Surprise absentees

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 February, 2002, 12:00am

The debate about Route 10 is far from over. Scepticism about the need for the $22 billion project is widespread. Government projections of traffic volumes by the time the project is due to be completed are hotly disputed in many quarters. Certainly the consensus among those who oppose the project is that nothing should be rushed into.

And, without doubt, members on the Public Works Sub-committee who have publicly proclaimed their opposition to the scheme are in a clear majority.

It will come as a surprise therefore to people who follow the voting patterns of legislators that the sub-committee yesterday endorsed the sum of $133.7 million as the first step towards the project. Even more of a surprise is that 11 of those legislators who oppose the scheme failed to turn up to vote on this large initial sum of money.

The reasons for legislators' absences make interesting reading. Excuses range from 'wishing people in Sha Tin a happy Lunar New Year', to 'caught in a traffic jam', and 'meeting with Tai Po residents'.

No doubt many of these reasons are valid; but it will take a great deal of fast talk to convince most thinking members of the community that these legislators were carrying out their democratic duty and doing enough to register their views on a project of far-reaching importance. Casting a vote would have taken just 20 minutes.

The case for or against Route 10 is not the issue here. And the chances are that the project will be blocked anyway when it goes before the Finance Committee for final approval.

However, such a large-scale absentee list of members of the sub-committee actually makes a nonsense of one of its functions, which is to make recommendations to committees that will further consider the proposal. In this case it is clear that the message sent to the Finance Committee does not reflect the views of the majority.

Apart from those who did indeed have genuine and unbreakable commitments, the most generous explanation for the absences is that those opposed to Route 10 failed to make sure that their vote would not count. Instead they assumed there was enough opposition to the scheme for their view to hold sway even without their presence.

It is ironic that in a society so often attacked for its fundamentally toothless legislature, so many key members of an important sub-committee did not see the need to exercise their duty to vote on such a vital issue for Hong Kong as a $22 billion project.