13 December 2019

Upcoming battle over Legco Financial Committee meeting rules

Despite our last-ditch and desperate effort, the pro-Beijing camp succeeded in gaining before Christmas the passage of their amendments to the Legislative Council Rules of Procedure.

However, the war over the Legco meeting rules isn’t over yet, as the establishment camp prepares to mount another offensive and press ahead with amendments to the meeting procedure of the Legco Financial Committee (FC) when the legislature returns from its New Year break. One can certainly expect another round of intense battle between the pro-democracy and the pro-Beijing camps.

The Basic Law has entrusted the Legco with two important powers, i.e. the power to enact, amend or repeal laws proposed by the government under Article 73(1), as well as the power to examine and approve budgets introduced by the administration under Article 73(2).

The reason why I refer to these two powers as “important” is because they are the embodiment of the fundamental principles of separation of powers as well as checks and balances adopted by Hong Kong.

According to Article 50 of the Basic Law, “if the Chief Executive refuses to sign a bill passed the second time by the Legco, or the Legco refuses to pass a budget or any other important bill introduced by the government, and if consensus still cannot be reached after consultations, then the Chief Executive may dissolve the Legislative Council and call a snap election.”

However, under Article 52(2) and (3), if the newly elected Legco still refuses to pass the disputable bill or budget proposal put forward by the government, then the Chief Executive will have to resign.

In other words, the Basic Law has given our legislature solid and important constitutional levers to check and balance the executive branch.

As far as the Legco FC meeting is concerned, it is another arena where some of the most intense and heated debates among lawmakers often take place apart from the council meeting.

It is because in some cases, the funding requests tabled to the FC by the government are even more controversial and divisive than the annual budget proposal it tables to the Legco council.

If we look back at the past voting records of the FC, we can see that the committee rarely succeeded in blocking problematic funding bills proposed by the government over the years.

These included the funding requests for the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the expansion project of Disneyland, the West Kowloon Cultural District and the MTR Shatin-to-Central Link, all of which are plagued by serious cost overruns, but which still gained their passage because of the unquestioning support of the pro-establishment camp.

To make things worse, the FC seldom looks into the reasons behind the huge cost overruns of these extravagant infrastructure projects, again thanks to the collusion between the government and the pro-Beijing camp.

And that explains why the pan-democrats had to seize the last window of opportunity and present a petition to the Legco council demanding an independent inquiry into the cost overruns of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge project right before the pro-Beijing camp’s amendments to the Rules of Procedure were put to the vote.

Apart from the fact that the government has its back covered by pro-Beijing camp lawmakers, another major reason why the FC has been unable to block controversial and unpopular funding bills is that unlike the council meeting, it only requires a quorum of just 9, including the chairperson himself, for a FC meeting to continue, thereby making it almost impossible for pro-democracy lawmakers to mount filibusters by demanding roll calls repeatedly.

And that automatically begs the question: if it is undeniable that we can’t block any controversial funding bill tabled by the government in the FC, and that filibustering is against public interests since all it does is disrupt the FC meeting and defer other non-controversial funding requests, then doesn’t it sound more reasonable that we just amend the FC meeting rules so that opposition lawmakers can no longer pull any delaying tactic in the future?

Perhaps I can give readers another perspective here: once the FC meeting rules are changed in favor of the government, pro-democracy lawmakers will become just the same good rubber stamp as their pro-Beijing counterparts. Is it really a scenario that people who cast their votes for pan-democratic lawmakers in the election and looked to them to exercise their oversight powers really want?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 27

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legco member representing the Legal functional constituency (2012-2016) and a founding member of Civic Party