Halting filibuster seen as 'unwise'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am

A former Legislative Council president thinks Tsang Yok-sing was 'unwise' to invoke a rule never before used to stop a filibuster of debate on a bill to restrict by-elections.

Andrew Wong Wang-fat, the last president of the Hong Kong legislature during British rule, said Tsang took a big risk when he halted the debate at 4.30am.

'There is no rule saying that the president can stop a debate and put a motion to vote immediately,' Wong said. 'The president has a lot of power in his hands. He has the responsibility to cater to the interests of the minority.'

Wong also said: 'A better way is to let the full council decide whether to stop a debate.'

Filibustering is used to delay the passage of a law through procedural devices during debate. These include tabling a lot of amendments, raising spurious points of order, and making excessively long speeches.

Wong said the president could consider expelling a member if they kept repeating irrelevant points.

Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung, of Chinese University, said: 'In overseas parliaments, there are established mechanisms to handle or defeat a filibuster. But here in Hong Kong, what we see is that it all relies on a decision by the president.'

Choy said the incident would tarnish Tsang's image as a president who was fair and just.

At the centre of the controversy is Article 92 of the Legislative Council rules of procedure. It states that 'in any matter not provided for in these rules of procedure, the practice and procedure to be followed in the council shall be such as may be decided by the president who may, if he thinks fit, be guided by the practice and procedure of other legislatures'.

In Britain, the Speaker of the House of Commons has the power under standing orders to require a member who is trying to filibuster to keep to the point or stop speaking.

In the United States, a filibuster can be stopped by invoking cloture - a parliamentary procedure which forces a vote to take place. It requires three-fifths of the Senate to agree to stop debating. In the House of Representatives, a debate can be ended with a simple majority vote.

Tsang applied the rule to stop a filibuster by People Power lawmakers, who tabled 1,306 amendments to the by-elections bill.

The bill would force lawmakers to wait six months after resigning a seat before running in a by-election. The government tabled the bill after five pan-democratic lawmakers resigned in 2010 to trigger by-elections they contested in the hope the polls would serve as a de facto referendum on the pace and scope of democratisation.

The debate - which had been adjourned twice in the last two weeks after members' attendance fell below the minimum required - resumed at about 2.30pm on Wednesday, the start of Legco's first all-night debate in two years. Now lawmakers must vote on the amendments to the bill.

Pan-democrats called for a review of the Legco rules of procedure to limit the powers of the council's president.

A Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor statement expressed concern that Tsang's action could set a dangerous precedent by allowing the president to do whatever he wanted.

Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee of the Civic Party, vice-chairwoman of the rules of procedure committee, said: 'We worry that the rule could be easily abused and the president can expand his power easily to do whatever he likes.'

She was satisfied the rule could be applied to deal with minor procedural issues, but doubted if Tsang had the power to stop debate over the by-elections bill, which was of 'grave importance'.

Albert Chan Wai-yip, one of the pan-democrats delaying the passage of the bill, criticised Tsang's move as politically motivated. Miriam Lau Kin-yee, of the Liberal Party, also said she was surprised by Tsang's move.

GAGGING ORDERS

United States

Three-fifths of the Senate - usually 60 of 100 senators - can invoke 'cloture' to end a filibuster and take a vote on a measure.

In the House of Representatives a simple majority can end a debate.

France

Constitution gives the government the power to stop a filibuster.

Britain

Speaker of the House of Commons has the power under standing orders to require a member who is trying to filibuster to keep to the point or stop speaking.

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