A Referendum on US Beef: The Ultimate Victim will be The Public
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 13, 2010
The Executive Yuan Referendum Commission has approved a Consumers' Foundation request for a referendum on US beef imports. The foundation will soon begin its second phase signature drive. This is the first time private individuals have initiated a referendum since the referendum process was opened up. We have already expressed our views on the matter. A referendum is unnecessary. A referendum is far from urgent. So why the relentless demand for such a referendum? The underlying reasons deserve examination.
The referendum states, "We demand that the Department of Health reinitiate talks with the United States regarding its November 2009 relaxing of restrictions on the importation of bone-in beef, ground beef, beef organ meats, and beef bone marrow less than 30 months old." When the Legislative Yuan passed its amendment to the Food Sanitation Management Law, this referendum's key demands had already been met. The resumption of talks over US beef imports was already a foregone conclusion. By the time the second phase signature drive nears completion, Taipei and Washington will already have restarted talks. This particular referendum will be utterly pointless. In terms of beef parts, bone-in beef is not a high-risk item. Beef industry importers are not really interested in it. The referendum is pointless and out of date. So why the stubborn insistence on holding it? Why the deetermination to overcome cumbersome procedural hurdles merely to see the referendum through? Three reasons come to mind.
The first is to send Washington a message. The second is to send the government a message. The third is to hold a referendum merely for the sake of holding a referendum.
If the point of the referendum is to send a message to Washington, we don't really see the point. Relations between Taipei and Washington have been negatively impacted by the US beef imports controversy. In principle, whether the Republic of China government has the approval of its citizens is a domestic affair. But if a protocol signed with a foreign nation is overturned by legislative means, that is an international affair. We are in the wrong. Even if the referendum passes, it will only prove that the protocol signed by the government does not meet with the approval of the public. It doesn't change the fact that we are still in the wrong. Using a referendum to send a message to Washington serves no useful purpose, other than letting off a little steam. Relations between Taipei and Washington have already been negatively impacted by the legislature's amendment of the law. Do we really wish to persist in anti-American populism to the bitter end? If we allow populist sentiment to get out of hand, undermining undermine Taipei/Washington relations, who will be the losers? The importation of bone-in beef is the only remaining issue. Is it really worth destroying Taipei/Washington relations over? This hardly seems like a wise decision. Even if the referendum passes, it proves nothing. It will merely lead to intensified diplomatic confrontation between Taipei and Washington. If on the other hand, the referendum fails to pass, it will prove that the Legislative Yuan's amendment of the law did not meet with public expectations. Does the Consumers' Foundation really want to shoot itself in the foot this way?
If the point of the referendum is to send a message to the government, that is equally incomprehensible. Haven't we learned our lesson from the Legislative Yuan's amendment of the law? Is the point of the referendum to teach the legislature a lesson? Is it to protest the legislature's failure to ban bone-in beef? If so, we are concerned that those behind the referendum are utterly intolerant of the slightest disagreement and unwilling to make the tiniest compromise. The Consumers' Foundation does not seem to fit this description. It has long been a highly professional consumer advocacy group. Such an obstinate and imperious attitude is irrrational and unrepresentative of the interests of consumers. It will merely leave the impression that those promoting the referendum have hidden political agendas.
The referendum process allows the public to express its opinions on matters of policy. It is a supplement that addresses inadequacies in the legislative process. It should not be used to "teach the government a lesson." It should not be used to further anyone's private agenda. The Consumers' Foundation said it would not allow political forces to take part in the signature drive. But if the referendum process is purely for the sake of "teaching the government a lesson," and not for any substantive policy purposes, it will be hard to determine whether it contains any political agendas. It will be hard to avoid undermining the hard-won reputation of the Consumers' Foundation for professionalism and impartiality.
If the referendum is being held merely for the sake of holding a referendum, without rhyme or reason. If it is being held for political rather than professional reasons, we needn't waste too much ink on it. The Consumers' Foundation raised a consumer rights issue. It convinced the legislature to amend the law. It made use of checks and balances in representative politics. This referendum has become redundant. If the Consumers' Foundation is demanding a referendum purely for the sake of holding a referendum, it will undermine its own credibility. Worse, it will undermine the credibility of the referendum process. It will retard the Republic of China's political maturation.
The legal threshold for U.S. Beef Referendum is high. Meeting it will be difficult. One can try to link it with the general election. But that won't ensure its passage. It may even substantiate allegations of hidden political agendas. The referendum is unlikely to pass. Concrete results from the referendum are a long way off. We urge its backers to cease and desist. Our main concern is the dark shadow of populist demagoguery undermining Taipei/Washington relations and the credibility of the Consumers' Foundation. The ultimate victims will be Republic of China citizens.