Yes campaign cannot afford to squander more time


The lesson of past referendums is that rushed campaigns do not bode well for victory, writes NOEL WHELAN

IT IS now more than three months since the fiscal treaty was agreed. A full eight weeks have passed since the Attorney General advised a referendum would be required.

Despite this the Government is only now mounting the first substantial effort to engage with the electorate on the substance of the treaty text or the significant issues surrounding the decision.

The Oireachtas Subcommittee on European Affairs has held special hearings, and some media outlets have mounted worthy attempts to discuss the issues. The reality is, however, that to date most of this coverage has passed the electorate by.

The Government has not allowed enough time to explain this treaty and has not used the time to date well.

On March 2nd – the very day the fiscal treaty was signed – the Referendum Commission for the two referendums held last October presented a final report on their information activities to the Government. This report was not published but we have since learned from Deaglán de Bréadún’s report in The Irish Times last week that the commission was highly critical of the limited time given to it to do its work. Its membership included a former High Court judge, the clerks of both the Dáil and Seanad, the Ombudsman and the Comptroller and Auditor General. One would have expected that their concerns would have been listened to.

On the day of the counting of votes for the Oireachtas inquiries referendum, Government Ministers blamed their defeat in that vote on a failure to explain the proposal to the public.

In light of the outcome of that referendum, the Government commissioned and published detailed quantitative and qualitative research which it had asked Prof Michael Marsh and others to assess. Their report concluded that the lack of understanding was a key factor in the decision of many voters to vote against that constitutional change.

Notwithstanding all of this, the Government left less than two months for the new Referendum Commission established for the fiscal treaty referendum to do its work. Three of this five-member commission were members also at the time of the two referendums last October. They must be privately dismayed at the limited time given to them and the fact that they have been given a much-reduced budget.

Having failed to lay an undercoat of public understanding before it began campaigning, the Government, it seems, is now going to shower the electorate with information leaflets during the campaign period itself. At the same time as the Referendum Commissions publication will be coming through our letter-boxes, the Taoiseach is going to send us a copy of the treaty and his own explanatory guide. The Government under the terms of the McKenna judgment is entitled to mount its own information campaign provided it does not spend money to advocate a Yes vote, but it would have made a lot more sense to have begun this information campaign weeks ago.

There is also a serious lack of strategic political management of the Government’s campaign. This is evidenced not least by the timing and mishandling of the controversies around household and water charges. The Government has also failed to shepherd necessary support from civic society into the Yes campaign.

The delay in starting their own campaign has left a vacuum which has been filled by negative voices. There is no evidence to suggest that the stance of union leadership has any effect on how union members vote in referendums like this. The attention given to the deliberations of the various union executive council meetings is therefore disproportionate. That said, the fact that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is, on this occasion, not to call for a Yes vote and that some of the larger unions are advocating rejection of the treaty is symptomatic of a wider problem with the public response to the treaty. This is particularly worrying at a time when the opinion polls suggest that Labour Party supporters in particular are supporting this European treaty in fewer numbers than they have done with previous such treaties.

Right back to the time of former French president Charles de Gaulle’s fall from power, politicians and political scientists have appreciated that the popularity of the government proposing any constitutional referendum has a significant bearing on its prospects for success. More generally therefore, it will be worrying for the Yes side that recent opinion polls have shown such a sharp drop in approval ratings for the current Government and its two party leaders.

The difficulties that the Government have generated for themselves in this referendum have now been compounded by the changing political circumstances on the continental mainland. The collapse of the coalition government in the Netherlands raises concerns about the sustainability of current EU fiscal policy. The electoral exchanges in France raise queries about whether the fiscal treaty will even survive in its current form.

The levels of support for and confusion about this referendum – measured in recent opinions polls – almost mirrors exactly the situation at the same point in advance of both the unsuccessful Nice I and Lisbon I referendums. The outcome is very much in the balance.

The turnout rate in this referendum will be as important as the actual voting intentions. The change in outcome between the first and second Nice referendums and the first and second Lisbon referendums owed more to a transformation in turnout rather than any dramatic shifts in views about the treaty.

The Government promises that their effort for a Yes vote will get into full swing next week. They have a lot of ground to make up.

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