Call a National Affairs Conference to address pressing problems
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2014-04-01 02:25 PM
Last week a group of 52 leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds – corporate boardrooms, labor unions, business associations and other areas of society – held a joint press conference to express their views on the need to hold a national affairs conference to try to resolve problems that are dividing the people of Taiwan and tearing society apart.

The trigger that set off the business and labor leaders’ heartfelt plea for a national conference was the student protest and occupation of the Legislative Yuan over the past two weeks, but the problems they hope to address are much more extensive than the controversy over the Cross-strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and the months of bickering that have plagued the bill’s progress through the Legislative Yuan.

The idea of a national affairs conference is not new, and in fact two such conferences have been held in the past, during the administration of former President Lee Teng-hui. Both yielded significant and long-lasting results. The first conference was convened in 1990 in response to a six-day sit-in at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial that quickly mushroomed into the Wild Lily student movement. Lee, who had just been sworn in as president, recognized the seriousness of the groundswell and agreed to hold talks that eventually led to extensive reforms in Taiwan’s government including election procedures for the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly (which later voted to disband itself) and set the stage for direct presidential elections and other political reforms.

The second national conference under Lee’s leadership came in late 1996 and dealt with the problem of the vestigial Taiwan Provincial Government. That meeting led to the abolishment of the provincial government, which was largely redundant and ineffective. The process played out until the term of the last provincial governor, James Soong, ended in 1998.

More recently, calls for a national conference have been issued repeatedly by former DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, only to fall on deaf ears in the Ma administration and encounter opposition from some members of her own party.

Tsai’s vision of a national affairs conference encompasses seven major areas: (1) complete re-structuring of the nation’s military to modernize and streamline operations and help restore confidence in the ranks; (2) a resolution to the impasse over the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant; (3) a clear guide for conducting cross-strait negotiations to avoid recurrences of the fiasco that currently has brought many of the functions of the Legislative Yuan to a halt; (4) examination and overhaul of the pension annuity system to address funding problems and relieve anxiety among the public about retirement plans; (5) revisions in the rules governing public referendums to make them more accurate and effective; (6) mapping out a clear, long-range model for Taiwan’s economy to restore momentum and return Taiwan to its rightful place in the global economy; and (7) how to implement the 12-year education system with a minimum of disruption.

Many on both sides of the blue-green divide have downplayed the need for a national conference to discuss such a broad range of issues. The Ma government suggests a high-level huddle between the president and opposition leaders including DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang and Tsai.

Tsai has received strong backing for a conference from former President Lee, who is better positioned than anyone else to know how productive and valuable such a forum can be – even if the agenda must be whittled down a bit. Lee says that in light of the many divisive issues that face the people of Taiwan it is essential to maintain a spirit of cooperation and seek negotiations that will lead to consensus and resolve problems. Tsai Ing-wen adds that the most important step in this approach is bringing together the ‘brightest and best’ of the nation to participate in meaningful discussions of critical issues facing the people.

Once again the youth of Taiwan have fomented a crisis that has pointed up the need for discussion and compromise rather than confrontation and conflict in resolving the nation’s problems. With the occupation of the Legislative Yuan and Sunday’s massive turnout on Ketagalan Boulevard, the Sunflower Movement has also drawn the attention of media and people all over the world.

Tsai is resolute in her belief that a national conference is necessary and continues to remind all that the clock is ticking. As she has stated many times, she is well aware of the danger in waiting idly for Ma Ying-jeou’s current term as president to end in 2016 before change comes to Taiwan.

Ma’s standard response to calls for a national conference has been to offer a counter-proposal of an informal meeting between leaders from the ruling and opposition parties, an approach that will solve nothing and amount to nothing more than wasted time and effort.

As Tsai noted last year during the conflict over Taiwan’s retirement and pension system, “Now is the time to re-establish political rationality and move beyond party biases so that we can face and resolve these problems together.”

There has never been a better time to stage a national affairs conference to bring together political leaders from all sides to discuss critical issues with academics and experts as well as others who can present new perspectives and fresh ideas.

A national conference will generate analyses and conclusions that can be forwarded to the Cabinet and to the Legislative Yuan for review and approval to make them legally binding. This approach has worked in the past, and there is an overwhelming need to take the first steps toward consensus.

As Rock Hsu, chairman of the National Association of Small and Medium Enterprises and lead speaker for the 52 business and labor leaders, put it, CSSTA and other problems facing Taiwan are not a Gordian knot waiting for the quick stroke of a sword. They are knotty problems that will take time and dedication to solve, and a national conference is the best way to address them.

Resorting to a sports analogy to describe the current status of a national affairs conference, we can only point out the obvious. The ball is in Ma’s court and has been there for months – indeed, years – waiting for him to make a response. The least he can do is to acknowledge the need for such a conference and take the first step toward outlining an agenda to address the issues that face the people of Taiwan.

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