Although it sparked an angry response on Thursday night, the Executive Yuan’s Referendum Review Committee’s decision to turn down a proposal by the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) for a referendum on an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China wasn’t exactly a surprise.
In fact, months ago members of the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan were telling this newspaper that they did not expect the referendum proposal would be accepted, even if it was perfectly legal and met all relevant benchmarks.
While this could be construed as a cynical, if not politicized, reason for submitting a proposal to the committee, it also reflects the current state of affairs in Taiwan, whereby the ability to keep the government honest and, when necessary, in check, is seemingly under assault.
While the current legal threshold for holding a referendum is unworkably high, there is every indication that even meeting those requirements under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration would be insufficient to derail or, at minimum, slow down, a process that has developed in a largely undemocratic fashion.
Shooting down the proposal on the grounds that it addresses a matter the content of which is unknown is an insult to everybody’s intelligence, as the only reason the content of the agreement is unknown is that the negotiations have been conducted in secret.
The TSU has said that it intends to resubmit a proposal, but by this point doing so is more a matter of further discrediting the Ma administration than an honest effort to secure a referendum.
With the referendum option for all intents and purposes dead in the water, the last remaining democratic tool to ensure that an ECFA meets the nation’s needs and does not undermine its sovereignty is the legislature. Following comments by the Chinese foreign ministry earlier this week that Beijing would not allow Taiwan to sign free-trade agreements with other countries after an ECFA is inked — one of Ma’s main selling points on the matter — it is now more important than ever that there be some form of monitoring of the executive and non-elected officials involved in negotiations with Beijing on the trade pact.
Sadly, though, the one person who has the power to ensure that the legislature remains a credible check on the executive appears to have abdicated his responsibilities. Granted, given the pan-blue camp majority in the legislature, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) faces a tremendous challenge in making this body more than a rubber-stamp for the executive.
However, for an ECFA to be legitimate and acceptable to an increasingly skeptical public, bipartisan, chapter-by-chapter debate on the contents of the trade pact — and revisions, where revisions are needed — is imperative. Wang himself, quoting a Council of Grand Justices statement, has said that an ECFA is not a treaty, but rather an “administrative agreement,” which means that the legislature has, under the Constitution, the power to make amendments. (If it were a treaty, the legislature could only say “yes” or “no” to a piecemeal document.) Interestingly, while Washington has limited means by which to exert pressure on the Taiwanese executive, it has far more influence at the legislative level and could pressure, if not counsel, Wang and his aides.
Whether this materializes is largely contingent on Wang deciding to use his authority, even if this entails picking a fight with the executive. A legislature that avoids battles with the executive — which is pretty much what it has done since Ma came to power more than two years ago — is not doing its job.
The very raison d’etre of a legislative body is its contentiousness. Unless it is to go the way of the referendum drive, Wang’s legislature must take its responsibilities more seriously.
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