Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Hidden Crisis Revealed by One Opinion Poll

The Hidden Crisis Revealed by One Opinion Poll
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
December 30, 2009

Who has one man above him, and tens of thousands of men beneath him? In ancient times it was the "first minister." In modern times it is the premier. Who has two men above him, and tens of thousands of men beneath him? In modern times it is a ministry head. But according to the latest poll conducted by Wang Wang and the China Times, the name recognition of ministry heads with tens of thousands of men beneath them, is quite low. Without prompting, 82% of all respondents could not name a single minister. Even with prompting, 52% of all respondents still couldn't name a single minister. These ministry heads are important and powerful. They are responsibile for policies that impact our lives. Why is the public so unfamiliar with them? This is not merely a question of how well individual ministry heads can explain or defend their policies.

Polls are merely for reference. Phone surveys cannot tackle issues that are too complex. They can only ask the most rudimentary questions about the respondent's objective and subjective impressions. According to the Wang Wang China Times poll, the three most visible cabinet members, the ones with the highest name recognition and policy making ability, were Central Bank President Peng Hui-nan, Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng, and Mainland Affairs Council Chairman Lai Hsing-yuan. The Peng cabinet members have tenure, hence job security. Not surprisingly, the Ma administration official who has served the longest, who has the greatest ability, and who has the approval of both the Green Camp and the Blue Camp, is Wang Ching-feng. For years, Wang Ching-feng was a champion of the downtrodden. Recently, campaigning for the three in one local elections and anti-corruption campaigns have given her even more exposure. Lai Hsing-yuan has primary responsibility for the Ma administration's cross-Strait policies. Recently the fourth Chiang/Chen Meeting has received the greatest media coverage, giving Lai more name recognition. But how is one to explain the low name recognition factor for so many other ministry heads?

Perhaps the ministry head lacks charisma and the ability to defend his ministry's policy. But individual ministry heads have any number of ways to make themselves seen and heard. First, the agency may be too anachronistic. Former legislator Kao Shi-po, is the son of former Speaker of the Provincial Assembly Kao Yu-ren, and Deputy Prime Minister Chu Li-lun's brother in law. His name recognition factor is hardly low. But for the public, the function of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Committeee is a mystery. The general population cannot connect him with his job.

Secondly, the work of certain agencies has little immediate relevancy for the public. For example, the CEPD is responsible for national land planning. Normally the vice premier would be in charge, because most of its business is inter-ministerial in nature. But because its activities have little immediate impact on the public, the pollsters did not even mention him. No wonder the head of the CEPD is so forgettable.

Thirdly, officials have a hard time surviving. Ministry heads are replaced with frightening alacrity. One hardly has time to note what they do before they are replaced. In the past school tests sometimes asked, "Who is the Minister of Foreign Affairs? Who is the Minister of the Interior? Who is the Minister of Education?" More recently, these have not been included among the test questions. The reason is simple. Before the test is administered, the ministers may already have been replaced. Or they may be replaced immediately after the test is given. We can force students to remember the names of key ministry heads, but what would be the point?

But leave aside these structural factors. Ministry heads themselves cannot escape blame. The function of any particular agency may not be obvious to the public. But these agencies are nevertheless answerable to the Legislative Yuan. In other words, as long they are required to present their case to the legislature, they have no shortage of opportunities for media exposure. The less exposure ministry heads have, the lower the public name recognition. The views ministry heads hold may not meet with the approval of legislators. They may lead to noisy debate. But the public does not forget noisy debates. How can anyone unwilling to defend his policies be remembered as a ministry head willing to assume responsibility? Take Director of Health Yaung Chih-liang for example. He wants to raise fees for health insurance. He supports the administration's policy on US beef imports. His views may not coincide with those of his superiors. But he courageously stated his professional opinion. The public affirmed his courage. By contrast, when ministry heads assume only that "no news is good news," and run for cover at the first sign of controversy, they are going to have a hard time enhancing their name recognition.

Apart from these structural factors and individual factors, the most worrisome problem is public indifference to public affairs. This is no trivial matter. This is a problem common to all democratic societies. The situation in the United States is similar. When pollsters ask students in high school and above, the names of national leaders, most of them draw a blank. Why? Is it really because "politics is so awful?" Politics may indeed be awful. But politics impacts everyone. One may ignore politics. But politics is not going to ignore you. That being the case, why do so many people refuse to touch it? Is the political culture on Taiwan so far gone that no one even wants to think about it? Does no one even want to discuss such matters as political policy?

A society without public discussion of political policy, will find it difficult to elevate the standard of its political culture. This is the most frightening problem on Taiwan. Some people may blame these ministry heads' lack of name recognition on President Ma. They may demand to know why the president chose these people in the first place? But is the problem really that simple? When the public doesn't know the names of ministry heads, should we rush to blame the president? That is not how a healthy democratic society functions. When most ministry heads go unrecognized by 40% of the public, then that is a problem society truly needs to ponder.










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