Most people in Hong Kong still hope that the present Legislative Council will be allowed to remain in office until 1999. But that is no excuse for the Government's reluctance to make preparations to cope with the practical consequences which will follow if, as seems inevitable, China persists in its plan to dissolve Legco next year.
An independent Commission on Remuneration has proposed that legislators should receive a winding-up allowance, with which to compensate their staff, if they are thrown out of office for 'reasons beyond their control'. The Government's acceptance of this recommendation should reassure the 150, largely low-paid, assistants who fear losing their jobs, through no fault of their own. But there is not yet any reason to suppose that it is also ready to actively prepare for all the other consequences which may arise. Instead, the official attitude seems to be typified by the 'head in the sand' approach of the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Nicholas Ng Wing-fui. On Monday, he told legislators that the Government would not make any preparations because it did not wish to see the existing Legco dissolved.
But there is nothing wrong with contingency planning. It is not merely a matter of paying off assistants. Still to be addressed is the issue of whether those working for the Legco secretariat will be affected in any way.
There is also the question of whether legislators should receive abolition of office payments, as would normally be their right if they were civil servants. Special arrangements will be needed to ensure that any payments are made before the handover, since the Special Administrative Region Government would be unlikely to honour them. As the handover draws near, further practical problems are certain to arise. Already, some legislators are questioning if it worth wasting $2.17 million of public funds on registering voters for constituencies which may never again be used.
A difficult balancing act has to be performed. Nothing should be done which implies acceptance of China's intention to act against the community's wishes. Yet it would be equally wrong to ignore the reality of what will happen on June 30, 1997. The time for a 'head in the sand' approach is long gone. Within the constraints imposed by its principled stance, the Government has a duty to do everything it can to try to cope with the consequences of a dissolution of Legco.