ECFA Debate Finalized: Ma, Tsai to Cross Swords
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
April 2, 2010
In response to public expectations, the ruling and opposition parties have finally come to an agreement. They will debate the cross-Strait Economic Framework Agreement (ECFA) before the end of April. The debate will be covered on public television. This is the first time the ruling and opposition parties have held an open debate on major policy. It is a momentous occasion. The debate will not necessarily allow the ruling and opposition parties to sing the same tune or resolve their differences. But it will at least enable them to take a first step towards rational policy debate. We now have a chance to engage in rational discussion of major policy issues, rather than empty name-calling.
To ascertain whether the public wants a debate on ECFA, the Want Want China Times Media Group conducted two opinion polls during the last half month. Real world data would let government and opposition leaders know that the public has had it with politicians indifferent to right and wrong. The polls showed that 70% of the public favored a government vs. opposition debate. Over 90% of Green Camp supporters favored a debate. Ruling and opposition leaders realized they had no choice but to debate. The DPP and the Presidential Office each set preconditions for the debate. But both parties realized they could no longer drag their feet or dodge the issue, no matter what excuses they might offer.
Although the Want Want Media Group promoted the debate, it will be hosted by the public television network. This is a highly positive development. The Public Broadcasting System is the head of public television. It ought to assume a leading role. Since it was launched, public television has held many large-scale election debates, and is well qualified to provide a public platform. A public platform will allow the ruling and opposition political parties and their media allies to lower their guards, to cross Blue vs. Green barriers, and allow the debate to proceed smoothly.
Past experience and mutual trust within the broadcasting industry will enable the first major policy debate on Taiwan to take place. Government and opposition leaders will personally cross swords. The debate should be a lively one. President Ma Ying-jeou and Democratic Progressive Party Chairman Tsai Ing-wen, as well as their parties, their think tanks, and their policy advisors will have to make thorough preparations.
The debate over ECFA involves policy positions held by the government and the opposition. The pressure felt by both sides will be considerable. The media will also be under great pressure. This will not be like previous election debates. The two sides' political tactics, their party lines, their candidate images, and even their family backgrounds may become grist for the mill. The debate may become very technically oriented, or may not. ECFA is a highly technical issue. The media must do its homework. Media standards on Taiwan have undeniably deteriorated. Scandal-mongering and name-calling are the norm. Little space remains for serious policy discussion. When ruling and opposition leaders focus on a major policy issue, the media must not reflexively express support or opposition based on preconceived ideology. The media must not pass judgment on the merits and demerits of the arguments based on comfortable assumptions. Scholars and experts, both on location and off, will be essential participants in this debate.
We hope that members of the public on Taiwan, whether they wanted this debate or not, will welcome the arrival of an era of more mature and rational policy debate. Supporters and opponents of ECFA must understand that the debate is not a Legislative Yuan session. In the Legislative Yuan a Third Reading vote without objections means a final resolution. The debate on the other hand, is merely an opportunity for the two sides to lay their cards on the table and see what the other has. A policy debate might not enable you to convert me to your way of thinking, but at least it will enable me to understand how you think.
Following the debate, the Ma administration will still sign ECFA with the other side in June, according to schedule. The framework agreement is nothing more than a table of contents. The details outside the agreement however, include the early harvest list, and whether it will provide better terms for our side. The debate may reveal whether the government has paid sufficient attention to the details, and give it a chance to make adjustments. Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party is preparing to use its ECFA referendum as a major plank in its election platform. It is unlikely to alter its position as a result of the debate. It will continue to push for a referendum. It is not about to change its mind and support the government. But the debate will at least provide an opportunity for the DPP to set aside its reunification vs. independence political rhetoric, and evaluate the pros and cons of government policy on their own merits, and not reflexively resorting to "Selling out Taiwan!" name-calling.
Nearly two years have passed since the second change in ruling parties. President Ma Ying-jeou and Chairman Tsai Ing-wen will finally meet. Their meeting will be a war of words. But the public has great expectations. Politics is not a dinner party. Harsh exchanges will be unavoidable. Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen are both educated and gracious individuals. Neither is about to attack the other's family background. These two professors cum political leaders are policy wonks. Their enthusiasm for policy is far greater than their enthusiasm for politics. Ma and Tsai are unlikely to resort to emotional attacks on the podium. This will enable them to set an example for other politicians, and to show that one need not become red in face with outrage and sputter with apoplexy while debating sensitive issues. After the two cross swords, we hope that whenever any future policy disputes arise, President Ma and Chairman Tsai will calmly and confidently say to the other: What reasons can you offer for your position? What's wrong with what I said? Allow us to be clear. There is no need for fisticuffs, either in the legislature or on the streets.