Thu, Jan 16, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Dismantling committees in favor of public talks

By Hsu Shih-jung 徐世榮

The Taichung High Administrative Court’s recent ruling that the Miaoli County Government had illegally destroyed houses belonging to four families in Dapu Borough (大埔) last year is of major significance.

Apart from clarifying that zoning and forced expropriations of land must comply with certain conditions and must not overstep constitutionally guaranteed human rights or property rights, another point worth considering is whether committees should have the power to decide whether land expropriations are in the public interest or if they are necessary. It is also worth asking whether the Urban Planning Committee and the Land Expropriation Examination Committee serve their purpose.

The committee system was born of a move toward a more technocratic model of government. It grew out of the reform movements in the West in the early 20th century, when the views of technocrats — who were regarded as objective and neutral — came to be trusted more than those of politicians — with their tendency toward subjective bias — for the formulation of political policies.

This resulted in a paradigm shift in politics, in which committees of experts were established and gradually came to be more important in the running of a nation.

However, it became apparent over time that the committee system was not actually working in the public interest and in many cases merely served the private interests of the elite minority.

The root of the problem, again, was politics, with the social elite trying to secure power for themselves, hiding behind the legitimacy afforded them by the opinion of technocrats and bypassing participation in the democratic process by ordinary people.

This technocratic model was later widely disparaged and gradually fell into disfavor during the late 20th century. It was replaced by deliberative democracy, which pays attention to public opinion and due process.

Unfortunately, Taiwan has failed to reform the committee system and the technocratic model is exacerbated by the context of the authoritarian political system in which it exists. For example, the Urban Planning Committee may seem to be composed of experts, but in reality government officials — whether they be from the central government or are local officials — make up almost one half of its members. The rest of the committee are experts nominated by ministers. Therefore, the government has complete control of the committee’s composition.

As such, despite the whole raft of problems with the plan for the Taoyuan Aerotropolis, Vice Premier Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國) still insisted that it be passed last year and the Urban Planning Committee complied.

The committee boasts more than 40 years of experience in all, but for what? Even though the Ministry of the Interior was ruled against in the Dapu case, it blamed the academics in the Land Expropriation Examination Committee who had provided advice.

The committee system is designed to protect those in power and suppress the weak and vulnerable. It is neither necessary, nor does it operate in the public interest.

This is why many non-governmental organizations are pushing for committees to be replaced with public hearings, and why the Council of Grand Justices ruled last year that parts of the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例) were unconstitutional.

Now that the Taichung High Administrative Court has made this important ruling, it is high time that the committee system is dismantled.

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