On Thursday, the Cabinet’s Referendum Review Committee rejected a referendum proposal on an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA). After some media outlets and members of the public had directed strong attacks against a referendum, many members of the Referendum Review Committee also raised doubts over the issue, resulting in the expectation by many that the proposal would be rejected.
However, such a referendum would be very significant for Taiwan’s democracy for the following reasons: An ECFA will not only influence trade and economic issues, it will also affect national sovereignty, labor, gender, environmental and public health issues. Putting the pact to a referendum would make relevant information more transparent and encourage the public to think carefully about it. According to the Referendum Act (公民投票法), once a referendum has been announced, both those who proposed it and those who oppose it can establish their own offices to promote their views. In addition, the Central Election Commission is required to hold at least five information meetings or debates on the issue on national free-to-air television stations. This makes it clear that staging a referendum is not simply a matter of voting; but, more importantly, it is an important democratic process that will encourage the exchange and review of ideas and opinions.
Especially worthy of attention is the fact that one of the main disputes over the ECFA policy is that government information has not been transparent. If an ECFA referendum were passed at a later stage, the government would have to release more information to help the public make a well-informed and rational decision. However, as the referendum proposal was turned down, the government will be able to continue to make major decisions without having to follow the principles of openness and transparency.
An important procedural point to be remembered is that the democratic legitimacy of the Referendum Review Committee is very weak because all of its members are appointed without legislative approval. The idea of allowing such an organization to decide whether or not a proposal for a direct democracy procedure is valid is dubious at best and could well be in breach of the Constitution. Given the current system, the decisions made by the Referendum Review Committee should aspire to a higher degree of objectivity by following the example of the Council of Grand Justices, which issues reasons for their decisions that are signed by the justices supporting the decision.
In addition, the Referendum Review Committee should allow those members who do not agree with a decision to issue a dissenting opinion. By publicizing both supporting and dissenting opinions, the committee would be held to a higher level of accountability.
For these reasons, we believe an ECFA referendum would be of great significance for democratic deliberation and implementation in that it would help Taiwanese consider future prospects for cross-strait relations. An ECFA referendum cannot possibly hurt Taiwan’s democracy. Since the Referendum Review Committee, a body lacking in democratic legitimacy, rejected the proposal, it will lead to further political division and make it harder to encourage the public to deal rationally with China. The people should have a final say on which policies they think will benefit them most. The true value of democracy lies in the fact that decisions by the government must not be allowed to replace decisions made by the public.