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Aug 28, 2009

ECFA referendum request rejected

Lōa Io̍k-sin of the Taipei Times has the story of the day, which is being overshadowed the usual gossip and, of course, the Dalai Lama's impending visit. But I find this committee's 13-4 decision shocking and really didn't see this coming. Key paragraphs below.

The Executive Yuan's Referendum Review Committee yesterday turned down a petition submitted by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) asking for a referendum on the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) that the government plans to sign with China....

The majority of committee members felt that the question in the referendum petition was not clear enough,” committee chairman Chao Yung-mau (趙永茂) told a news conference after the meeting. “It does not ask the public to express its opinion on a proposal of a legislative principle, a major policy decision, or concrete issues of a major policy.”

Instead, it asks the public to vote on something that has not yet happened — since the ECFA is not a concrete policy yet. Hence, we decided that the petition did not meet the criteria for a referendum as stipulated in the Referendum Act (公民投票法),” he said....

Holding a referendum on whether a referendum should be held is not a question that can be asked in a referendum as stipulated in the Referendum Act,” Chao said.

The committee is composed 100% of Ma appointees. But could it be that politics is not the main factor here? To evaluate how reasonable this decision is, we have to take another look at the referendum wording:

Do you agree that the government ought to put an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) signed between Taiwan and China to a referendum before the Taiwanese people?
The DPP got a lot of flack for this phrasing -- it simply asks people if they want a referendum later instead of asking people if they want an ECFA outright -- but in retrospect, you could also say they predicted the committee's objections!

Instead of trying to reject a hypothetical ECFA, the referendum asks if the public wants the government to submit this future agreement to referendum. That wording seems to override committee objections, being both clear and asking the public to make a concrete policy decision -- specifically, whether the public should have direct oversight of the final wording of the ECFA.

The final objection, that you can't hold a referendum on whether there should be a referendum, seems to me to not be addressed by the Referendum Act at all, and is a subjective reading of the statute. To reach that conclusion, you'd have to argue that referendum oversight is not a concrete issue of a major policy.

There is one sense in which the DPP question may be unclear -- namely, that if the ECFA that is signed between Taiwan and China and then goes to referendum, what happens if the public rejects it? The ECFA would already be signed. Does it have to be shredded? That's clearly the DPP intent, though the referendum wording does not specify the end game.

More from the article:
National Taiwan University law professor Chen Miao-fen (陳妙芬), who voted in favor of the petition, said that she did not endorse the committee's conclusion.

“We didn't have a thorough discussion before the chairman called a vote on it,” Chen said, adding that while the meeting started at 2pm, they did not start discussing details of the proposal until around 3:30pm and that Chao rushed to close the discussion and call a vote at 5:30pm.

“We voted on whether to close the discussion, and the result was 9 to 9, meaning that half of the people still thought that we needed more time,” she said. “But the chairman ruled to end the discussion — I thought it was quite abrupt.”
Democratic process at work!
The DPP is expected to file an appeal.
That appeal, would go to the Central Election Commission.


STOP Ma said...

Again, this referendum on a referendum idea was a complete waste of effort and a ridiculous conception -- making the DPP look bad, politically.

Instead, put together a REAL referendum (when the time is right) on the ECFA agreement itself. If the referendum passes the criteria, then it is the KMT that will look bad rejecting it.

Pulling political stunts like this is an approach to continued failure (unless you have the media behind you -- which the DPP does not).

Get it together, guys! Sheesh.

Thomas said...

While I can't say I am opposed to everything you say, Stop Ma, I think the real point of this post is the way in which this referendum proposal was rejected and not the question of whether or not the referendum is a waste of time.

I find it particularly odd that the committee objected to the idea of holding a referendum on a "something that has not yet happened".

Rejecting a referendum on these grounds indicates that referendums can only be reactive in nature. The electorate can never propose a course of action, and it cannot head off any government action that has not been formally written down. So, hypothetically, the government could forumulate and enact any unpopular action in secret, such as an act of unification with China. Any reaction by referendum would take months to organize, by which time any ruling by referendum would be meaningless.

I also disagree with the claim that the ECFA is not a policy issue. It may not be set in stone yet, but it is enough of a policy issue already for the government to publish cute, stereotype-laden cartoons to promote it. I would argue that if the ECFA is not worth formulating a referendum over, then the ECFA is not worth promoting either.

Loa Iok-sin said...

Somehow I think the DPP is not so sincere about stopping the ECFA with the referendum, because the question is ambiguous to me. Another professor (can't think of his name at the moment) had launched another ECFA referendum campaign which asks the question "do you agree that the government signs the ECFA with China?" The question was much more clear, and if not enough people voted on it--like what happened to all referenda in the past--it would be a de facto rejection of the ECFA. I've asked a DPP official--who is also a personal friend--why the DPP decided to have its own version instead of using the professor's referendum proposal, well, he never answered the question. One answer that would only make sense--as far as I can think of--is that the DPP isn't sincere about it, they knew their own proposal would be rejected, and they knew that even if their referendum makes it to poll station it would not pass and the ECFA would be signed anyways, and all these events could build up momentum for the DPP to launch a political warfare against the KMT. I hope I was wrong though.