“Proceed with all matters in accordance with the law” has been one of the favorite slogans of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to demonstrate his impartiality and respect for law and order.
One recent move by the Ma administration, however, far from embodied that statement and appeared rather to be an underhanded attempt by the president to embellish his image as the former mayor of Taipei.
During Ma’s term as mayor, the Taipei City Government engaged in a long-running dispute with the central government over backpayments on labor and health insurance. The case involved NT$10.8 billion (US$321.9 million) in health insurance premiums and NT$9.9 billion in labor insurance subsidies incurred from the second half of 1999 to the end of 2002 by workers in Taipei who had failed to transfer their household registration.
After a series of legal battles with the Bureau of National Health Insurance, a Supreme Administrative Court ruled last year that the city government had to pay off debt accrued between 1999 and 2002. The court also ordered 52 city-owned plots of land to be confiscated, many situated in prime business areas.
In a recent visit to the Department of Health, however, Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) requested that the issue of National Health Insurance (NHI) subsidy debts owed by the Taipei City Government be separated from the land confiscations.
In one sentence, the government appeared to snub a court decision, as if it were permissible for the executive to overturn court rulings.
The premier’s directive was not only unfair to other local governments that have been making their payments on time, but it also raised questions about the interests of the parties involved — Yeh Ching-chuan (葉金川), who was director of the Taipei City Government’s health bureau when Ma was mayor, is now health minister, and Ma is Liu’s boss.
Data from the NHI Bureau shows that subsidy debts owed by local governments total NT$54.4 billion, with the Taipei City Government alone owing NT$29.4 billion.
While the Kaohsiung City Government has introduced an eight-year plan to reimburse its health insurance subsidy debts, the Taipei City Government has none.
If such a precedent is allowed, with a premier mothballing a court decision and no plan by a city government detailing how it intends to pay off its debt, one wonders how long it will take before similar strategies are used elsewhere.
In light of the recent uproar over the safety of the Maokong Gondola — which Ma often claimed to be one of his achievements as mayor — the president could be tempted to employ similar tactics to clean up the mess.
It is one thing for a government to announce its commitment to the law. It is quite another when the wording of law becomes malleable depending on who is in power.