Lawmakers should be known by the company they keep

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 June, 2012, 12:00am


Banker and veteran legislator David Li Kwok-po has said he will leave the Legislative Council after the election in September. He said things had changed a lot - he's been in Legco for 27 years - and he felt politics had become 'a waste of time'.

I was in Legco for 10 years, ending in 2008, and even in that time I could see that the responsibilities of a legislator were becoming more demanding. For most members representing a geographical constituency, it was already pretty much a full-time job. Even for those of us representing 'small-circle' functional constituencies, being in Legco could be time-consuming.

A functional constituency representative cannot just work on matters of specific interest to his or her industry. In the oath that all legislators take, they pledge allegiance to Hong Kong, not to one industry. And, the fact is that functional constituencies are affected by what goes on in the bigger world. Companies have an interest in the government's economic policy. Corporate voters should have an interest in social policy, too; after all, it affects the day-to-day concerns of their customers and employees. Their representatives should be serving on education or health panels as well as business-related ones.

Is it possible to fulfill these duties while running, or helping to run, a company, let alone looking after your personal life? Frankly, today it isn't. By the time I left Legco nearly four years ago, it was clear that being a legislator involved too many commitments to be a part-time activity.

When Li used the phrase 'waste of time', he may have been thinking of how he had to go into Legco at odd hours during the filibuster of the government's bill on by-elections. I remember wondering, during some late nights and extended sessions, when I could get away to look after other affairs, or just sleep. Yet it comes with the job, and the future will almost certainly involve more - not fewer - big debates, narrow votes and lobbying of members.

The key thing for functional constituency representatives to recognise is that the balance of power in Hong Kong is changing. We have already seen a shift in public opinion about business - especially towards certain sectors. Complaints about property developers' marketing methods and banks selling Lehman minibonds have shifted attitudes, as has the perception of collusion between business and government. The arrival of a new chief executive could be seen as a historic turning point.

Functional constituencies will have to adapt, probably starting with the 2016 Legco election. It is quite likely that their electorates - especially the small-circle ones - will need to be broadened and ultimately opened up to universal suffrage.

For the foreseeable future, functional constituencies will probably continue to offer professionals and businesspeople special opportunities to sit in the legislature. It will be essential that they use this privilege constructively.

We have an increasingly sceptical and potentially hostile public, who question what companies can do. The new administration will, if anything, be even more inclined to take the people's side if there are conflicts between business and the community. A Legco member who opposes the public interest for the sake of a small group of corporate voters could become a liability to his industry's reputation if he provokes public opinion against it.

In contrast, a functional industry representative who recognises and promotes the public interest could be a credit to his industry. It may take courage, at first, to tell traditional corporate voters that they cannot expect a lawmaker to loyally support one narrow and selfish interest. But such members will gain public recognition. That means they will be in a good position to take part in a more democratic system further ahead.

Such an outcome would be great for an ambitious full-time Legco member, but it would be no place for someone who has a company to run as well.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils