The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Issues Concerning the Referendum

Written by Ian Inkster.

Image credit: Taipei by Steffen Flor/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

What may turn out to be the most distinguishing characteristic of the referendums is that none of them directly address the economic catastrophes rendered by the ongoing pandemic. In large capitalist nations elsewhere, especially in the West – not so visible in, say, Japan or anywhere east of the so-called Middle East – the debate on economic futures is primarily centred on anglophone and European concerns. The pandemic in most nations has accelerated debates and deepened the divides concerning employment, technological change, and social outcomes of government policies. In particular, the big question is back to the future: How can workers improve their conditions (from no-contract employment through to spasmodic multiple tasking) and how can or should policymaking contribute? And such questions need policy answers during rather than after pandemic recovery.

Thus, in the USA, major commentators are indeed turning from the environment and back to immediate issues triggered by the exogenous emergency rather than long-term environmental concerns. Whilst many of we western-based commentators for long worried about the failure of workers to gain much from the plethora of opportunities that should have been available from the global digital revolution from the 1970s, perplexed by the fast growth of IT and the slow growth of productivity, GDPs and wages, the pandemic has effectively accelerated time. Whilst the Covid crisis has increased the bargaining power of some workers, ongoing automation seems to erode it. We cannot now assume that new technical changes will, in the medium or even short term, absorb unemployed people displaced by technological innovation. Excessive automation has exacerbated such technological unemployment through changes in the US tax code.

The first referendum addressed the proposed construction of a receiving Terminal for natural gas energy production based on exploitation of Taiwan’s Datan Algal Reef. Although good publicity had been given to those opposing this, the number of actual demonstrators was quite low, although the internet is another matter. Perhaps only a political sceptic would note that protest might well have been less if the siting (technically within the city of Taoyuan) had been on the north-eastern coast where the principal residents are small in number and more of indigenous descent. Protagonists may easily posit this as a case of hammerheads, sharks, and the unique coral itself versus needs to reduce the mineral content of present Taiwanese energy usage

The second referendum on restriction of US pork imports is directly health-based and environmental as American pork contains ractopamine, and there is clearly an economic argument relating to damage to domestic producers

The third referendum on the proposed activation of the Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant, New Taipei City, asked voters to decide on the post-2014 planned additional 4th plant, which has been opposed by popular concerns and DPP policy. But as the environmentalist can well defend it on the grounds of reducing conventional polluting energy sources, we argue here that this is the most exemplary of referendums, highlighting both the environmental concerns overall and tensions within environmental politics, and thus aspects of all three of the substantive referendum questions. Defenders may note that this proposal seems to go with the general tenor of DPP energy policy, which is to reduce fossil fuel usage. Still, opposers could argue that this policy should not turn to nuclear power but to safer forms of non-fossil power generation. There are a host of technical problems undecided – the extent of ecosystem disturbance – especially regarding sand movements and coastal erosion, and so on.

Briefly, the more minor KMT suggestion as referendum 4 was quite sensible – it would not per se encroach on future referendums that are planned more than six months before August, so in a 2-year period, eighteen months of possible referendum would not be affected. As for the KMT concern about turnout to major elections, they have a valid point.

Here, by settling on the nuclear question as complex, divisive within environmental thinking, requiring expertise or at least informed knowledge required of such referendums, we might expose drawbacks inherent in referendums in modern democracies. Referendums have always tended to be divisive because simply ‘yes or no,’ and furthermore, such verdicts should be based on reliable and useful knowledge. Outcomes of any referendum that are not securely based on a reasonable understanding of what are essentially black and white or yes-no decision-making by the public may well soon become burdens that must be borne by that public for many years to come. We argue that the drawback of partial or skewed information and understanding is very visible in the present Taiwanese case and – as time passes – will become more so in all political systems dependent for legitimacy on a healthy civil society.

This means that the academic critique of the referendum idea might note its environmental focus, and the difficulty of anyone estimating the environmental outcomes of answers to the three major questions. If we reject any extension of nuclear power, must we be at least sympathetic to plans for greater natural gas energy production? If we reject US pork on health grounds, how does this impact on food imports from the US or elsewhere more generally, with implications for domestic food production? So, what do we make of the results?

Referendums may well help clarify the public concerns at any moment of governance in a way that is not being accomplished by general elections. But, as a result of partial understanding and fractious information, they might also redirect political discourse. It could be argued that the major issues voted for in presidential and parliamentary elections are ones that have been debated freely for years, have helped form the ideologies and principal concerns of major parliamentary parties and encouraged the growth of new, alternative parties and alliances (very much true of Taiwan), and are thus fairly understood and reflected upon. This may not be the case with referendums. The British EU referendum and its Brexit outcomes do surely illustrate the case in point – the quarrels and outcomes go on and on, are not settled, nor indeed even now clearly recognised as such. Referendums are easy to participate in, tend to black-or-white answers, and have very quick effects.

So, this becomes a classic political economy conundrum – democratic institutions versus partial understanding. In the 1860s, when England was wrestling with the likely effects of the coming 1867 Reform Act, which enfranchised most men, Walter Bagehot wrote in his volume The English Constitution that the newly enfranchised ‘lower classes’ would vote sensibly, judiciously, and democratically because they would be led to good, mild sense by the better informed and supposedly more intelligent middle-class, their social betters and guides. This was very sanguine, but the results were not so clear! For us now, the importance lies in the Victorian notion that lack of education, knowledge or ‘understanding’ back in the 1860s might hamper the future progress of English democracy as politicians adjusted to a parlous world of unpredictable election results. This did not result, nor did the development of socialism within the British parliament lead to wrack and ruin.

However, four referendums in Taiwan very soon – is another matter. In a much more fractious world of global capitalist democracy, Taiwan sits as an outsider who also manages to be exemplary of the better possibilities in our collective near future – low-Covidity might reflect a healthy civil society, but so too did the Sunflower Movement and so too do the sensibilities of recent elections and the rise of new political parties attempting to catch the nuances of a complex electorate.

Nuclear power brings out the contradictions inherent amidst today’s environmentalism. As with GM crops, the object ball actually has two edges – clearly, less mineral-based energy usage is good, but nuclear accidents or terrorisms are not wanted and bad. In addition, the Taiwan case has an immediate and more local context – the fact that this nation lies in a seismically active zone means that nuclear power is an endemic political problem, not merely one that could wither on the vine as the years pass. Additionally, nuclear power provides only around 8% of total power usage, a proportion that could be replaced by relatively modest future technological innovations, or which even with a stagnant technological system can be substituted for through imported minerals in an economy of trade dynamism. Export revenues outweigh imports, and Taiwan now imports some 90% of the economy’s energy usage. Furthermore, importing energy can be halted or reduced in future years without undue disturbance of the locally employed or even of port facilities in a growing economy highly dependent on foreign trade anyway, with exports and imports totalling some 120% of GDP in 2021. Environmentalist proponents of the rejection of an additional active plant could argue that it can either be dismissed because of the high likelihood of modest technological innovation (better use of all power in existing production systems through institutional improvement), or that existing alternative technologies of a more radical kind can be introduced at relatively low cost. Defenders of the new nuclear capacity proposals might argue that this represents cleaner technology replacing mineral usage, a contribution to the cleaning of the global airways, and that the statistical risk of disturbance from natural disasters is very, very low. Again, those of the opposite view can point to past problems in earthquake zones and add that a longer history of nuclear power is bound to increase the number of such incidents. And then …?

Thus, any voter at this referendum who pondered his or her tick in a box, not being allowed further comment or qualification, might well have been stymied, and my point is that this represents a quandary built of information uncertainty, a casting into troubled doubt, at the very basis of Taiwanese competitive democracy. And it’s one that is conjured up within democracy itself. If Brexit in Britain, which had less scientific argument attached to it, could cause sorry results and a long tail of confusion, then we might expect this referendum to lead more to rancour than to clarity. And the environmental reflexes stimulated especially by the nuclear power referendum are, as I suggested above, connected ultimately with at least two of the remaining questions on the referendum paper.

I would not be expecting a period of calm after the pandemic storm early next year. The storm may well go on, and the smaller political parties, so stimulated by the lively politics of the last few years, may well take better advantage of this situation than the KMT. My more general position is that either/or referendums rarely settle much. We could perhaps learn more from the Japanese and their continued applications of nemawashi, ‘negotiations behind the scenes,’ a process distilling and diffusing persuasion and information in business and politics, which might amount to something like ‘understanding’ of the cruder Bagehot variety? Or we might settle, within democratic systems more generally, for periods of true information distillation, processing, and honest debate within the major media of the public sphere well prior to the issuing of determinant referenda. Then referenda might emerge as a creeping frontier of democracy in a world where traditional institutions and electioneering seem not to be maintaining healthy democracies bases on informed civil societies.

There is palpably a sense that East Asia is once more departing from the Atlantic norm, witness to a new and sharp East Asian Edge. Where future referendums in the West may well centre on the policy problems outlined in our outset (focusing on the immediate economy), the faster growing and speedily recovering economies to the East, less damaged by pandemic, will be focusing upon longer-term goals of their political systems. It may be that an early reflection of this difference lies in the complex character of the present Taiwanese referendums. This is ironic as, in turn, this means that Eastern capitalism may well forge ahead of Atlantic capitalism in addressing and solving our major global environmental problems.

Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist at the Center of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London, and a Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan 2021 Referendum.

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