Starting at the beginning

On Monday, Taiwanese legislators agreed to amend the island's constitution to change their election system and halve their headcount. It was the smartest, bravest decision they have ever made, one that will usher in a new era in Taiwan's democratic development and change the course of cross-strait relations.

Observers might argue that neither Taiwan's official name nor its territorial claim was changed, so there is nothing to fret about. But that would miss the point. The passing of this vote cemented a new-found consensus in Taiwanese politics; that it is time to craft a workable constitution, and the way to start is at the beginning - by establishing a legitimate body of representatives to do it.

These sheep voted for their abattoir's new design, of course, because opinion polls showed that 70 per cent of the population wanted them to. The figure is significant, as it suggests that people who were born on the island before 1949 - the so-called benshengren - are shedding their fear of the future. Polls conducted by the Mainland Affairs Council have previously shown reluctance among the public to tamper with the cross-strait status quo so as not to upset Beijing. Waishengren, or people who came over from the mainland after the civil war, have always been immovable on the subject. They comprise about 30 per cent of the population.

These polls were considered uncontroversial because they never asked precisely what was meant by the status quo. That was partly because the previous Kuomintang-led government which crafted them was terrified by what the answer might be. But it also recognised that the benshengren were not ready for the question, either.

Three things have happened in the past year to change everything. The first was President Chen Shui-bian's decision to stake his re-election on constitutional reform. The second was the opposition alliance's realisation that its stated commitment to eventual reunification - a key plank of the status quo - had become a millstone. The third was Beijing's belligerence, which led many middle class to believe that no matter how civil they are to their mainland brethren, it is not going to make a difference once the 2008 Olympics are over.

The net result is that the definition of the status quo - the truth that dare not speak its name - is being brought into question. Does maintaining it, for instance, mean that Taiwan must remain committed to the ideal of reunification? Anyone suggesting this in Taiwan now will find their political career over before it began. Or does it mean simply not tampering with the constitution? Oops, too late. But surely it means not changing the official name? Premier Yu Shyi-kun used the term 'Taiwan, Republic of China' 15 times in a speech to diplomatic allies last week. So what does that leave? The decision to downsize the legislature to 113 seats was made to conform with the reality that Taiwan no longer needs so many to govern so few. The next logical step is for surveys to ask if it is time to get real about the territory, too.

The flag is a no-brainer. Now that Taiwan is a multi-party democracy, is it still appropriate for one of its political parties to be represented in the flag? (The blue star is the KMT's)

These questions could be put to the general population in a referendum after having been approved by a new, streamlined legislature - one that convenes six months before the next Olympics. Then again, they might never have to be asked. The people of Taiwan are not stupid, nor are they suicidal. All they need is a bit of respect.

Anthony Lawrance is the Post's special projects editor