáil and/or the Seanad would become the arbiter in deciding the appropriate balance between the rights of those involved in the inquiry and requirements of the public interest, while having regard to the principles of fair procedures. Because that proposes to give the Oireachtas far more power than it has ever previously enjoyed, it therefore needs careful consideration by the electorate before it decides.