Fri, Jan 15, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Referendum law needs to be reformed to be useful

By Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌

Last Thursday, the Cabinet’s Referendum Review Committee approved the Consumers’ Foundation petition for a referendum on US beef imports by a vote of 16-0.

The proposed referendum has now entered the second stage, which requires 860,000 valid signatures.

Confronted with this situation, Government Information Office Minister Su Jun-pin’s (蘇俊賓) response was that “the Cabinet would respect referendum initiatives launched by civic groups.”

Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) is probably not happy about this, given his comments in a radio interview on Nov. 3 last year, when he said that renewed negotiations were impossible, that the issue wasn’t appropriate for a referendum and that there was too much populism and not enough rational reasoning involved.

Let’s put aside the question of whether the Referendum Review Committee — which last year rejected a petition for a referendum on an economic cooperation and framework agreement (ECFA) with China supported by more than 150,000 signatures — will once again avoid trampling on public opinion because of “concerns over the political situation.”

That was an obvious result, and really is nothing to be happy about. Instead, it would be more worthwhile to consider the more difficult obstacles facing the current referendum proposal — which has now more or less become the wish of the general public — by the current unreasonable referendum law.

Even if the high threshold of 860,000 signatures can be reached, Article 30 of the Referendum Act (公民投票法) stipulates that more than 50 percent of all eligible voters must vote. Unless a referendum were combined with the 2012 presidential elections, that is an insurmountable obstacle.

In reality, however, a presidential election will never be combined with a referendum.

This means that even if a majority supported a referendum, it would still have no chance because of the impossible threshold.

This is no exaggeration. Even the Penghu County gambling referendum, which the government pushed hard to initiate, would very likely have been a futile exercise had it not been for the government’s amendment of the “Outlying Islands Building Regulations (離島建設條例)” to remove restrictions on voter turnout in the referendum law.

This should not dampen the enthusiasm of civic groups, nor does it imply that the outcome of a referendum alone is important, while the process in itself is not.

Instead, civic groups that stand up to the government’s unreasonable arrogance are worthy of great resepct.

The referendum process is important for the further consolidation of Taiwan’s democracy.

However, the spirit and purpose of the referendum system can’t be truly implemented unless the Referendum Act is revised, and only when this mess of a law has been fully reformed will there be reason to cheer.

Huang Kuo-chang is a member of Taiwan Thinktank.


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