Parade of food scares is symptom of Taiwan's political malaise

Parade of food scares is symptom of Taiwan's political malaise
Legislators from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party display placards demanding the opposition lawmakers stop a protest against gutter oil during the new session at the parliament in Taipei on September 12, 2014.

TAIPEI - Chastened by public ire after a series of food scandals, procrastinating lawmakers found new resolve and worked overtime to pass the "killer app" of a food safety law that they promised would fix the issue once and for all.

That was eight months ago. But you might have a strong feeling of deja vu because it is indeed happening all over again.

Facing public criticism from groups such as the Consumers Foundation for failing to pass the food safety act before the end of the last Legislative Yuan session, lawmakers called for extra time at the end of January in which they squeezed in 85 bills, including the food safety law.

Now we are back at the stage where lawmakers yell "This is Sparta!" and kick unscrupulous food makers down the bottomless pit. Just yesterday, Kuomintang (KMT) Legislator Alex Fai urged his colleagues to help pass a killer app 2.0 that will "lock up the bad business owners until they go bankrupt and die." Again lawmakers vow to burn the midnight oil to get things done even as this paper is going to press.

But of course if lawmakers are really so determined to stamp out food scandals we wouldn't be here again. As recent as Sept. 30, the Legislative Yuan tabled a motion to request the Cabinet to draft a food safety law amendment because some lawmakers disagreed.

The one thing politicians are truly committed to is the political fight.

In a widely circulated voting record of lawmakers, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislative caucus was accused of boycotting the food bill amendment during the January overtime session. In response, the DPP pointed out that the record was taken out of context and does not show the trick played by the ruling KMT. The KMT put the food safety amendment at the very end of the long list of 85 bills, leaving the opposition no time to debate on the amendment during the short extra session, the DPP argued. The opposition suggested that they had no choice but to vote against the KMT's version as it rejected the DPP's proposal that the bill should also help businesses impacted by compensations demanded from illegal food suppliers.

To be frank, both parties were doing what politicians are supposed to do nowadays. Knowing that the opposition dare not filibuster the food safety bill, the KMT caucus basically strong-armed the opposition and got the bill passed at literally the last minute. The DPP, on the other hand, did not truly "block" the bill in January. With the KMT holding a large Legislative Yuan majority, the DPP's "no" vote was more a statement than a boycott. A true DPP "block" is unmistakable and more often than not includes barricading the rostrum.

In a country where some candidates sometimes dress up in the costume of a superhero or Chinese deity, grandstanding and posturing are expected from politicians. However, some things should be above politics, especially when there is so much else politicians can fight over. When basic needs such as food safety are at stake, lawmakers should work together and send a strong unified message to both the public and unscrupulous businessmen. The continued failure of lawmakers to address food safety issues is no accident. By making everything a political fight instead of a matter of standards, lawmakers have confused the public, demoralized and made cynical civil servants and offered dishonest businesses an opportunity to game the system.

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