Working together

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 September, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 1995, 12:00am

THE biggest immediate challenge facing the Government and the new Legislative Council is finding a way to live together. That will not be easy. In many ways, Sunday's election has set the administration and Legco on a collision course. Yet their success in avoiding conflict and working together will have a big effect on the stability - and quality - of public administration over the last two years of British rule.

The solution, as both Government and many legislators recognise, is not to revive the practice of appointing a few select members of Legco to the Executive Council. No elected political party would wish to see its members co-opted into the Executive machine or placed in a position where they are forced to take even a share of responsibility for the Executive's decisions.

However, the lack of a formal channel for communication has already been a cause for friction between Government and the legislature. Even in the previous partially elected forum it helped deepen the tensions. Now, with civil servants no longer serving as ex-officio members of the legislature and a larger number of 'grassroots' members, the dialogue of the deaf is likely to be worse. Government has to find alternative means of communicating with legislators and heading off confrontation.

One possible channel has already been proposed. In October 1992, long before the legislature's reservoir of goodwill towards the Governor drained away, Chris Patten used part of his annual policy address to set out, in simple terms, the difficulties he faced in maintaining the Executive-Legco relationship and to propose a solution.

The choice he faced was to deepen the experiment by building a 'coalition Exco' reflecting the political make-up of the Legislative Council, or to separate Exco and Legco entirely. The former would turn Exco into a 'mini-Legco' and transfer debate from an open forum to a secret council. The Governor chose separation, but proposed a 'Government-Legco Committee' to develop the relationship between Executive and legislature; keep the administration in touch with members' concerns and ensure the Government's legislative and financial programmes were conducted efficiently.

It would be a non-statutory body to be chaired by the Governor, the Chief Secretary or the Financial Secretary, according to the issues, and legislators would decide for themselves who should sit on it to ensure it was broadly representative of their own membership.

Compared with the electoral reform package he proposed later in the speech, that should have been relatively uncontroversial. However, members feared the committee would be a mechanism for backdoor Government control and rejected the idea.

Now, confident in the knowledge that more than half their number are genuinely representative of popular opinion, they should consider the matter again. It would be far more difficult for the Executive to manipulate a Government-Legco committee for its own purposes and far easier for legislators to cry foul.

Members will have to beware of allowing themselves to decide everything in advance, so that the debate in the public chamber once again becomes the formality it was before the advent of direct elections. But unless the Government has a forum where it can at least test the waters for policy without every little issue being turned into a political football - and where legislators can test the Government's response to their proposals - the nightmare of legislative gridlock will quickly become an unwanted reality.