EDITORIAL: The president’s ambush strategy

Mon, May 07, 2012 - Page 8

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) seems to have developed a habit of making major policy announcements late at night.

On April 25, he held a closed-door meeting with top officials to discuss a proposed capital gains tax on security transactions. The Presidential Office then issued a statement at midnight saying the government had finalized its version of the tax proposal which the Cabinet would submit to the legislature for approval. The Ma administration hoped its proposal would end disputes over the issue by levying a tax of between 15 percent and 20 percent on individual investors who earn a net NT$4 million (US$136,054) or more annually from trading in shares, initial public offerings and the beneficiary certificates of private equity funds.

Although the plan raised the tax exemption threshold from the Ministry of Finance’s initial NT$3 million proposal, many professionals remained unhappy with the final version. Critics also questioned the administration’s failure to think the matter through and called the late-night announcement an ambush.

The president engaged in another late-night maneuver when he called an impromptu press conference at 10pm on Tuesday to announce that the government had decided to stagger the introduction of new electricity rates starting in June.

That announcement, following a three-hour meeting between the president and senior officials, was a major about-face in the wake of widespread public anger at the original plan that foresaw the full price increase being introduced on May 15.

In defending the abrupt change, Ma said the government “had heard the voice of the people and felt the people’s pain.” The announcement left many confused because the president had previously said it was necessary to stick to the scheduled price hike, despite growing opposition, and called for public understanding of the problems faced by government.

The president, while often criticized for his slow response to public opinion, is good at surprising people with the speed at which he changes his mind.

He did the same thing last month, amid the ongoing debate on the import of US beef products containing ractopamine, when the Executive Yuan issued a late-night press release on March 5 saying the government was considering lifting the ban on US beef containing the feed additive. Ma, who has repeatedly stressed his administration’s neutral stance on the issue, changed his tone when commenting on the policy, saying that no evidence had been produced to indicate that the feed additive is harmful to humans.

The origin of Ma’s late-night ambush strategy can be traced back to before his re-election. In November last year, he overturned the Cabinet’s pension plan for farmers by announcing the government would increase the monthly stipend for elderly farmers by NT$1,000, rather than the NT$316 proposed earlier.

The change of heart came exactly one month after the Cabinet announced its decision and Ma, who had previously dismissed calls for an increase in the stipend, said the change was made in response to public opinion.

Regardless of the context of these policies and whether they reflect the government’s reform efforts, the administration’s seemingly capricious policymaking is undermining its reputation and losing the public’s trust.

Ma will be sworn in for a second term on May 20. If he is interested in leaving behind a worthwhile legacy as he vowed after being re-elected on Jan. 14, he must stop ambushing the Taiwanese and reflect carefully on policy decision before making public announcements that need to be changed weeks later. Responding quickly to public opinion and formulating policies that benefit a majority of Taiwanese are the only ways for Ma and his administration to earn back the people’s trust.