The ineffectiveness of the Legislative Yuan in keeping rogue bureaucrats in check is part of a global crisis of parliamentarianism.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Parliaments, Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Tai Ji Men Case,” organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on June 30, 2021.
“Parliament inevitably is a kind of theatre.” This comment by Dutch historian Henk Te Velde may serve as an introduction to a reflection on the role of Parliaments in protecting, or endangering, freedom of religion or belief (FORB) and the Tai Ji Men case.
Today, it is quite common to read criticism directed at “drama politics,” implying that Parliaments are losing their role and mostly produce theatrical shows intended for the media. Critics seem to imply that this is a modern phenomenon, created by television and the Internet. This is not the case. The comparison between Parliament and theater is as old as democracy. It was not always negative.
To understand the point, we should go back to the most famous discussion of Parliaments as theaters, by Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who was himself a member of the British Parliament. Burke was a conservative philosopher, and a critic of the French Revolution. He famously compared the members of the revolutionary National Assembly to “comedians of a fair.” However, Burke also compared performances in the British Parliament to a “dignified” Shakespearean drama, and recommended that MPs go to good theaters and learn there how to behave on a public stage.
For Burke, a Parliament may be theater in a good sense, when the publicity of its deliberations meets with dignity. In France, even after the Revolution, Parliamentary debates were more often compared to comedy or melodrama. Foreign visitors noted how much the architecture of Palais Bourbon (where, by the way, the French National Assembly still meets today) was reminiscent of a theater. Delphine de Girardin, a famous socialite and author (writing under the pen name “Vicomte Delaunay”), who had married a MP, wrote that “everything that gives an air of théâtre to the national representation [in the Parliament] deprives it of its dignity.”
In the field of FORB, Parliaments may act as watchdogs of religious liberty against the injustices of the governments. However, the Parliaments’ theatrical side also implies that MPs may perform for their audience of voters following what they believe to be the opinion of the majority or the media. For instance, in Italy and France (and other countries) media campaigns against religious movements labeled as “cults” often lead to shows in the Parliaments by politicians proposing draconian laws that are clearly against the Constitutions and have no chances to be passed, yet may guarantee to some MPs a couple of minutes in the evening news.
In Taiwan, we know that the Legislative Yuan held hearings and discussed the Tai Ji Men case several times. I have not seen videos of these events but can easily imagine how dramatic they should have been. The Tai Ji Men case has all the elements of a Shakespearean drama in itself. Yet, because of the lack of results, the question arises: did the theatrical nature of modern Parliaments lead some MPs to make promises they later forgot? How many of them were just trying to please the diziwho, after all, vote in the elections? How many of them were sincere, and worked hard to give Tai Ji Men justice? Probably many were, but the theatrical nature of Parliaments always leaves a doubt on the performances.
Political scientists have also noted that today Parliaments can be compared to theaters in another, negative way. Theater may be beautiful and inspiring, but it is not reality. Parliaments may become just the theatrical part of politics, while the real decisions are taken by cabinet ministers, bureaucrats, and judges, whose deliberations are less visible to the public but much more effective.
Italy, where I live, is one of the countries that has witnessed the prevalence of the judiciary over the legislative. Judges have created and defeated governments by investigating the right person at the right time and letting the media know what they were doing, no matter what the final outcome of the trials would be. Burke believed that the Parliament was where theatre happened while courts of law, at least in Britain, rarely admitted an audience and proceeded in a less exciting way. But today we see a theatralization of the judiciary as well, particularly of the prosecutorial function. Prosecutors act theatrically and become media stars, as the case of Prosecutor Hou in the Tai Ji Men case (and in other cases he handled) clearly demonstrated.
The prosecutors’ theatre may be more powerful than the parliamentary theatre. It is not about the law; it is about the media. Prosecutor Hou in the Tai Ji Men case violated many laws. Parliamentarians protested against his excesses. Yet, his theatrical antics pleased some media, which nicknamed him the “Rambo prosecutor,” and the Parliament, or other institutions, never managed to have him sanctioned.
Bureaucrats are the antithesis of theater. They often operate in the shadows. While the Parliament plays for an audience, bureaucrats play for themselves and their deliberations are invisible—only, their effects are very much visible. Rogue bureaucrats may leave to the Parliaments both the visibility and the ineffectiveness of the theatre, while they keep the real power, and their abuses remain unchecked. Again, in the Tai Ji Men case, hundreds of parliamentarians asked the rogue tax and enforcement bureaucrats who were persecuting Tai Ji Men to stop their patently illegal actions. They got no results. Hundreds of legislators—no results.
This gives a strong impression that in Taiwan some bureaucrats believe they can leave the Legislative Yuan to perform its political theater, while they continue to run the real show and to do whatever they want, just ignoring the parliamentarians.
It does not happen only in Taiwan, but certainly Tai Ji Men’s is a spectacular case. It shows that the principle we celebrate in this International Day of Parliamentarianism is in a state of crisis, even in democratic societies. We should congratulate those MPs who fought a difficult fight and took a clear stand in this conflict opposing Tai Ji Men to a handful of rogue bureaucrats. However, we should also note that so far, the rogue bureaucrats won, and something should be done to restore both justice and the very credibility of a democratic Parliament.