Drafting blunder sheds light on Taiwan's legislative shenanigans

Badly drafted amendment to law on accounting for funds triggers outcry

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 5:38am

Taiwan's legislature has nullified a controversial amendment to the Accounting Act, at cabinet request, following a blunder that cast a spotlight on the often absurd goings on in the Legislative Yuan.

The amendment was meant to decriminalise what had been seen as abuses in the way that university professors claimed government research funds and elected officials used public funds for private purposes.

But because of the careless way the amendment was written, professors were omitted from the exemption list, with only administrative staff at academic institutions and elected officials spared.

The amendment was passed by government and opposition lawmakers on May 31 but triggered a public outcry on the island when the omission of professors was spotted.

It has been a common practice in Taiwan for professors to use money left over from research grants for other purposes, ranging from private expenditure to benefitting their classes by installing new equipment. However, the Accounting Act outlaws such practices and more than 600 professors have been found guilty of violating the legislation.

The Taiwanese public were particularly upset because the amendment could lead to the release of former legislator Yen Ching-piao, who is serving a 3-1/2-year prison term for spending nearly NT$20 million (HK$5.2 million) from his special allowance on trips to hostess bars during his time as speaker of the Taichung county council between 1999 and 2000.

They were also angry at the way lawmakers from the governing Kuomintang and opposition parties including the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) dealt with the amendment.

Taiwanese media reported that 11 senior legislators, including the speaker, deputy speaker and party caucus heads, discussed the controversial draft amendment behind closed doors. Knowing that it could meet with public criticism, the amendment was rushed through the legislature in just 20 minutes on the night before the legislature went into recess, the media reports said.

The public uproar increased the pressure on both the DPP and the government of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, which has time and again boasted of its commitment to integrity and its clean image.

DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang was the first to apologise to the public. He requested a meeting with Premier Jiang Yi-huah and called for the cabinet to reconsider the already passed amendment before it was promulgated.

Taiwan's cabinet has the right to demand the legislature reconsider a passed bill that is deemed inappropriate, but risks dismissal if the legislature rejects that demand.

At first, Jiang was reluctant to do so, on the grounds that it could bolster the public's impression that the government was one of those responsible for the blunder. But hours later, Ma apologised for the fiasco and pledged that the cabinet would ask the legislature to reconsider the amendment and make all the changes necessary to meet public expectations.

In the end, the cabinet did as Ma pledged. On June 13, the legislature held an extraordinary session with all legislators unanimously voting for a reconsideration of the amendment. The nullification of the amendment, dubbed the "Yen Ching-piao decree" by local media, has seen the law revert to its original state.

There's no telling how much taxpayers' money was wasted in the process.

The way a small group of party caucus members decided on the amendment behind closed doors shows how Taiwan's democracy can easily be harmed by a small group of powerful people. If only a few legislators can decide what kind of law should be amended, there is no need for the legislature, which is supposed to work in the public's interests.

Meanwhile, the government and the legislature should set clear regulations to govern what professors and elected officials can and cannot spend their public allowances on.