Amendment a retrograde step in democracy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 October, 1997, 12:00am

It was utterly irresponsible for any lawmakers to support the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong's amendment to the Legislative Council Bill that would enlarge the social welfare functional constituency, a move that would no doubt undermine the credibility of the entire election.

The amendment would pose electoral officials with insurmountable administrative problems, especially in voter registration.

Voter eligibility is ill-defined in the amendment. It calls for the Government to enfranchise non-profit-making social services organisations that meet the membership requirements of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS).

Electoral officials would screen applicants based on the groups' service aims and enfranchise organisations whose aims are in line with the HKCSS's. To understand the problem in full scale, we must first look at the screening process adopted by the HKCSS.

An assistant director appointed by the council's executive committee conducts a series of interviews and site visits to evaluate an applying group's nature and quality of services and decide whether its aims satisfied the HKCSS's requirements.

On the other hand, he or she audits the group's account and the management structure to ensure that it was indeed a non-profit-making group. The investigation takes up to three months.

The complicated screening process is essential to ensure that only those qualified are admitted into the council. The Government would, therefore, also need to adopt a comparable investigative procedure to ensure that only the deserving groups would be enfranchised - and this would be no easy task.

The Government should have little problem in implementing the HKCSS's practice of auditing the groups' accounts and reviewing their boards' structure to objectively evaluate the applicants. However, devising a standardised procedure for this would take several months. Hundreds of staff would have to be trained to evaluate the applicants.

But this could only answer the easier part of the question. To ensure that the election was fair, government officials would have to conduct site visits and interviews, as the HKCSS and the Department of Social Welfare do when they evaluated the groups' performance. This would require enormous manpower and time. The Government would also be faced with the problem of how it could devise a standardised procedure to evaluate the applicants objectively when the law is so vague. It is impractical, and I would also say naive to believe that the Government could afford the time and manpower when it only has 4.5 more months to compile a draft electoral roll.

The Government is left with two options. It could either delay the election to set up a comprehensive screening system, an option the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Michael Suen has rejected, or screen applicants based on some ill-established screening system, virtually giving voting rights to any applicants.

In either case, not only would the fairness of the election be undermined and its credibility put into question, any unexpected mistakes or delays would also make us an international laughing stock.

The amendment is itself also a retrograde step in democracy. With only vague eligibility guidelines, how could the Government ensure that the officials could evaluate the groups objectively? How, then, could we claim that the electoral system was fair and open if voter eligibility was to be based on some subjective evaluation? The Government is also given absolute power to choose and pick who should enjoy the political right based on some vague guidelines, which leaves room for government abuse. This is entirely against the principle of fair elections in any democratic society and therefore should be curbed.

Legislators have spent weeks ironing out the bill. There is no room for any ill-conceived amendments that would undermine the credibility and fairness of the election system we have so fiercely defended.

We in the Liberal Party, therefore, urge fellow legislators to put self-interest aside and reconsider the virtue of the proposal.

The Government must also provide the public with a feasible solution as soon as possible. Should it find no solutions, it must propose alternative methods to save our electoral system from a complete breakdown and itself future embarrassments.

ALLEN LEE PENG-FEI Chairman Liberal Party