Not for the first time, scrutiny has fallen on the issue of legislators’ allowances. This time it follows on the heels of the contentious annual bonuses for retired military personnel, public school teachers and civil servants; all while people on lower incomes are struggling to get by. It is no wonder then, that public opinion favors reducing these allowances.
This scrutiny presents a rare opportunity for legislative reform and should not be allowed to slip away amid political bartering.
Some have objected to the amounts of money involved but that is not the point: The key is to have a detailed investigation into how the legislature functions and what rights legislators have. If certain elements are deemed correct then they should be retained; and if they have no legal basis then they should be enshrined in law. Conversely, those that do have a legal basis need to be looked at again in the cold light of day to see how appropriate they are.
Common sense says that certain allowances, such as the monthly NT$20,000 mobile phone subsidy, are excessive. Stories like this bring to mind the young Japanese woman — a member of Green Future (the precursor to green party Greens Japan) who was the only female in the Diet — who discovered that there was an allowance for photographs, and informed the press. The public was appalled, embarrassing her male colleagues, and the allowance was cut.
There is also a debate over whether legislators actually use the allowances for their intended purposes, but again this is not quite the point. For those legislators who travel extensively in carrying out their duties, the travel allowance of NT$300,000 to NT$400,000 might not actually be enough. However, it is worth wagering that taxpayers take a dim view of other legislators using the allowance to swan off on all-expenses-paid trips to gambling dens to “check up on vice.”
What is needed is more transparency: If legislators want allowances then they should be required to submit reports so that the public can see how the money is being spent.
The European Green Party and the Australian Greens provide mid and short-term internships. Sending members of Taiwanese green parties, that have yet to gain seats in the legislature, to take up these internships and get some practical experience would be a creative way to spend the money wisely, as would subsidizing overseas academics to conduct research of a political nature in Taiwan.
In going about this reform, care needs exercising to avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water. Some legislators come from wealthy families or have alternative sources of income from their links to business, sometimes sitting on the board of a company in addition to their duties as lawmakers. For these individuals, pejoratively referred to as liwei (利委) — legislators mindful of their vested interests — a reduction in subsidies would be quite painless. However, if allowances are cut across the board, it would make quite a difference to those full-time legislators who rely on them to a much greater extent.
Therefore, reform should not be about gratuitously taking the axe to legislators’ allowances to keep the public happy. Rather, it should be about going through every single subsidy and sorting the legitimate from the unjustifiable, regardless of how dry the public might find this process.