17 February 2020
The pro-establishment camp sees the role of the legislature as being that of facilitator to the government, not a watchdog. Photo: Bloomberg
The pro-establishment camp sees the role of the legislature as being that of facilitator to the government, not a watchdog. Photo: Bloomberg

Plans for a pussycat

How do you turn a toothless tiger into a pussycat? This is the question gleefully being answered by the Lam administration and its ever-obedient friends in the pro-government camp.

They know that they have a relatively small window of opportunity to change the rules of the legislature after six members of the pro-democracy camp were expelled. As they cannot indefinitely postpone elections to fill these seats the government lackeys have roughly another five months to use their unassailable majority in the chamber to transform its rules and procedures.

Interestingly, but little commented upon, they have virtually admitted that they have absolutely no popular mandate for doing this because they know that once elections are held, and if there is some kind of level playing field, their candidates will have little chance of success. They are therefore determined to use the interim period to push through changes, regardless of public opinion.

Some cynics, who are even more profoundly cynical than the writer of this column, argue that it really does not matter what happens in Legco because it is a largely meaningless body. This kind of defeatism serves the public very badly because even dysfunctional public bodies have their uses.

Yet the institutionalized dysfunctionality of the legislature cannot be ignored. Its two-tier system ensures that the largely unelected representatives from the rotten boroughs fill half the seats and can therefore overrule the votes of the other half of the chamber that have actually secured a public mandate.

Moreover, members of the legislature cannot even introduce legislation with a bearing on public policy without government consent. The government has sweeping powers to control the lawmaker’s agenda, allowing it to introduce and withdraw legislation at will. Officials can refuse to attend lawmaker’s panels and make themselves accountable and they are entirely free to ignore any recommendations made by these panels.

Despite this the legislature does have a kind of blunderbuss power over the purse strings in as much as it can knock back expenditure applications, while lacking the power to amend them. It also provides a forum for calling the government to account and can, with great effort, make life difficult for officials.

Now, in the name of efficient administration, a slew of proposals are being put forward by pro-government lawmakers to curtail debate, limit the ability of legislators to question officials and curtail the launching of enquiries into government action. There are also plans to give Legco’s president new powers to veto the introduction of amendments.

The pro-government camp regards questioning of government policy as obstruction and believes that attempts to change policy are futile and therefore obstructionist. In other words, they see the role of the legislature as being that of facilitator to the government, not a watchdog.

That said, some of the filibustering tactics and the devotion that some pro-democrats have for waving posters, are clearly tiresome but tiresome is no justification for changing the rules of engagement to such an extent that is likely to increase this kind of posturing if genuine debate and scrutiny of government are to be severely curtailed.

The toothless tiger will become a pussycat under these arrangements. Indeed the legislature will be reduced to the role of a nodding chamber, maybe not as servile as China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, but clearly something that follows the spirit of a legislature whose role is to affirm government policy and have no role in its formulation.

The general public is showing little interest in these matters that appear to be too arcane for the average person to care about. Yet the reality is anything but arcane as these maneuvers strike at the heart of Hong Kong’s constitutional system and deliver another nail in the coffin of representative government.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author