Mon, Jan 16, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Public should help shape budget

By Lai Shin-yuan 賴幸媛

The review of the government's budget for 2006 has been completed. During the legislature's review process, legislators and party caucuses set a new record by submitting more than 2,300 suggested changes. They have also cut NT$40 billion (US$1.25 billion) from the budget, the most in 10 years.

But if we take a closer look, these cuts in fact represent only 2.5 percent of the total budget. If the cut in arms procurement funds is excluded from this NT$40 billion, the cuts are about the same as last year's. With more than 200 legislators having spent three months on the review, this result is far from satisfying.

The overall goal of the legislature's budget review is to correct the Cabinet's policy direction and come up with a reasonable distribution of budget resources. Regrettably, although the legislature's reputation has been improving, the quality of the budget review still needs to improved. Legislators are unable to conduct the review in a professional manner, but instead resort to uncontrolled shouting, as if they were shouting out prices at the local vegetable market.

The decisionmaking mechanism negotiated by the government and opposition has facilitated deal-making. Personal relationships lead to the withdrawal of many proposals, and many compromises. One therefore has to ask whether taxpayers' money is being well-spent -- and how much excess spending has really been eliminated in order to help the public.

The misconduct in budget politics highlights the extent to which the taxpaying public is helpless in the current system of representation. The democratic principle of "no taxation without representation" began with the American Revolution. Today, after the implementation of the universal right to vote, taxpayers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the representative system because public opinion is ignored or under-represented in the government.

Apart from their interaction with voters during election campaigns, the mainstream parties exist mainly as bureaucratic organizations. For small parties, even if they are better able to speak for the interests of marginalized groups, they are disposed to compromise because they are relatively weak. Therefore, although the taxpaying public has the right to vote for the parties and politicians they prefer, the representative ability of those parties and politicians is getting weaker and weaker. More and more voters in advanced countries in Europe and North America are giving up their right to vote, and in some cases have resorted to withholding tax. Rather than saying that they are tired of the representative system, they are said to be uninterested in politics.

This fatigue only serves to highlight the source of the problem with representative politics, and does not help restore democratic legitimacy. It is clear that representative democracy still lacks the ability to fix its own problems. The only solution is to expand extra-legislative participation of taxpayers so that the budget really will originate with them and benefit them.

Participatory budgeting was created to deal with these problems. This new experiment began in the 1990s in Porto Alegre in Brazil, and it proves that public participation in the budgetary process is feasible, effective and can have excellent results. Following repeated discussions, the people of Porto Alegre listed budgetary expenditures, prioritizing the use of limited resources on daily needs such as paving roads with asphalt and supplying tapwater, while rejecting wasteful expenditures.

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