Is it time for the opposition to throw in the towel?

December 12, 2017 12:45
For the establishment camp, there is no better time to pass the proposed changes to Legco rules than now. Photo: AFP

The democrats appear to be fighting a losing battle in their effort to prevent changes to the Legislative Council rules. Public opinion is not on their side. Neither is time.

The establishment camp is keen on pushing through with the changes, which would stop filibusters and lower the quorum, weapons the opposition use to either delay or stop the proceedings to tackle controversial government bills.

The administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam is solidly behind the move, although under the principle of separation of powers, the executive branch is not supposed to meddle with the affairs of the legislature.

Something must happen before Lam leaves for her duty visit to Beijing later this week, and nothing would please her boss, President Xi Jinping, more than the news that the Legco rule changes are in the bag.

There is no better time to pass the proposed changes than now, when six of the pan-democrats have been disqualified after the court invalidated their oath-taking, and the pro-Beijing camp has gained control of Legco.

All that the opposition can do to block the changes is to resort to delaying tactics, disrupt the proceedings, and prevent a vote.

Is there really nothing the opposition can do to sway public opinion to their side, to convince the public that the changes would turn Legco into a rubber stamp like the National People's Congress in Beijing, that the changes are inimical to their interests?

The democrats want to resort to action similar to the Occupy campaign in 2014. They want their supporters to camp out in front of Legco to oppose the proposed changes, which could be approved as early as next week, before the legislature adjourns for the Christmas holiday.

But would such an action be enough for the opposition to win the hearts and minds of the people, and turn the tide in their favor?

The opposition's message is too simple. They are saying that the rule changes would lead to the enactment of Article 23 of the Basic Law, and restrict the freedom of speech that we currently enjoy.

But the public view is that the rule changes would give order to the Legco proceedings, put a stop to the long delays that to them are simply a waste of time and people's money. In short, the public has had enough of the opposition's old tricks.

One of the proposed changes is to lower the minimum number of legislators present in a meeting to establish a quorum to 20, from the current 35 or half of the entire body. The opposition has used this rule to stop the legislature from voting on controversial bills and also to criticize pro-Beijing lawmakers who are often absent from sessions.

If the proposal is approved, it would no longer be difficult for the establishment camp to start a meeting and facilitate the enactment of controversial government bills.

But such a proposal is itself controversial, and may be a violation of the Basic Law. According to Article 75 of our mini-constitution, the quorum of the Legislative Council shall be not less than one-half of all its members. In fact, the government may need to ask Beijing for another interpretation to make the law effective in Hong Kong.

Former Legco president Andrew Wong on Monday weighed in on the controversy, noting that both the establishment camp and the pan-democrats have gone overboard.

He said most of the proposed rule changes are unnecessary, but some rules, such as the one that allows the removal of the press from the chamber, are indeed outdated and should be scrapped.

Wong urged lawmakers to handle the matter more carefully and to spend more time to arrive at a consensus.

But the entire pro-Beijing camp, including Legco president Andrew Leung, wants to set a deadline to have the rule changes approved as soon as possible. Leung, in fact, has extended the Legco sessions to have the proposals approved.

In truth, the Legco leadership has shut the door to any further deliberation on the proposals or to reach a compromise with the democrats.

Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung admitted that the democrats' options to block the proposed rule changes are quite limited.

He did urge both sides to sit down to work out a plan to restore normal Legco functions. "We should not keep fighting against each other at Legco," Yeung said.

In the face of defeat at Legco, what else could the democrats do? Would they now throw in the towel and return to the parliament of the streets?

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EJ Insight writer