Communication challenges in a referendum
The decision by Government to hold a referendum on the Fiscal Treaty came as something of a surprise.
Many commentators believed that the narrowly framed Fiscal Treaty had been framed so as to avoid the need for Ireland to hold a referendum. The reasons for the decision to do so remain unclear, but may be on the basis that the Attorney General could not give a 100% guarantee to the Government that the Treaty would stand up to a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court.
Less than a week since the decision was announced, and already the politicians are giving mixed messages about the Treaty; from the Tanaiste’s stated ‘there will be no second referendum’ to the Taoiseach apparently leaving the door open for Fiscal 2 if we don’t pass the forthcoming referendum. And, despite the Taoiseach’s assertion that we would not be bribed, more than one Minister has suggested that a deal on bank debt should be sought in order to make it easier for voters to vote Yes.
This is a weak start to the Government’s campaign for a Yes Vote. If any lessons have been learned from Nice 1 & 2; Lisbon 1 & 2 and even the most recently failed Referendum on the 39th Amendment to the Constitution (Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries) Bill 2011, it is that there must be consistent, clear and cohesive messages from all parties in Government and that an active communications campaign must be undertaken.
The electorate is intelligent and want to hear and debate the issues involved. Complacency on the part of the Government will be punished and the void will be filled by very active No campaigners.
This was the clearly the case in the Referendum on the Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries Bill where the Government, perhaps caught up in the Presidential campaign, took its eye of the ball and assumed the Referendum would be passed without demur. As a result they failed to deal quickly and clearly with the real concerns of voters concerning privacy and potential ‘kangaroo courts’. The Referendum on Judges Pay, easier and simpler to understand was passed by the electorate without much debate. However the more complex issue of Oireachtas inquiries required more substantial debate and leadership which the Government failed to deliver.
It was also clear in that Referendum that the Referendum Commission failed to do its job properly. The Commission is charged with explaining the subject matter of referendum proposals, to promote public awareness of the referendum and to encourage the electorate to vote at the poll.
A report by an expert panel comprised of Dr Jane Suiter (UCC), Prof Michael Marsh (TCD), Dr Teresa Reidy (UCC) and Richard Colwell (Red C) found that “overall, the numbers of people unable to explain why they voted ‘no’ beyond saying they did not know what the referendum was about is remarkable, and would seem to reflect poorly on the effectiveness of the campaign itself.”
The Commission launched its campaign on October 11th just 16 days before polling day. The shortness of the campaign clearly impacted in terms of providing the Commission with adequate time to do its work in
informing the public.
Speaking in Brussels on Friday 2nd March, the Taoiseach said: “I really want to have a very open, thorough and comprehensive discussion with the people about this [Fiscal Treaty Referendum], so that everybody understands just how important their decision is in regard to Ireland’s future and our people’s future, because that is what it is about.”
If he is to achieve that, then he must:
- Ensure that all members of Government – whether backbenchers or at the Cabinet table read and understand the Fiscal Treaty
- Develop an easy to understand and cogent argument which appeals to voters
- Identify the issues likely to be of most concern to voters and address these in a comprehensive way
- Respond quickly to misinformation with clear and effective statements of fact
- Motivate civil society to actively engage in the Fiscal Treaty Referendum. A key feature of Lisbon 2 was the number of civil and business organisations which actively entered into debate and campaigned on the Referendum
- Provide adequate time and resources to the Referendum Commission to allow the Commission to explain fully to voters what the referendum is about
- Recognise that large scale household leaflet drops will not achieve much. The diversity of communications channels which now exist – both traditional and new – must all be utilised to inform the electorate and generate debate
The Taoiseach and his Government must lead an aggressive and sustained communications campaign if they are to achieve a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum.