Government ministers seem to view trips to the legislature to present reports or attend question-and-answer sessions with some trepidation. Many are finding excuses not to turn up, saying the legislature is not doing its job. They feel a trip there means setting themselves up for a public dressing-down at the hands of legislators.
Indeed, on many occasions, when these officials do turn up to make their reports, they find themselves censured by legislators, whether entirely justified or not. Should the legislators wrong-foot them and get them to say something that perhaps they should not, or the ministers are less discreet than perhaps they should have been, they may well find themselves the target of public criticism or ridiculed in political circles.
With the political turmoil that started in September with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) move to oust Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) and the ensuing controversy over the wiretapping of the legislature by the Special Investigation Division (SID) of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming (黃世銘) had been spending more time at the legislature answering questions than in his office. However, after two months of non-stop roasting by legislators, he is now refusing to return, despite the attempts of the minister of justice to persuade him otherwise.
Minister of Health and Welfare Chiu Wen-ta (邱文達) has also spent most of his time shuttling back and forth between the legislature, the ministry and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) headquarters since the recent food safety scare. He has been pilloried by KMT and opposition legislators alike. National Security Council Secretary-General Jason Yuan (袁健生) has had to attend special meetings at the legislature to answer questions about the government’s response to Beijing’s controversial declaration of an air defense identification zone.
Legislators’ questions can be intentionally pedantic, frivolous and repetitious, leaving ministers vexed, frustrated and occasionally exasperated. Council for Economic Planning and Development Minister Kuan Chung-ming (管中閔), when asked to forgo his year-end bonus after the government again revised downward its GDP growth forecast for this year, attempted to parry the suggestion with a flippant response, but found himself not only rounded on by legislators, but hounded by the press.
Whatever one may think of the legislators’ behavior, they represent the legislature, and the legislature represents the public. They have a constitutional duty of oversight of the executive branch, just as ministers have a legal duty to go to the legislature to present reports and answer questions. Further, when problems arise in areas under the jurisdiction of their ministry and when legislators want to get to the bottom of these issues to answer the concerns of the public they represent, these ministers cannot avoid their duty as their mood takes them, or for any given pretext.
The Ma administration has shown itself wanting, rife with corruption, beset with problems and struggling in the face of various crises. Ministers have come to fear going to the legislature to account for these failings. When the KMT leadership and the government start attempting to pin the failings of governance on a non-functioning legislature, one has to consider that legislators would not be questioning these ministries if they were operating as they should. Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) was caught saying in a moment of indiscretion: “The ministries are taking turns to get burned,” and yes, legislators are calling ministers in to account for themselves one by one. To blame the legislature for the mess it is trying to clear up, however, is missing the point.