Beginning of the end of Budget filibuster

May 20, 2014 15:33
Chief Executive Leung chun-ying says his government will not seek extra funding from legislators because such a move will only encourage radicals to hold up the budget. Photo: HKEJ

The ongoing filibuster of Hong Kong’s 2014-15 Budget is set to take an important turn as early as Wednesday after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sharply criticized radical lawmakers for holding up the measure and Legislative Council President Tsang Yok-sing promised to “better manage” debates during the next Legco sitting. 

Speaking before the weekly Executive Council meeting, Leung accused the filibustering lawmakers of not doing their jobs.

He warned a range of livelihood and grassroots services including education, elderly subsidies and welfare will be adversely affected. He called on people to call out the legislators in question.

Leung said provisional funding for the government will run out in June and his administration will not seek extra money, which he said will only encourage the radical legislators to press ahead with their delaying tactics.

Leung’s warning came after his top aides, including Financial Secretary John Tsang, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and several ministers in charge of finance and health warned of the serious consequences of any delay in the passage of the budget.

Legco chief Tsang does not think the government will run out of money. Still, he is no doubt under increasing pressure to put an end to the filibuster.

He said the chance of passage of the budget by the end of this month is slim if nothing is done.

The two demands of the filibuster camp from People Power and League of Social Democrats -- a HK$10,000 cash handout for each resident and a universal pension scheme -- have gained considerable support among the populace, particularly among the grassroots.

But the majority of people, particularly the middle class, have become increasingly doubtful about the wisdom of giving out cash to every citizen including billionaires like Li Ka-shing. Fears among the middle class that they will end up having to foot the bulk of government spending on welfare have prompted them to resist the idea of a cash handout.

Meanwhile, most people have accepted the government’s position on universal pension that there should be a detailed study and thorough public consultation before it is given the go-ahead.

Last year, the same group of radical legislators including “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Albert Chan filibustered the budget with similar cash handout and pension scheme demands. The strategy ended after Tsang exercised his powers to limit the sessions.

Legislators have tried to introduce new rules on filibuster, or more specifically, procedures to end filibuster but discussions have gotten nowhere.

As happened in the 2013 budget filibuster, Tsang Yok-sing has the unenviable task of pressing the “game over” button in the ongoing debate.

He knows well that he must abide by the rules. Also, he needs to find a balance between giving ample time to the elected lawmakers to give their views and ensuring the legislature does its job effectively.

The possibility of a Hong Kong government shutdown, as happened in the United States due to congressional gridlock, is remote.

But there is a growing feeling that such filibustering has become excessive and threatens to disrupt the normal operation of government.

Also, importantly, the public is getting fed up with the political theatrics featuring brickbats and verbal abuse at Legco sessions. Patience is wearing thin.

Failure of the government and the legislature to end the filibuster will aggravate these sentiments and hurt public confidence in their political institutions.

Under the Basic Law, the executive and legislative branches are separate organs of power with clearly defined responsibilities. When the heads of these branches (Leung and Tsang) spoke out against the filibuster Tuesday, they signaled the beginning of the end of this year's version of events.

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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.