Ten years after Lin Yi-hsiung (林義雄) completed a third 1,000km walk demanding a referendum on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), the Presidential Office and the Cabinet have finally given the nod to holding a referendum on whether to stop construction of the plant. However, given the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) longstanding opposition to holding such a referendum, we should be careful not to dance to the party’s tune uncritically.
The jury is still out on whether this is a goodwill gesture or a sugarcoated poison pill.
The first question is how such a referendum should be designed. It could be a specific question: If voters agree that construction should stop or if it should be continued. It could also be a non-specific question.
The reason this issue must be discussed is that Article 30 of the Referendum Act (公民投票法) stipulates that more than half of all eligible voters must vote, and more than half of all valid ballots must be in support of a referendum for it to be passed. So, if less than half of all eligible voters turn out to vote on a referendum, it will not pass.
Suppose the referendum question posed is whether to halt construction of the plant. If the referendum is arranged quickly, voters get insufficient information on the subject and do not understand the issue, and are therefore unable to make an informed decision. This may cause less willingness to vote, and insufficient turnout means the referendum will not be passed. The government could then claim to be justified in continuing construction.
If the government is serious about holding a referendum, then all information pertaining to the benefits and shortcomings of the plant, to nuclear safety and economic risk, must be made public. This information must be thoroughly discussed in a public process, and then rebroadcast and republished in the media.
The public must also be given time to understand and absorb this information before a referendum can be held, to avoid irregularities and possible manipulation.
Finally, based on the sensitivity of the issue and the government’s low credibility on it in the eyes of the public, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) should appoint a group of experts and upstanding members of society to form a committee to be in charge of handling all the preparatory work leading up to the referendum.
This must include all the compilation and publication of information, the preparation and execution of the public hearing process and dissemination of information about the referendum procedure, as well as formulating the referendum question to be voted on.
This committee should only hand their work to the Central Election Commission once the process touches on electoral matters directly related to the execution of the referendum. This is the only way to build credibility, and it would avoid accusations of being both player and referee when the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Taiwan Power Co and parties opposed to nuclear power try to influence voters before the referendum is held.
The decision to hold a referendum should be affirmed.
The government has already made a preliminary decision to hold one on the issue and it should now offer an explanation for all the abovementioned issues. In addition, surely putting construction of the plant on hold while asking for further budgetary funds to continue construction is the logical thing to do.
Chan Shun-kuei is a lawyer and chairman of the Environmental Jurists Association.
Translated by Perry Svensson