The Liberty Times Editorial: Cabinet must stay its own course

Tue, Jan 02, 2018 - Page 8

Former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) authoritarian approach to democratic government from 2014 to 2016 gave rise to a number of movements, including the Sunflower movement.

His shortcomings in governing the country resulted in a weakened pan-blue camp. This created a political climate that was, originally, extremely helpful to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her Democratic Progressive Party, which in 2016 won a legislative majority in addition to the presidency.

Unfortunately, the chaotic way in which the government has tried to drive through reforms and other policy initiatives, biting off more than it can chew at any given time, has left it on the back foot after just more than a year. While she has the majority of seats in the legislature, Tsai has already lost the support of the New Power Party and her government’s public support ratings have suffered.

A number of missteps and her insistence on engaging in dialogue with the people her reforms are going to affect have caused her reform schedule to falter. It has also allowed those who would oppose her reforms to bolster their resolve. All of this has meant that resistance to her reforms, which was entirely avoidable, has been able to develop.

Reform advocates were ready and waiting in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, anticipating civil servant pension reform, the return of illicitly gained party assets and transitional justice — all they wanted from Tsai was the word.

Then, against all expectations, the Tsai administration prevaricated, allowing opponents to her reforms the chance to regroup and rally their forces. A small group of opponents to pension reform in particular were able to take the stage and make their misgivings known, until they managed to rile even working civil servants to action.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-affiliated National Women’s League kept ranting until reform advocates could stand it no longer and the Ministry of the Interior removed Cecilia Koo (辜嚴倬雲) from her position as chairwoman. However, not even this stopped Koo, who continued to loudly declare that the bandits behind unjust transitional justice should be resisted.

The ability to listen is an admirable quality in a leader, but when the time comes, a leader should put their foot down and call the shots. If Tsai had known that her approach to reform would have led to this, she would have gone down another route.

However, it is not just this: The Tsai administration would also do well to note that there is still the economy and the livelihood of the Taiwanese to think about.

The amendments to the Labor Standards Act (勞動基準法) and worsening air quality are both matters that deserve long and careful consideration, yet the government tried to push through measures with a baffling sense of urgency before it had reached agreement across the board on the issues, and ended up conjuring problems for itself out of nothing.

In the meantime, it riled the public and gave room to even more conservative opposition and populist groups to oppose the government’s efforts. Further amendments to the act are supported by 60 percent of the public, but, despite this, both employers and employees are unhappy.

With the air quality issue, China is clearly an external factor, but it is not the only factor: There are also domestic factors giving rise to air pollution, and the issue has evolved into a controversy over electricity capacity and supply, as well as environmental protests, and has devolved into populist clashes, none of which is of any use for safeguarding the health and welfare of the populace.

This kind of civic anger has already taken on a nature quite different from the anti-reform movement. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a new challenge for the Tsai administration.

Again, everyone has an opinion; not all opinions are of equal merit. It is the leader’s job to make the tough decisions.

Reforms target a small minority of vested interests. If they are vigorously and resolutely pushed through, reforms will receive majority support and can be used to adjust an unreasonable distribution of benefits so that they benefit all people. Reform of military personnel, civil servant and public-school teacher pensions, as well as returning ill-gotten party assets to the public are examples.

Such reforms would do much to improve the standing of the Tsai administration, but unfortunately, the government has wasted time, with the result that public enthusiasm and support have died down. Transitional justice has been cast as a score-settling tool by supporters of the old authoritarian system.

The next battle will be the economy and the standard of living. Industrial economy, employment, wages, housing prices, the low birth rate, air pollution and even ill-intended attacks on Taiwan from the other side of the Taiwan Strait: Success or failure in these areas will have a direct effect on public opinion.

The Tsai administration must think before acting, work hard and show real results. That is the only way it could improve its popularity — and next year’s local elections will be a test on how things are going.

As it stands, air pollution has re-emerged as a major issue and the government must deal with it carefully, as it affects everyone’s health. There is little the government can do about the portion that comes from China, but in terms of the things that it does have control over, the government should not allow them to become politicized and should make the right decision based on scientific evidence.

At the moment, certain political parties, populist groups and politicians hoping to run in next year’s elections have portrayed air pollution as a problem that can easily be fixed by reducing the power output from coal-fired power plants. Proponents of such plans are urging the government to amend the law, but have said nothing about how to maintain stability of power supply and electricity prices.

If the Tsai administration were to follow their advice without thinking, it would end up with more problems and a NT$30,000 minimum wage would remain a distant dream.

Air pollution offers a good opportunity for the Tsai administration to win more public support, as the issue affects everyone and policies addressing it would have tangible results. However, if the administration allows itself to get caught up in the populist discourse that pits electricity against air pollution, it could make the same mistake of complicating things and allowing problems to drag on.

As Taiwan’s democracy becomes stronger, public expectations for quality of life will only get higher. With lower thresholds for holding recall elections and referendums, civic groups will only become more active.

A party that controls the Presidential Office, as well as the legislature in a vibrant democracy can never be like the Chinese Communist Party, which is even going so far as to control its people using facial recognition technology.

However, the Tsai administration must not be indecisive. It must be confident and stick to the right policy, rather than allow itself to be too easily affected by opinions and pressure from different interest groups.

The right policies should be designed based on scientific evidence and the government should understand this well.

It should be resolute — knowing the full effects its policies will have on the nation — and should always be ready to convince the public with reason as it leads the nation in the right direction.

Translated by Paul Cooper and Tu Yu-an