Top officials wage war against filibusters

May 14, 2014 15:26
Carrie Lam cites disruption to public service caused by the filibusters. Photo: HKEJ

History does repeat itself. That’s the lesson the Leung Chun-ying team is learning with the filibustering of the 2014/2015 Budget turning from bad to worse and spreading like a virus in the legislature. Deciding that enough is enough, they came out one after another to beat the filibusters.

Speaking in her capacity as the acting chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday warned of the dire consequences caused by the filibusters. Her warning came two days after the Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah called for an end to the games being played at the Legislative Council. 

In an article on his official blog entitled “It’s never too late to repent” on Sunday, Tsang made a scathing attack against the filibusters by radical pan-democratic legislators, saying it was to no one’s interest other than that of the radicals who wanted media exposure. Worse, he said, even media were fed up. Tsang asked: “Why would the actors still remain stubborn and continue a farce that will not win them any applause?”

The financial chief cited the case of the Hospital Authority, which stands to lose HK$1 million in bank interests because it has to prepare a contingency fund in case of a delay in the passage of the budget bill.

If the price tag of HK$1 million sounds peanuts compared to the authority’s multibillion-dollar budget, Lam cited the delay in the renovation of the Queen Mary Hospital, one of the city's major public hospitals located in Pokfulam, to warn of the disruption to public service caused by the filibusters.

She said it was also worrying that the filibusters have spread to other sessions at the legislature, citing the backlog of items pending for discussion and approval at the Finance Committee.

And this was not a case of scare-mongering. As she spoke at the government headquarters in Tamar, a Legco sub-committee studying the government’s plans to expand a landfill and build an incinerator descended into chaos at the legislature nearby.

Protesters and the media were expelled during a filibuster by an opponent of the proposals. After the meeting resumed at another venue, a pan-democratic legislator intensified the filibuster by raising more than 100 motions.

In an orchestrated verbal war against filibustering, three ministers also fired salvos on Tuesday. Education Minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim said a delay in the passage of the budget meant lunch subsidies for needy students in the new school year, starting in September, might not be put in place. Universities, he warned, might have to sell their assets for cash to pay staff salaries.

The crisis talk, however, is probably the utmost the government can do to try to galvanize public opinion to put pressure on the legislators to abandon their filibusters.

Chinese officials may insist there is no such thing as separation of powers, similar to some Western democracies, in the city’s political structure under the Basic Law. The truth is the Legco runs independently from the executive authorities in accordance with their own rules and procedures.

Legco President Tsang Yok-sing may also feel fed up with the excessive play of filibusters at their sessions. He runs the risk of undermining the integrity and credibility of the legislature if he bows to political pressure to “tear down” the filibusters that go against the rules and procedures.

Despite calls for the formulation of a new mechanism on the termination of filibusters following the 133 hours of filibustering of the budget last year, lawmakers have yet to see eye to eye on the details.

Tsang said he would meet with department heads on Thursday to map out contingency plans as the chance that this year’s budget will be passed this month looks slim. Short-term funding for government services is due to run out by mid-June.

Scenes of departments closing down their services due to a cash crisis in Hong Kong as seen in the United States not too long ago remain a remote scenario.

But officials’ fears that filibustering may no longer be an annual game in the budget session, but a routine in the city’s political life, are not unfounded at a time when the political development enters a phase of profound uncertainty because of the electoral reform row and mainland-Hong Kong tensions.

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He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.