The price of victory

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 March, 1999, 12:00am

The Government won the battle, but has it lost the war? The Chief Executive and his colleagues have been given serious food for thought after the no-confidence debate on the Secretary for Justice, Elsie Leung Oi-sie, with some unlooked-for consequences.

Instead of condemnation for the Liberal Party's U-turn which might have been expected from the motion's supporters, the pro-democracy camp showed some sympathy for the position in which the Liberals had been placed. The real anger was reserved for the relentless tactics used by officials.

Relations between the legislature and the executive have never been as good as they should be. Yesterday, a sense that the division risks reaching unbridgable proportions was almost evident in the chamber at the end of the debate, diluting the partisanship which the split in the voting might otherwise have caused among legislators.

Many signs suggest that the Government has suffered real political damage through its own actions. If it had a strong case, supported by public opinion, its high-profile lobbying should have been unnecessary. But even among the electorate in the functional constituencies, opinion was narrowly divided between those who wanted their members to oppose the motion and those who felt that it should be supported.

Nor would there be much merit in an argument that a no-confidence vote would have harmed the SAR's image or proved destabilising. No doubt it is easier to govern with a docile legislature prepared to support the administration in every particular. But the council is there as a counterweight to executive power, and must be free to censure officials when they are felt to have made mistakes, or acted wrongly. That does not mean that the SAR would be destabilised. As the Chief Executive has, himself, said political 'noise' is part of the system here, and does not mean that Hong Kong is becoming ungovernable.

But a perception that we have an administration which sees the proper exercise of the legislative role as destabilising would send the wrong signals to the outside world.