Will the Big Mouth Clause Shut Political Appointees' Mouths?
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 16, 2010
The Legislative Yuan has completed its first reading of the "Big Mouth Clause," a draft law regulating the conduct of political appointees.
The law would require political appointees to step down if their verbal indiscretions adversely affect the government's policy decisions or public image. If the bill becomes law, the quiet voice inside political appointees' heads will be replaced by the stentorian voice of John Law. The inevitable result will be endless controversy.
Suppose the "Big Mouth Clause" becomes law. On the one hand, the public will expect political appointees to comport themselves with greater decorum. On the other hand, it will underscore the extent to which political appointees' words and deeds provoke criticism. The reality is that
political appointees' speaking skills could stand improvement. But the problem is, who decides whose mouth is "too big?" And suppose someone has to step down because he had a big mouth? Will we really be better off if political appointees have "no mouths?" Will we really be better off if they never express an opinion? Is such a provision really necessary? Or will it merely create more problems than it solves? This is a question worth considering.
So-called political appointees are government officials who have been appointed for political reasons, and therefore bear political responsibility. They are different from civil service administrators. Anyone qualified to be a political appointee, is in principle forward-looking and politically sensitive. If he commits a major slip of the tongue, if he is guilty of misconduct, or if he fails to accomplish his appointed task, he should resign without being asked, as an expression of political responsibility. For political appointees that is taken for granted. In fact, we have no need to await legal guidelines. Under our current system,
whenever a ruling administration feels its own political appointees have been guilty of misconduct or incompetence, it can replace them at its discretion. Suppose a political appointee trips over his own tongue and touches off a firestorm. If his superior fails to take action, or attempts to shield him, he is likely to get into trouble himself.
Officials may step down on their own initiative. Or they may be replaced by their superiors. Political appointees may be forced to step down due to a slip of the tongue. None of these eventualities pose a problem. The point is that slips of the tongue are a political matter. They can be dealt with flexibly, as a political matter. But if political matters are turned into legal matters, then they must be dealt with rigidly, as a legal matter. Those who must deal with the matter are likely to come across as rigid sticklers. For example, when Premier Wu spoke about health care he mentioned Lin Yi-shi. Because he failed to pause "one tenth of a second," between phrases, he was misunderstood. Many days passed before the matter was finally cleared up. Sports Commission Vice Chairman Chen Hsien-chung was forced to resign over the Yang Shu-chun incident.
He got himself into hot water when he said the athletes "would have to lump it." But in retrospect, why did he say what he did? If he said it in order to safeguard the rights of the Chinese Taipei team, can he really be blamed?
Besides, haven't we been touting the lifting of martial law, and the right of free speech? If the government suddenly begins controlling the speech of political appointees, people may get the impression the government is attempting to turn the clock back. No wonder some people are saying that the law is akin to the ancient practice of executing those who criticize the emperor, and signals the advent of a "white terror for political appointees." More ominously, many current political appointees were once members of the bureaucracy. They are often verbally challenged and afraid to face the public. Their ineptitude and fear often lead to poor communication and bad decision-making. If legal penalties are imposed on them for speaking out, such officials will surely shrink even deeper into their shells. They will perceive speaking to the public as negotiating a minefield. They may even become irresolute fence-sitters who go along to get along. For a liberal democracy, such a chilling effect on political appointees is not something anyone wants to see.
To control what political appointees say, they must bear primary responsibility for their speech. They must be adept at communicating and dialoguing with the public, but also avoid glibness. If they utter something inappropriate, they must apologize. If their apology fails to remedy the situation, they must resign without being asked. This is to be expected.
Japan's Minister of Legal Affairs Yanagida touched off a firestorm with "two words" and betrayed his contempt for the Diet. Having blundered,
he had little choice but to apologize and step down. Of course, different political parties have different norms. KMT officials are often inept at public speaking. They often fail to communicate effectively during the decision-making process. When it comes to cabinet reshuffles, they are often a day late and a dollar short. DPP officials often have the gift of gab.
Sometimes officials such as Tu Cheng-sheng or Chuang Kuo-jung deliberately incite controversy. The ruling DPP administration may feel they did nothing wrong or cover for them. Even if we had a "Big Mouth Clause," would that really compel them to step down?
The Examination Yuan has proposed a "political appointees law." Apparently it has lost its understanding of the distinction between the party and the government. For example, the proposed law stipulates that political appointees shall not use government resources for partisan political activities. It stipulates that when political appointees leave office, they must be accountable. It stipulates that they may not conceal or damage documents or data. It stipulates that during working hours they may not participate in partisan political activities. Two changes in ruling parties have already taken place. Yet the no man's land between the party and the state has apparently grown. This law will redefine and clarify the powers and responsibilities of political appointees. It will encourage both the ruling and opposition parties to engage in reflection. But adding the "Big Mouth Clause" to the law is not necessarily an improvement. It is not necessarily beneficial. The existence of the provisions may encourage the arbitrary invocation of the law merely to harass political appointees. It may invite unnecessary conflict and turbulence.
Given political developments on Taiwan, stuffed shirt political appointees no longer meet the requirement of the times. If they lack communication skills, they may find it difficult to be effective political appointees. In that case, officials who commit verbal gaffes should resign before being asked.
We hardly need laws to force them out. Until then, we may wish to leave more room for discretion. We hardly need to sew their mouths shut with the law.