In an abrupt change of policy, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration announced yesterday that it would increase the monthly subsidy for elderly farmers by NT$1,000 (US$33), abandoning the previously proposed NT$316 increase in the wake of criticism from across party lines.
The subsidy for farmers aged 65 and above will be increased from the current NT$6,000 a month to NT$7,000, which is what the Democratic Progressive Party caucus had initially proposed.
The increase will be adjusted every four years and the eight types of subsidies for the elderly, the disabled and low-income families will also be raised, with the increase ranging from 16.67 percent to 33.27 percent, according to the central government.
The change of heart came exactly one month after Ma said the monthly subsidy for farmers aged 65 and over would be increased by NT$316 to reflect the 5.27 percent average increase in the consumer price index over the past four years since the pension plan was last adjusted in 2007.
At the time, Ma defended the budget plan as a measure to prevent farmers from becoming targets for “political bidding” during election campaigns.
Ma yesterday acknowledged that the previous version had sparked accusations from various groups of insufficient assistance for farmers and other minority groups.
Ma said he decided to call for a meeting to discuss the issue on Thursday night after meeting with Taiwan Organization for Disadvantaged Patients secretary-general Yang Yu-hsing (楊玉欣) and other civic groups earlier that day to talk about subsidy programs for civic groups.
“They told me that many social welfare subsidies haven’t been adjusted for 10 to 18 years and suggested that the government should make up for the shortfall, so that the systemized subsidy programs would help more people, and they persuaded me of their case,” he said on the sidelines of a campaign event in Taipei City.
Ma promised to make the subsidy programs fair while systematizing them, and said the new version would help those who are really in need.
“Only by seeking fairness in the programs will discrimination be eliminated in society, and systematizing the subsidy programs will also prevent the payments from becoming a tool during election campaigns. The adjustment has been made under the same goals,” he added.
The meeting between Ma and Yang was arranged one day after the latter was nominated by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) on Wednesday as a legislator-at-large candidate amid the party’s efforts to accentuate minority issues.
Ma then held a closed-door meeting with Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), Cabinet officials and KMT officials on Thursday night to finalize the new version of the subsidy programs.
According to the proposed plan, the Council of Agriculture will spend an extra NT$8.24 billion in next year’s budget on farmers’ subsidies, while the total for the eight social welfare subsidies next year will be NT$12.3 billion.
The plan will still include an “anti-rich” clause, whereby applicants with an annual income of more than NT$500,000 from non-agricultural sources or who own non-agricultural real estate worth NT$5 million or more will not be eligible.
Many KMT lawmakers had warned Ma about the negative impact of the initial plan on the party’s odds in the upcoming elections and urged the president to increase the farmers’ subsidy by at least NT$1,000.
Asked about the reversal of position, Wu told reporters the initial increase calculated in accordance with the estimated 5.27 percent rise in consumer prices was “not good enough.”
In light of the fact that some pensions have not been adjusted for many years, the method of calculation “was not fair to social welfare recipients” and “failed to resonate powerfully with the public,” he said.
“We were truly haunted by the proposal of a NT$316 increase in farmers’ monthly pensions. It has become a populist issue, which was unavoidable because it was inconsistent with past practice of a NT$1,000 increase,” Wu said.
He said that the government’s “benign intention” to establish a formula for pension adjustment to depoliticize the issue had been “distorted.”
KMT lawmakers praised the policy change.
KMT caucus whip Lin Yi-shih (林益世) said his caucus would submit a new amendment to the legislature and facilitate deliberation, with an aim to put the new pension plan into effect on Jan. 1 next year.
KMT Legislator Wong Chung-chun (翁重鈞), who had suggested raising the monthly subsidy to at least NT$7,500, said the new proposal was acceptable.
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