Tue, Sep 29, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Politicians use or reject public will as they like

By Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌

When legislative bodies use special legislation to override the application of ordinary laws, they do so according to the time and place, the matter at hand and the people involved.

Sometimes this tactic is a clear indication of the real attitude of those in power toward public opinion, which hinges on what they themselves want to see happen. Sometimes it reflects the absurdity of the ordinary law that is being overridden.

One would hope that such instances would be few and far between. However, Article 10-2 of the Isolated Islands Construction Act (離島建設條例), which overrides the minimum turnout threshold stipulated in the Referendum Act (公民投票法), is an example of this situation.

Paragraph 1 of the article states that, where there are plans to allow tourist casinos on outlying islands, a local referendum should first be held in accordance with the Referendum Act, and that the proposal will pass if more than one half of the votes cast are in favor of it. Unlike other referendums at county and township levels, it is not required that more than half of all eligible voters vote in favor of the proposal.

It was this rule that applied when Penghu County held its referendum on Saturday to decide whether to allow gambling.

The reason that the Referendum Act’s threshold was excluded from the Isolated Islands Construction Act was quite clearly a concern that a high turnout threshold would hinder setting up casinos on Penghu, which those in power support.

The intention evident in this legislation demonstrates two things. On the one hand, it reveals that the threshold laid down in the Referendum Act is excessively high, making it hard for any referendum to pass. On the other, it exposes the real attitude of legislators toward public opinion.

With regard to “ordinary circumstances,” legislators set up a roadblock — a referendum threshold of half of all eligible voters — to prevent public opinion as expressed in referendums from interfering with the plans of those in power.

Lawmakers intentionally made the referendum system unduly difficult. But when a “special situation” came around in which those in power wanted to use public opinion to their benefit to endorse a controversial policy — opening casinos — the roadblock was removed.

In this case, they hoped to use the referendum results to back up their argument for allowing gambling in Penghu.

The threshold set for a referendum is an important factor in whether it stands any chance of passing and having an effect on government policy.

In the referendum and island construction laws, those in power show different attitudes toward public opinion.

It is hard to accept their manipulation of the referendum system to suit their own agenda.

It is even more distressing when a referendum is proposed on a subject that is not to the liking of those in power and they deploy their political stooges to put forward spurious reasons to prevent this expression of public opinion.

If those in power cannot understand that the expression of public opinion is a cornerstone of democracy and not a tool for political manipulation, and if those in power persist in their arrogant and patronizing attitude toward the public, then they should be aware of Confucius’ admonition: A ruler is like a boat and the people are the water. The water that keeps a boat afloat can also capsize it.

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