EDITORIAL : Committee should not muzzle public

Wed, Jun 02, 2010 - Page 8

In a democracy, public servants — by definition — are employees hired by taxpayers to serve public interests. They exist as agents to attend to the collective concerns of the people, not the other way around, such as acting in their own interests, hijacking the people’s rights and deciding for the people what they can ask the civil service to do and not to do.

Such absurdity appears to be brewing in Taiwan as an appeal petitioned by about 200,000 people is now on the brink of being rejected by a handful of public servants who are supposed to serve them, thanks to the birdcage Referendum Act (公民投票法), which is known for its unreasonably high threshold needed to launch a referendum drive and the establishment of a so-called Referendum Review Committee that screens people’s voices.

The Referendum Act stipulates that a referendum proposal, after completing the first stage of collecting signatures from 0.5 percent of eligible voters in the last presidential election, must obtain approval from the Referendum Review Committee before it can proceed to the next stage of collecting signatures from 5 percent of that same number. It must then pass a second review before making it to the polling stations.

In accordance with the law, the Executive Yuan’s 21-member Referendum Review Committee is slated to meet tomorrow and decide whether a proposed question put forward by the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) on the government’s planned trade pact with China conforms to the requirements for a valid referendum proposal.

Citing anonymous sources, local media yesterday reported that the committee, in line with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) stance on the planned cross-strait trade pact, is likely to reject the TSU’s proposed referendum, which asks the question: “Do you agree that the government should sign an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China?”

Leading up to tomorrow’s committee meeting, there has also been a media report quoting anonymous sources from the Ma administration and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as saying that China has privately expressed its views to Taiwan on the proposed ECFA referendum, saying that holding such a public vote would have “impacts on cross-strait developments.”

While it comes as no surprise that authoritarian China dislikes the people having their voices heard, it would be an utter sham on the part of the Ma administration if it were to toe Beijing’s line and reject the TSU’s proposed referendum. It would be equally despicable if the Referendum Review Committee likewise toes Ma’s political line and chooses to rebuff the voices of the 200,000 people its members serve.

Ma himself has praised Taiwan’s democracy many times; what better way to demonstrate Taiwan’s democracy than having its citizens take part in developing national policy through a direct vote? After all, what is the Ma administration afraid of? If an ECFA with Beijing were indeed as beneficial as Ma and his government officials say, wouldn’t a referendum on the planned pact serve as a great opportunity for Ma to prove himself correct and his critics wrong?

All eyes are now on the Referendum Review Committee and it is to be hoped that the committee will act in the interests of the public rather than working to muzzle people’s voices and leave a stain on the nation’s record in consolidating its democracy.