Why Legco rule changes matter to us

December 07, 2017 12:30
The establishment camp wants to change the rules at the Legislative Council to prevent the opposition lawmakers from blocking government bills. Photo: AFP

Many Hongkongers abhor politics, but it is something that cannot be ignored as it affects our daily lives.

From education to social welfare and medical care, all these issues have political dimensions.

Take for example the plan of the establishment camp to change the rules at the Legislative Council. Their objective is to stop the pan-democrats from resorting to filibusters to block controversial government bills.

It is quite obvious that the pro-Beijing camp wants to reduce Legco's authority to monitor the government and turn the legislature into a rubber stamp.

If the Legco president is able to limit the debate on a particular bill to 15 minutes, how can legislators voice out their concerns and seek out the truth about a proposed legislation?

Let's say the government wants an additional funding of HK$16.5 billion. If the time for lawmakers to question relevant officials about the request is shortened, the situation becomes no different from Legco automatically approving the amount to fill the funding gap.

If such a state of affairs is allowed to happen, officials will certainly be very happy because they can implement all their plans without encountering meaningful opposition. But the public will be the loser. Taxpayers' money will be spent without them knowing if the government projects and programs for which the funding is allocated will truly benefit the people.

The move to change the rules at Legco is supported, and most likely instigated, by the government. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who is supposed to avoid dwelling on legislative matters under the principle of separation of powers, said on Wednesday that the rule changes could help Legco conduct normal business without any filibustering from opposition lawmakers, and approve bills that will redound to the benefit of the people.

Lam's remarks show that the separation of powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government no longer exists in Hong Kong. She is clearly embracing President Xi Jinping's notion that all government institutions should support the administration.

From the pro-Beijing camp’s perspective, the opposition lawmakers have been abusing their authority by blocking government bills such as the electoral reform package in 2015, which would have implemented Beijing's concept of universal suffrage in the recent chief executive election. Since then, the establishment camp has been keen on revising the house rules to ensure the quick and smooth passage of government proposals.

As government officials, along with the mostly government-friendly media, condemn the opposition's filibusters, many ordinary people have developed the notion that what the pro-democracy legislators are doing, in resorting to filibusters, is against the public interest. And some members of the public also assail the opposition for blocking government bills.

A recent survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong said more than half of the respondents opposed filibustering in Legco, and only a third of them approved of such a method being used by pro-democracy legislators.

That said, the opposition lawmakers' lengthy speeches and other tactics to block controversial government bills have failed to gain the support of the general public.

One proposal by pro-Beijing lawmakers is to reduce the number of legislators present at the chamber to establish a quorum for Legco's general meeting every Wednesday to 20 from the current 35, which is half of the number of lawmakers in the council.

This proposal, if passed, would bring huge relief to the establishment camp as this will make it easier for them to proceed with the meeting to tackle the government bills on hand.

Counting the number of lawmakers present to determine if there is a quorum is a method used by the opposition camp to block controversial bills such as the co-location arrangement at the West Kowloon terminus of the Express Rail Link.

But this is only meant as a delaying tactic, rather than an effective means to block the passage of a bill. Still, it is useful in reminding establishment lawmakers of their responsibility to attend to their legislative tasks.

Reducing the quorum number would only reduce the power of lawmakers; their attendance would no longer be so important for a Legco meeting to proceed. They could use their time having coffee while their more industrious colleagues sit in the chamber to participate in the deliberations.

The truth is, all these moves to revise the house rules will only redound to the disadvantage of the community. Changing these rules could mean using public funds on white elephants, building homes at the edge of country parks, allowing Beijing to impose its policies that will affect various aspects of our lives.

This is Beijing's idea of a harmonious society, where people will just say amen to all the government policies and programs, no matter if they are harmful to the public interest.

The pro-democracy camp warned at a news conference on Wednesday that if the Legco rules are changed, the controversial national security law, which will limit the freedoms we enjoy, will be passed without any opposition. In fact, the administration said it will not submit any bill until the rules are changed.

However, given the current public sentiment, the opposition will have a hard time in convincing the people that it is to their interest for the rules to remain unchanged.

That being the case, the people should bear the consequences of their indifference, of throwing their support behind moves to change the Legco rules.

Soon we will have a rubber stamp of a legislature.

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EJ Insight writer