EDITORIAL: Some helpful reforms arrive at last

Sat, Jan 24, 2015 - Page 8

The Legislative Yuan concluded its latest session yesterday, and, as usual, the final days saw a flurry of activity to pass amendments and other business so it would appear that lawmakers did something more than hold up big character placards on the legislative floor or host press conferences.

While the session will be remembered more for what it did not accomplish than for what it did, a few votes stand out.

Two that are especially crucial to the nation’s future were the passage of an amendment to the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (公職人員選舉罷免法) and passage of amendments to the Water Pollution Control Act (水污染防治法).

Lowering the threshold for subsidies from 5 percent to 3.5 percent of the votes a party receives for legislator-at-large and overseas legislator posts means smaller political parties might have a better chance of gaining financing, thereby helping to break the chokehold the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and three other major parties have had on the electoral system for far too long.

“Might” is the operative word, given that the Green Party and the New Party would still lose out after the presidential and legislative elections in January next year if they do not improve on their 2012 poll showing of 1.74 percent and 1.49 percent respectively.

However, it is a start at making political life in Taiwan more pluralistic and less susceptible to the massive campaign chests the KMT has been able to finance for decades.

The changes to the Water Pollution Control Act could be even more far-reaching. That such legislation was able to be passed can be traced back to a triple punch delivered in late 2013 that created such a public outcry that lawmakers finally had to take action.

The first blow was delivered in October of that year, when Advanced Semiconductor Engineering (ASE) was found to have been dumping toxic wastewater into the Houjin River (後勁溪) in Greater Kaohsiung.

The second blow came the following month with the release of director Chi Po-lin’s (齊柏林) Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (看見台灣), which documented in stunning color the environmental degradation of the nation’s mountains, coastlines and rivers caused by decades of unchecked development and industrialization, including the illegal dumping of toxic waste and wastewater.

A third blow followed in December 2013, when Lian-yi Industrial Co was found to have been dumping toxic wastewater into the Houjin River. Both ASE and Lian-yi were repeat offenders, but the reprimands and fines they had received for previous incidents appear to have done little to encourage them to change their ways.

Thursday’s amendments boosted the maximum punishments for wastewater discharge that causes illness or disease to seven years in prison plus a fine of NT$20 million (US$636,300), and if the discharges cause severe injuries, the business owners could face up to 10 years in prison — or life in the case of fatalities — and fines of NT$25 million to NT$30 million. Employees or agents found responsible for aiding in the dumping of pollutants will face fines 10 times that of their bosses, or NT$300 million.

While the newly approved amendments did not go as far as reform proponents had argued and fought for, they are major steps forward in changing the “business as usual” approach to both politics and environmental protection in this nation.

For that, legislators have earned a rare thank-you.