Debate worthless without the facts

By Liu Ching-Yi 劉靜怡  / 

Thu, Sep 12, 2013 - Page 8

The ruling party and the biggest opposition party are about to hold a debate on the cross-strait service trade agreement. While the debate is newsworthy as a search for truth and to find solutions for the problems with the agreement, it follows the long-held and incorrect belief that debates are the best way to solve problems. It is a useless debate that should be done away with.

According to media polls, almost 60 percent of Taiwan’s service market is currently open to Chinese investment. Since 2009, the nation’s administrative departments have opened up 162 services in the tertiary sector to Chinese investment by exercising the power granted to them by the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area (兩岸人民關係條例) and the regulations guiding the Taiwanese industries open to Chinese investment on a list drawn up by the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

These 162 services account for two-thirds of those mentioned in the agreement, which was signed at the end of June.

Furthermore, the plan to support trade liberalization and industry adjustments that the government says is worth NT$98 billion (US$3.3 billion) merely takes allocated budgets and repackages them under a new name. It is not a budget for those parts of the service sector affected by the agreement.

Chinese capital has long been invested in all parts of Taiwan and the government has failed to inform the public. The support plan to deal with the agreement, which will affect the economy even more, is a complete sham. The media keep mixing the list of industries open to Chinese investment, a list which could be amended at any time, with the agreement, which is irreversible, and this is not a good thing.

Since 2010, when the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement was signed, there has been debate about how the legislature should monitor and review trade agreements.

However, both the ruling and opposition parties have ignored the constitutional separation of powers and legislative oversight over the executive branch when it comes to trade: whether prior authorization should be required, whether monitoring should be conducted during the negotiation of agreements and whether control should be conducted after an agreement is signed.

Therefore there is an increasing lack of information about trade agreements and it has encouraged the Cabinet to do as it pleases as well as lie habitually. This represents a decay of constitutionalism that no civilized country should put up with. These are also issues pertaining to the establishment and implementation of laws that no nation taking part in a free-trade arrangement can afford to overlook.

Each year, the government spends huge amounts of money researching the WTO legal framework. However, apart from supporting a bunch of experts — who probably have conflicts of interest and always defend the government — the value of this research for the rule of law is debatable.

Given the asymmetric and opaque access to information, the government is content to keep using slogans like “handling things according to the law” and “be civilized and obey the government” to pacify the public.

Since the government wishes to keep the people in the dark, it is little wonder that it is unwilling to make public the records and documents from the 60 rounds of talks on the service trade agreement or that it says things like “the process cannot be made transparent, it is enough if the results are.”

Perhaps the opposition’s willingness to take part in the debate, despite the lack of information, is a cover-up attempt; it never performed its monitoring function. The statement that the debate will “help society rethink the issue” is a lame endorsement of the government’s excessively glorified “opinion platform.”

If the ruling party really wants to let the debate turn into a discussion, the premise must be accurate and there must be universal access to information. Without it, there can be no genuine talks.

Instead of letting the public watch a melodrama in which each side sticks to their own preconceived views, it would be better if the government and the opposition came together and drafted a statute for the signing and monitoring of cross-strait agreements, for laws assessing and responding to the impact of economic liberalization, and set up a system for legislative hearings to create a legal basis for the opinion platform.

Once such a platform has been given a legal basis, the government should give detailed explanations about the impact of the agreement on such things as democracy, human rights, industry, employment, income distribution, culture and national security. It should explain its response strategies and fully accept public challenges.

This would also be in line with the ruling party’s view that the results of talks should be transparent.

Liu Ching-yi is a professor in the Graduate Institute of National Development at National Taiwan University.

Translated by Drew Cameron