Tue, Jan 27, 2015 - Page 8 News List

Simplicity may be key to reforming constitution

By Christian Fan Jiang 范姜提昂

Just as in the past, a country’s constitution is far from being the public’s main preoccupation, unless a constitutional matter makes the news for some reason. You will not hear it discussed in bars or on talk shows. The US Constitution was written behind closed doors and served as the template for the constitution that rules postwar Japan, essentially a US import. The Japanese were ashamed of it, and initiated movements to draft their own constitution that were ultimately unsuccessful, because ordinary people were simply not engaged.

The best thing that could happen would be for Taiwan to capitalize on the Sunflower movement and mandate that the legislature revise the Republic of China Constitution. Failing that, it will be up to the political parties, whose duty is to amend the Constitution on behalf of citizens in a democratic system. Traditionally, voters have supported parties based on their perceived reliability or their persuasiveness. Today, with the Internet, these parties need to be careful that they do what they promise.

Simple arithmetic shows that, even if the proposal to move the date of the presidential election to the end of April is adopted, there will only be three more months between the end of the legislative session and the presidential election. Two legislative sessions combined is only six months, which is too short to amend the Constitution.

Neither Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) nor Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) have rushed to call for a conference on Constitutional amendments, and their commitment to the idea has been brought into question.

Historically, it has been the president who has convened such a conference. Neither is president, so how will they justify their positions with regard to the Constitutional amendment process? Decisive action is always best in complicated situations, and Occam’s razor — adopting the solution with the least amount of assumptions — is the best choice of action. This principle has been around for more than 600 years and is particularly relevant in this age of information overload.

A well-written constitution is the perfect exposition of this principle. As it is a law entailing the most basic principles, everything extraneous should be left out. It will serve as the trunk, other laws the branches and the leaves. The problem with the Constitution we have today is that it is as detailed as any other law. If the Constitution can be pitched at the level it should be, it will be successful.

Germany’s Basic Law is meticulous in its detail. However, concerning matters that will change over time, such as elections of the German Bundestag, the Basic Law only says that members of parliament must “be elected in general, direct, free, equal and secret elections.” As for how that should be done in practical terms, it only says, “details shall be regulated by federal law.”

Keep it simple. An attempt to push through a full-scale amendment could end up aiming high and hitting low. The best policy would be to go with the principle of Occam’s razor.

First, details that are at the level of the Constitution, but considered flawed by many — such as regulations on the voting age and the extremely high threshold for passage of an amendment — should be corrected.

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