News Comment

Friday 9 December 2016

Not exactly what it says on the tin

Is the Commission that is charged with independent oversight of forthcoming referendums telling voters the full story, asks John Waters

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30

Mr Justice, Kevin Cross, chairperson, of the commission, at the launch of the public information campaign on the referendums. Photo: Damien Eagers
Mr Justice, Kevin Cross, chairperson, of the commission, at the launch of the public information campaign on the referendums. Photo: Damien Eagers

It is well established that up to half of voters make their minds up about the issues in the final week of a referendum campaign, and that a critical element in assisting many voters to a conclusion is the widely distributed literature of the Referendum Commission. Such material enjoys widespread credibility because it retains a strong aura of independence and neutrality. For the Commission to deviate from its established practice of providing non-aligned, dispassionate information about constitutional amendment would be a deeply dismaying development for our democracy.

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While reminding would-be voters that the Constitution does not define marriage, the leaflet asserts that "the constitutional status" of marriage "will remain unchanged". This is probably true, but it is not the point. The real issues arise in the context of the Constitution's treatment of a different concept: Family. Whereas the Referendum Commission quotes from the constitutional provisions in respect of "The Family", it makes no reference to the likely consequences for this entity if the amendment is passed, thereby implying either that "marriage" and "family" are coterminous or that there are no constitutional implications for the definition of family if the amendment is passed. Either inference would be wrong.

Actually, the Commission is not entitled to say that the constitutional status of marriage will remain unchanged. This will be one of the key disputed points in the coming debate, and a matter for each voter to decide.

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