Mutual destruction

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2012, 12:00am


In the past two weeks, the Hong Kong people watching the transgressions of their Legislative Council have collectively experienced every functional adult's recurring nightmare: being stuck in a long, boring meeting that just won't end.

In response to the government's decision to push through a bill that would prohibit legislators from standing in a by-election within six months of resignation, the opposition forces have staged a particularly lethal variant of the filibuster, which resulted in over 1,000 amendments and many sleepless nights.

Critics derided the effort as a waste of public funds. One estimation puts the marginal cost each day at HK$1 million.

But people who have found themselves in similar situations know very well that the cost is hardly the primary objection. Time is. The optimist in all of us would like to think that legislators and civil servants alike have more meaningful use of their finite time than sitting through a dramatic interpretation of the bill performed at the speed and in the character of slow-talking Premier Wen Jiabao .

That is why most legislatures (though not ours) have procedures in place to end debate and, more importantly, proceed to a vote when such a motion is supported by a supermajority. Parliamentary rules are meant to facilitate deliberation by ensuring that the minority, despite its disadvantages numerically, will not be arbitrarily silenced. However, no one can reasonably claim unrestricted speaking time considering that the majority also has the right to make laws in an efficient and effective manner. After all, the legislature is a decision-making body.

In our case, filibustering has assumed a new form: the congestion mainly comes from the seemingly infinite number of trivial amendments, one for every possible scenario a member should be - in Albert Chan Wai-yip and Wong Yuk-man's opinion - exempted from the government's proposed policy. The two have truly refined the art of specificity, as no deadly disease or illiberal regime is deprived of its own clause.

Although the majority will has so far prevailed, with the amendments being rejected one by one, this situation is most certainly not a victory for our democracy. Activity that does not advance a bill and serves no purpose but to indefinitely delay voting prevents lawmakers from exercising their role as elected representatives of the people. The most crippling result of a filibuster is its obstruction to the legislative process.

Procedurally, there is no lasting solution to this problem. The boundlessly creative minds of the opposition can easily come up with new antics to achieve the same effect, examples of which need not be reproduced here lest they inspire further mischief. But take a step back from the rules and proceedings and we see a game of tit-for-tat in which everyone suffers and nobody benefits, save those who manage to profit from ridiculing the political stand-off.

Indeed, our troublemakers can be called many things, but 'irrational' is not on my list. The discussion of whether their defiance is good or bad may very well be moot because defiance is their only rational strategy. Like in the classic prisoner's dilemma, the government's unwillingness to co-operate is so compromising to their cause and the dignity of their position that the most reasonable response is retaliation at their own expense.

Given that our lawmakers' lack of legislative initiative limits the possibility for more constructive approaches, the result is mutual destruction in the form of a filibuster. This outcome is bad for everyone: the government's pipeline of proposals is halted while lawmakers on both sides suffer drops in popularity.

The government may be tempted to believe that it can refuse co-operation and rely on pro-establishment voters and its generally competent stock of civil servants, but the recent paralysis of Legco proves otherwise. Although the government has become more aware of its public image over the past year, it still struggles with the democratic concept of power-sharing. However, can it survive the eccentricities of our political system on its own, without the partnership of lawmakers?

If recent events are any indication for the future, the answer is no. That is, unless officials want to spend many more hours imprisoned in the Legco chamber, which increasingly resembles a slumber party except completely stripped of fun. Fortunately, in iterated games, players are advised to quickly forgive each other and collaborate in pursuit of the optimal outcome.

Compromises mean that no one will win, but no one will lose either. And, as a result, the people will gain two valuable groups of public servants who can work together for public good. Most importantly, we can all be freed from the purgatory of indecision that is the current state of the legislature and adjourn the damn meeting.

Cynthia Ip, of New People's Party, served as speaker of the University of Pennsylvania's Undergraduate Assembly 2011-12