Legislative cheer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 1995, 12:00am

DEMOCRATS inside and outside the Legislative Council should cheer the decision of Council President Andrew Wong Wang-fat to permit Lee Cheuk-yan to introduce a private member's bill halting the importation of semi-skilled labour. Mr Wong has reaffirmed his independence and shown that he will not bow to Government pressure.

In an 'executive-led' system, the separation of powers between administration and legislature is vital. The legislature's independence and the integrity of a president chosen by its elected members are among the few bulwarks against overbearing Government. Mr Wong rightly rejected the Government's abuse of the clause prohibiting private members' bills which impose a charge on public funds to derail any initiative from the legislature. He has invoked British parliamentary practice to show that additional expenditure need not count as a charge on public funds if it is not for a new or distinct function of government, and shown the Government's arguments to be spurious.

This does not mean, however, that legislators should view Mr Wong's decision as a signal of more lax enforcement of the rules on private members' bills in general. Nor is it a sign that he will lead Legco in permanent opposition to the executive. To do so would lay the legislature open to accusations of destructive confrontationalism. The new legislators have not, so far, been queuing up to introduce 'irresponsible' private members bills as the Government and business circles feared. So long as they understand Mr Wong will look at each case on its merits, there is no reason to assume they will be less responsible in future.

Whether the Government will act with equal restraint is to be seen. Mr Wong's ruling is theoretically final under the Powers and Privileges Ordinance and not open to challenge in the courts. But the ordinance talks of 'lawful' decisions. This introduces an element of doubt. If the Government wanted to destroy all hope of future co-operation with Legco, it could challenge the decision on the grounds that it was unlawful. But it would be more likely to try to reach an agreement which would persuade Mr Lee to withdraw his bill.

The Governor also has the option of vetoing the bill if legislators cannot be persuaded to amend or defeat it first. That might be one more step on the road to an American-style democratic structure. But unlike the President of the United States, Mr Patten is not elected. So a veto would be a profoundly undemocratic gesture which would run the risk of radicalising legislative opposition to the executive. This bill does not warrant such divisive and confrontational action.