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.
One political scientist has said that populism has a positive side as it creates enthusiasm for the political process, so that people who have never before participated in politics start to do so. However, this is participation in a kind of “anti-politics,” blind to the art of pragmatic, conflict management-oriented political compromise. If legislators’ allowances are simply slashed on this occasion before public attention shifts to the next issue the press latches on to without further exploring legislators’ funding or the mechanisms by which they go about their duties, reform will stall; something that would make liwei lawmakers perfectly happy.
The number of assistants legislators have and the way they are hired has yet to be reviewed, but this deserves as much attention as that of unscrupulous employers pocketing their assistants’ overtime pay. The worst thing about it is how it detracts from the legislator’s ability to do their job of monitoring the government and creating effective legislation. This is because certain legislators take on their allotted headcount and pocket the lion’s share of the subsidy, sometimes only retaining a solitary legislative assistant, with the remaining staff handing out cash donations to various causes and running errands within the constituency.
Last year, Academia Sinica published a set of legislative reform recommendations. These included limting the number of administrative assistants to within a third of total staff, with no limitation on how many were family members. The other two thirds being legislative assistants who could only be hired if they have a certain level of experience and education. Are Taiwanese smart enough to take advantage of this opportunity as a trigger for legislative reform?
Legislators are expected to supervise the government properly. In the same way, the public and the press should watch them closely, so they can understand the causes of the legislative chaos in the country.
Reform should be instigated to figure out how legislators can be made to monitor the government on the public’s behalf, rather than just resorting to populism to distract public resentment over the failure of salaries to rise. Otherwise, for every 1 or 2 million NT dollars you refuse the person, they will find another way to take 10 times that amount from the national coffers.
In the end, it will still be the public that loses.
Pan Han-shen is a central executive committee member of the Green Party Taiwan.
Translated by Paul Cooper