Monday 20 May 2019

Dr Theresa Reidy: All sides fail to get message across

It is becoming increasingly common for large numbers of voters to make up their mind in the final weeks of a campaign. This trend is confirmed in the poll today with 35pc of respondents still in the Don't Know category. There are two important conclusions from such a high figure: the referendum could yet go either way, and the campaign to date has not been very effective at reaching a significant minority of voters.

The primary role of the Referendum Commission is to explain the subject matter of referendum proposals, to promote public awareness and to encourage the electorate to participate.

Putting forward the arguments for and against a proposal is left to the political parties and other individuals and groups active in the campaign. If voter knowledge on the decision being made is low, the campaign is vital to ensure voters can make an informed decision.

One of the striking findings in the opinion poll is the high number of definite Yes and No voters with either a vague or poor understanding of the fiscal treaty.

More than 30pc of the Yes and No camps have arrived at their decision without achieving what they feel themselves is a satisfactory understanding of the treaty. Unsurprisingly, voters who have yet to decide report even higher levels of either a poor or vague understanding of the treaty.

Voters arrive at their decisions through different routes. Some will take the lead of their political party, while others will be influenced by the public pronouncements of groups such as trade unions, farming organisations or churches.

Voter knowledge and trust in the sources of information during the campaign are important in assisting many voters make their decision. There is still an onus on campaign participants to maximise the information available to voters. The current campaign participants face an uphill challenge to reach many undecided voters with just two weeks to go to polling day.

When the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum was defeated last October, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform commissioned research into the reasons behind the decision.

I was a member of the team and we found that large numbers of voters could not recall the arguments for their Yes or No vote and many were uncertain about who had participated in the campaign on either side. It also demonstrated that 30pc of voters did not find any of the sources of information mentioned in the study to be very useful in their decision- making. History repeats itself and many of the same criticisms raised about the Oireachtas Inquiry referendum, and previous referendums, look to be materialising once more.

The campaign for the Fiscal Stability Treaty has been lacklustre and has been heavily skewed towards discussion of the medium-term funding arrangements for the State, not to mention the occasional inclusion of items completely unrelated to the treaty such as septic tank charges and property tax. Much of the content of the treaty has been passed over in the disputes about how Ireland will finance itself in the next two years. Fiscal discipline is dull, even unpleasant, but this does not reduce the obligation on those involved in the campaign to clearly explain the issues.

Finally, we should remember that information is a public good. It does not belong to the Yes or the No side.

The high numbers of people who feel that they do not understand the treaty enough to make an informed decision reflects badly on all participants -- the Yes camp, the No camp, and the Referendum Commission.

Dr Theresa Reidy is a lecturer in the Department of Government at University College Cork

Irish Independent

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