THE Department of Children has been sharply criticised for creating “confusion” in the minds of voters in the run-up to last November’s referendum on children’s rights.
The Referendum Commission said that not only did the decision by Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald to publish an information booklet create confusion, it was also a waste of money and “difficult to justify”.
The Referendum Commission was created on September 19 last, two days after the proposed text for the referendum was published, and was chaired by High Court judge Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan.
Its function is to set out the changes to the constitution proposed in a fair and impartial manner, to produce information booklets and promote public awareness of the campaign.
However, the Department of Children published a second information booklet, which was criticised by the Supreme Court which ruled it was “not fair, equal or impartial”.
The decision, handed down the day before polling, found the Government had “acted wrongfully” producing a booklet costing €1.1m which breached the McKenna judgment, which held public money should not be spent to promote a particular side in a referendum campaign.
The Referendum Commission was allocated just €1.9m for its information campaign.
A report into the campaign published this morning said a survey taken after the poll found that 41pc of voters did not understand the referendum “particularly well” or “at all”.
“The publication of two guides from State sources created a risk of confusion in the minds of voters and placed an added burden on voters trying to understand the referendum proposal,” it said.
“It also meant there was costly duplication of the efforts of the Commission.
“The burden of two guides to read may also deter from reading even one. The cost of distributing two guides is difficult to justify. When a commission is appointed, it should be permitted to perform its statutory functions of explaining the referendum proposal in an impartial and neutral manner without the potential confusion of a second publicly-funded campaign.”
Voter turnout at just 33.5pc was the lowest since the first commission was established in 1998, which was a “matter of concern”, it continued, adding that the commission should be given at least four weeks to prepare an information guide before a polling date was fixed.