independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Government should butt out of information drive next time

SPOT the difference. The Government has only run two referendum information campaigns and has been found by the highest court in the land to have "acted wrongfully" this time out.

The Referendum Commission has been running campaigns for 15 separate referendums and has never been hauled across the coals by the Supreme Court.

Memo to Government: leave it to the professionals.

The commission guards its independence and goes out of its way to remain impartial -- even if this means at times its information is turgid.

But its own past record is not without its flaws. Since 2001, it no longer has the role of putting the arguments for and against referendum proposals.

This change followed the confusion caused by the pros and cons being outlined in a referendum that year.

And there was the Lisbon I advertising campaign with the half-bodies walking around, which was interpreted by voters as half the information being kept back.

That campaign also saw Judge Iarflaith O'Neill get a hard time for struggling to explain the minutiae of the document at a press conference.

All told though, the Referendum Commission has carried out its role with integrity.

It has frequently complained about the short amount of time provided to run an information campaign.

Over the years, various chairpersons of the commission have recommended the information campaign be handled by a permanent electoral body.

However, there are still some advantages to the Referendum Commission over the Government's campaign.

It is chaired by a sitting or former senior judge, picked by the Chief Justice, providing an incontestable level of independence.

The four other members are permanent fixtures -- the Clerks of the Dail and Seanad, the Ombudsman and the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The secretariat to the Commission is provided by the Office of the Ombudsman and the communications advice has been provided by the same PR company for several years.

As a result, an intellectual memory has built up, so the people in place know what has worked on previous occasions -- and what won't.

The Government argues it acted "in good faith" with its information campaign.

Political analysts believe the Government's botched campaign undermined the Referendum Commission's efforts.

"The idea of one strong independent source of reliable information is diluted because there are now two guides and two websites. People think the commission's is the Government's and vice versa," an observer said.

In a fit of pique after losing the Oireachtas inquiries referendum a year ago, the Government decided it would carry out its own information campaign.

The result has been a disaster and done damage to the good name of independent campaigns built up over the years.

Hopefully, the Government will butt out next time.

Irish Independent

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