Standing by Legco

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 January, 1999, 12:00am

It is inevitable that as the SAR's system is tested under the Basic Law, loopholes and areas of dispute will arise. But the argument advanced this week to Legislative Council President Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai by the Secretary for Education and Manpower, Joseph Wong Wing-ping, introduces a highly contentious aspect into the interpretation of the powers of the legislature.

If Mr Wong is right in his view that there can be no private member's bills which may ultimately involve a financial cost to the administration, the effect could virtually render the Legislative Council null and void.

A bill which does not devolve some cost on the local authorities is rare. Legislators would be hard put to find worthwhile causes which can be implemented without a dollar of taxpayers' money being involved at some stage.

Union leader Lee Cheuk-yan's attempt to table a bill on collective bargaining and anti-union discrimination brings back to the council legislation which was passed before the handover and promptly rescinded by the provisional legislature. It was not concerned with money, but with individual rights accepted as standard under the United Nations charter.

If passed, it would certainly entail the setting up of tribunals to arbitrate in workers' disputes. That would cost money, indeed. But the legislation itself is not, in the plainest sense of the phrase, related to expenditure. And it is hard to see how it would affect the operation of government.

Mr Wong's argument, however, begs the wider and more important question of how Article 74 should be read. The guidelines for interpretation of the Basic Law decree that this should be done with generosity.

That ought to mean giving the Legislative Council leeway when members table legislation which may indirectly impose modest cost upon the public purse.

The issue should be swiftly settled because its implications are serious and far-reaching. Legislative powers are already curtailed in a city supposed to be progressing steadily towards full democracy. Further erosion would be a matter of grave concern.