In the early hours of June 15, the legislature hurriedly and rashly wrapped up its session, approving a bill that should never have been passed. Lawmakers passed the Judges’ Act (法官法), which left “dinosaur judges” feeling quite safe, but blocked a bill that would have gone after rich people who owe hefty taxes.
A few days ago, former National Taiwan University president Sun Chen (孫震) published an article citing a survey on social credibility conducted by a group that promotes individual and social ethics. The survey shows lawmakers ranking near the bottom of the list of 21 categories that included family, doctors, corporate leaders, the president, judges and journalists.
This survey has been conducted for 10 years and the results have been released six times. Between 2001 and 2008, legislators ranked at the bottom of the list five times in a row. This year they came in fourth from the bottom, but this does not imply that the public view of legislators has improved.
Instead, this year, the survey included an additional three categories — foreign workers, celebrity media commentators and fortune-tellers — with legislators ranking just above these three groups. What’s more, although the controversy stirred by “dinosaur judges” earned judges their lowest ranking this year, they still ranked 16th, ahead of lawmakers in 18th place.
A survey by the Chinese--language United Daily News also showed that when open elections for the whole legislature were first held in the early 1990s, 60 percent of the public trusted legislators.
By 2005, only 20 percent did, while 70 percent did not trust them. In addition, in a survey by the magazine Global Views Monthly on approval ratings for the president, the Cabinet and the legislature, lawmakers always garnered the lowest ratings. It was only in 2008, just after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) gained a three-quarters legislative majority, that the approval and disapproval ratings for legislators were equal, at 39 percent each. After this, the disapproval rating shot up and has since hovered at about 60 percent, while the approval rating has dropped to just more than 20 percent.
Social trust is a direct reflection of social cohesion. When social trust is high, everyone can go about their lives without worry, communicate well and conduct business more easily. For society, trust is a public good and the foundation of democracy. It is thus unthinkable that trust in the people authorized to maintain social order, such as the president, police, judges and especially legislators — who set the rules on how society is supposed to work — has dropped so low. It is indeed a serious social crisis.
Democracy holds that people do both good and evil and this is why the separation of powers is necessary and checks and balances on power need to be kept. Leaders and legislators are re-elected periodically because not everyone fully trusts them. However, the fact that trust in legislators has dropped so much in various surveys implies that people think they are only capable of doing bad.
Are legislators essentially evil? Of course not; otherwise they would never be elected. After the introduction of the single member district electoral system, legislators in principle needed more than 50 percent of the vote to be elected. However, after being voted in, their disapproval rating among voters has risen to more than 50 percent, with less than 20 percent approving of their performance. There are reasons for this, from a systemic theory perspective.
It’s like factories: If the machinery and the production line are inferior, the products will be shoddy even if the raw materials are good.
The legislative system was established during the rule of dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). As the legislature was just a rubber stamp for the Cabinet, everything from the rules of procedure to the organization of committees were done differently from the legislative bodies in democratic nations.
Legislators were co-opted by letting them share in the spoils, and specialization was discouraged to weaken the institution. This gave rise to many bizarre systems, such as the general question-and-answer sessions, a system with committees -pulling in different directions and frequently changing committee members.
When the first fully elected legislature took office in the early 1990s, people realized the severity of the problem with the system. Former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Shen Fu-hsiung’s (沈富雄) assistant at the time, Chen Sung-shan (陳淞山), wrote a book about it titled Understanding the Legislature, but most legislators thought it was better to share in the spoils than to become a professional and specialized body.
Only a few were interested in pushing for reform. The KMT was always the biggest impediment to reform, and for the past dozen years, only Band-aid solutions were implemented without any real structural changes. It has been 20 years since open legislative elections were held, but the legislature has kept the same anachronistic system that was in place during the era of the Chiangs, making it a never-ending source of chaos.
Fortunately, in next January’s legislative elections, we will have the opportunity to bring about change with a legislative majority.
The DPP’s aim is to garner more than 50 percent of legislative seats. This is encouraging to supporters, but the party could gain even wider recognition if it were to call for reform of the anachronistic legislative system. It would make voters feel that it wants a majority because it wants to reform the legislature — and not because it wants to facilitate its own policy implementation.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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