Only referendum can tell true public opinion about reform plan

April 27, 2015 11:30
The voice of Hongkongers is best heard through a referendum. Photo: Internet

The Hong Kong government has finally launched its political reform proposal, and over the next two months, it will mobilize public support as much as it can to put pressure on the pan-democrats to “pocket it first”.

At first glance, the arguments of the government and the pro-establishment camp seem fully justified: the pan-democrats should respect public opinion as they always claim they do.

So if opinion polls find that most Hongkongers are in favour of the government’s proposal -- for example, more than 50 percent of them -- then the pan-democrats should vote for the proposal.

It is intriguing that at this delicate moment, the pro-establishment camp has suddenly turned more democratic than the pan-democrats.

It goes without saying that the government and the pro-establishment camp hold a double standard on other issues, such as the abolition of the functional constituency.

They only cite public opinion on selected issues, especially when it serves their political purposes.

However, are the majority of the public really in favour of “pocket it first”?

The current public opinion that the government refers to has mainly been gathered by opinion polls, but opinion polls do have their limitations, and there are often discrepancies between poll results and the real opinion of the public.

Therefore, in most other democratic countries, when it comes to fundamental issues such as political reform, governments seldom make their decisions solely based on opinion poll results.

If opinion polls were really that authoritative, then all elections would become unnecessary.

I am not saying that the results of opinion polls are totally useless -- in fact they do constitute a very important reference for policymakers -- but they definitely cannot be used as the only basis for making important political decisions that will have far-reaching implications for society.

Moreover, public opinion is often volatile, and it can vary on the same issue at different points in time.

Even if mainstream public opinion was really in favour of “pocket it first” over the next couple of months, and the pan-democrats insisted on voting against the reform proposal, it would still be very hard to tell whether the pan-democrats would necessarily be rejected by mainstream voters in the Legislative Council election next year, because there are simply too many variables ahead.

Therefore, the government would be too naïve if it attempted to threaten the pan-democrats with public opinion at this stage.

If our administration does really care about public opinion so much, as it claims, then why doesn’t it hold a referendum to find out what the public really wants, like many democratic countries often do when it comes to important national issues?

No matter how massive the scale of an opinion poll, it might only represent the views of a small number of people, as compared with the entire population.

Respondents of an opinion poll often give their views passively, which means they might not really care about the issue but give their opinions only because they just happen to have been chosen to respond to the questions.

In contrast, people who cast their votes in a referendum are actively expressing their views on a particular issue, and therefore it represents a kind of active public opinion.

They cast their votes not because they are forced to or chosen to do so, but because they really care about that particular issue.

Besides, every eligible citizen of voting age is given a fair chance to express his or her opinion, unlike with opinion polls, in which only certain people are chosen to give their views.

If the Hong Kong government is really determined to use public opinion as political leverage to press the pan-democrats to vote for its reform proposal, then what it really should do is hold a referendum immediately!

Only by doing so can the true wishes of the general public about our political future be found out accurately.

A referendum might not be legally binding, but I am confident that the majority of our public will definitely be eager to seize the opportunity to express their views about this important issue, which will affect the next generation, and nobody can afford to ignore the decision of the people expressed through a referendum.

Holding a referendum is the only way to demonstrate true respect for public opinion, and it will also mark a milestone on our path toward true democracy.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 24.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong