A Forced Vote on Pension Reform will Sow Seeds of Disaster
China Times Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
June 29, 2016
Executive Summary: Pension reform should be a brightly lit road. Unfortunately when the government established the Pension Reform Committee, it started out on the wrong foot. It resorted to black box operations. It must get back on track. This wrong first step must be corrected. That will require transparency. A forced vote will only intensify and legitimize protests. The new government must not misjudge the situation. It must not cling to power, only to undermine pension reform as a whole.
Full Text Below:
The first meeting of the Presidential Office National Pension Reform Committee has been in haste amid a storm of controversy. Three representatives of military personnel, civil servants, and public school teachers blasted the government, then withdrew in protest. They originally planned to deal with “committee procedures" and “committee member ethics”. Neither was dealt with. Pension Reform Committee Deputy Convener and Executive Director Lin Wan-yi previously vowed to step down if he failed to reform the pension system within one year. After the meeting Lin Wan-yi railed, saying that if the committee cannot reach a consensus, he will force a vote. But a forced vote will undermine the legitimacy of pension reform. It will provoke a powerful backlash, and sow the seeds of future disaster. It must be avoided at all costs.
In order to fulfill her campaign promise, Tsai Ing-wen has made pension reform a top priority. For this she deserves affirmation and support. After all, it is essential to consider global economic trends, government debt, and the equitable distribution of national resources. The current pension system does require reform. But such reform involves the vital interests of the people. One must be careful, especially regarding peoples' expectations about workplace insurance mechanisms. Unfortunately, the new government's pension reform program has gotten off on the wrong foot.
At the first meeting of the Pension Reform Committee, President Tsai solemnly enshrined four principles. One of them was "to abide by the principles of democracy, and to ensure transparency". But the very formation of the Pension Reform Committee has already violated Tsai Ing-wen's promise. The entire process was a black box operation. Tsai Ing-wen has already taken the wrong fork in the road.
The new government has released the names of 37 members of the Pension Reform Committee. But how was the composition of the committee determined? What standards were applied to committee members? The government did not say. Nor did it consult the public. Instead, it unilaterally declared that "a consensus has been reached", and laid down the law. For example, the Pension Reform Committee is supposed to include two private citizens. But by what stretch of the imagination are Lee An-ni and Feng Kuang-yuan private citizens? Both are highly controversial people, especially the latter, who constantly attacked dissenters with obscenities. On what basis can these two people be considered representatives of "civil society"? The government owes the people an explanation.
The legislature is an elective body. Legislators' proposals are important. But the Pension Reform Committee includes only one legislator, who is a member of the ruling party. Do the views of opposition party legislators count for nothing? The composition of the committee is designed to weaken the legislature, and shut out opposition parties. Is this because the government has a guilty conscience and afraid to subject committee members to public scrutiny? Or is this because the government is arrogant and indifferent to the diverse views of society?
All of these have undermined the credibility of the Pension Reform Committee. People will inevitably question the fruit of the poisonous tree. Pension reform is a “river of justice” that everyone supports. But it has been polluted at its source by undemocratic black box operations. How can anyone expect clean water downstream?
The composition of the committee was not the product of the democratic process. A forced vote will only undermine public trust with its pretense of democracy. It will not solve any problems. It will only exacerbate them.
Secondly, the government knows full well that pension reform is a subtractive process. It reduces the number of golden eggs distributed, in order to avoid killing the goose that lays them. The nation's finances are on the edge of a precipice. Long term growth rates will remain low. Reform is urgent. The subtractive process will harm military personnel, civil servants, public school teachers, and others. It will undermine trust in the the government. After all, the government promised retirement benefits. That was why many military personnel, civil servants, and public school teachers chose their occupations in the first place. How will the number of eggs be cut? This requires fairness. Military personnel, civil servants, public school teachers, labor, and farmers. Whose eggs will be cut the most? Establishing objective criteria will be difficult. Ignoring the differences in these occupations and cutting all equally, runs the risk of comparing apples to oranges.
Therefore Pension Reform Committee Executive Director Lin Wan-yi must not casually drop word of forced votes. Such talk only adds fuel to the fire, and undermines reform. Lin Wan-yi must do what Tsai Ying-wen promised to do: "communicate, communicate, communicate". Military personnel, civil servants, and public school teachers accused the government of demonizing them. Lin Wan-yi, not to be outdone, lashed back, saying "Since military personnel, civil servants, and public school teachers don't want others to demonize them, they should not demonize others!” This was beneath the Pension Reform Committee Executive Director, who ought to remain detached and generous in spirit. Instead, he fanned the flames of conflict and undermined the government's efforts to communicate.
Pension reform has a high degree of public support. In March "This Week" magazine polled legislators. As many as 84% of all legislators, regardless of party affiliation, favored pension reform. This echoed the support for pension reform among the general public in the previous poll, which held at 70%. The support of the public is the new government's most valuable asset. It should have more confidence in itself. It should allow all parties to debate the issue, and not behave in a dictatorial manner.
Pension reform should be a brightly lit road. Unfortunately when the government established the Pension Reform Committee, it started out on the wrong foot. It resorted to black box operations. It must get back on track. This wrong first step must be corrected. That will require transparency. A forced vote will only intensify and legitimize protests. The new government must not misjudge the situation. It must not cling to power, only to undermine pension reform as a whole.