Friday 24 May 2019

It's no wonder voters are cynical about politics

Children wait for the results of the same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin Castle last week.
Photo: Mark Condren
Children wait for the results of the same-sex marriage referendum at Dublin Castle last week. Photo: Mark Condren

Theresa Reidy

The bizarre referendum on the age of presidential candidates was resoundingly defeated last week. The proposal now has the ignominious status of having been defeated by the largest margin of any referendum to date.

The Government's record on its political reforms is terrible. All three political reform referendums have now failed (Oireachtas Inquiries, Seanad Abolition and the Age of Presidential Candidates). Its legal system reforms all passed, along with the social change referendums and the Fiscal Compact.

The Government was elected, in part, on a platform of political reform and its decision to establish the Constitutional Convention to deliberate on political reform issues was brave and commendable.

The Convention was a very impressive body and the commitment of the citizens who participated was exemplary. They were asked to look at eight policy areas and they added further items to their agenda at the end of the process.

They produced an extensive list of recommendations including a great many proposals for constitutional change.

The age of presidential candidates was one of the items on the list of recommendations, but without doubt it was the single most inconsequential one.

The Convention recommended changes to create a more open nomination process for presidential elections, remove blasphemy from the Constitution, lower the voting age to 16, and to remove gender-specific language from the Constitution.

From this long list of potential changes, the Government chose reducing the age of presidential candidates.

The Convention also recommended extending voting rights to Irish citizens living abroad. If nothing else, the huge flow of citizens into Ireland to vote last Friday speaks to the urgent need to address that anomalous situation. Ireland is one of the few European countries that does not provide some form of voting rights for its citizens living abroad.

It is now clear that the only constitutional proposal from the Constitutional Convention which will be implemented during the lifetime of this Government is marriage equality. And that was on the agenda before the Convention was established.

The proposal on the age of presidential candidates was tokenistic. It was never going to do anything to address the big challenges of involving young people in politics and addressing disillusion.

Lowering the voting age would have been a much stronger proposal and one which might have started a serious conversation about young people in politics. Even with an existing age threshold of 35 for presidential candidates, the youngest president ever elected was 46.

Even if you could get beyond choosing the age of presidential candidates as the referendum to run alongside marriage equality, the actions of the Government during the campaign were dishonourable.

Having chosen the proposal, the Government had an obligation to make an effort to inform the electorate and explain why they believed it merited consideration. They did not.

In fact, they ignored the proposal throughout the campaign. It was clear from the very start of the campaign that the Government considered the issue inconsequential. The minister with responsibility for political reform, Brendan Howlin, indicated that he might vote against it himself.

The Government appears to ignore cause and effect when it comes to voter cynicism about politics.

There is a growing disconnect between citizens and the body politic. At times, it can appear as though there is a visceral hatred of politicians among sections of the electorate. Trust in parliament, politicians and political parties have all declined in the last decade.

Citizens' expectations of what the State can, and should do, have not been met. Choosing to treat constitutional change in a trivial manner will reinforce the perception that the Government is not committed to meaningful political reform.

It also reduces the platform which the Government has when it comes to persuading voters that they must take constitutional change seriously and come out to vote on political reform referendums.

The best argument that has been advanced for why the referendum went ahead in the first place is a strategic attempt to address second-order effects.

Essentially, the Government wanted disillusioned voters to vote against the candidate age proposal and thereby vent any irritation towards the Government while supporting the important constitutional change, marriage equality.

And they wonder why voters are cynical.

The last thing to think about is that constitutional referendums cost money. The marriage-equality referendum was going ahead anyway so some costs were already committed, but each additional referendum costs additional money.

Ballots must be printed, distributed and counted. The Referendum Commission had to produce material on the referendum question and the age of presidential candidates was included in all their promotion campaigns. Indeed, the Referendum Commission made a valiant effort to alert voters that there was a second referendum taking place.

Democracy costs money so on its own, this is not an argument against holding a referendum.

However, there were many other questions that needed addressing and many other areas of our political system that need investment.

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

Irish Independent

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