PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 12:00am

THE GOVERNMENT insists the consultation on Article 23 legislation is genuine. 'We want to hear the voice of the community,' Solicitor-General Robert Allcock said at a recent forum at the Foreign Correspondents Club.

So far, there has been a uniform message, whether it be from the community at large, from academia, from the legal profession, or from the Legislative Council. It is simply this: Do a second round of consultation early next year by publishing a white bill.

So far, the government has not indicated it is willing to do this. At a meeting of the Legislative Council's joint security and legal panels, Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee was urged to spell out the actual provisions which the government wishes to enact in a white bill so the public could be properly consulted on the overall proposals.

' What is wrong with the blue colour?' she asked. 'People can read it even if it is printed on blue paper. As for the colour of the paper, I would have thought that the most important thing is the content and not the colour.'

Mrs Ip was being disingenuous. Certainly, she knows there is a difference between a white bill and a blue bill. She was a career civil servant and has been a policy secretary for many years. If there is no difference except for the colour, why is it that the Hong Kong government, both before and after 1997, has from time to time issued blue bills?

Contains actual language

The function of the blue bill is to consult the public. Instead of general ideas found in a consultation paper, a blue bill contains the actual language of the bill that the government plans to enact. In this way, the public can tell exactly what it is that the government has in mind.

Since 1983, the government has issued 18 blue bills. Since the establishment of the SAR in 1997, four white bills have been issued. Surely there is value in issuing a white bill, otherwise the SAR government would not have persisted in this practice after 1997.

Mrs Ip, in her Legco appearance, also said 'taxi drivers, restaurant waiters and McDonald's staff' would not study the provisions of a white bill in detail, and only experts such as legislators and academics would do so. But that statement can certainly be made of all white bills, not just one on Article 23 laws. This did not deter the government from publishing white bills on the Interception of Communications Bill in 1997, the Urban Renewal Authority Bill in 1999, or the Sales Descriptions of Uncompleted Residential Properties Bill and the Securities and Futures Bill in 2000.

For community at large

Does Mrs Ip have evidence that taxi drivers, restaurant waiters and McDonald's staff studied those bills? Surely, that is not the criterion normally used by the government to decide whether a white bill should be issued.

A white bill is published to provide the community at large as well as experts in the field a chance to comment on the actual proposed wording of a bill. By contrast, a blue bill is meant for the Legislative Council only.

This means that, while the purpose of a white bill is to consult the people of Hong Kong, a blue bill is meant only for the 60 members of the Legislative Council. Only they can propose amendments to the bill. In one fell swoop, the number of people being consulted will be reduced by 99.99 per cent.

The government certainly knows that once a blue bill is published, making any change, even as minor as a comma, will be an onerous task, requiring the introduction of a motion, followed by a debate and ending with a vote. It knows that the purpose of a white bill is to make it easier to introduce changes. If it does not do so, the government will show its reluctance to accept any changes. It puts in doubt the government's claim that it genuinely wants to consult the public.

The laws on treason, sedition, secession, subversion and theft of state secrets are arguably the most important laws to be proposed by the government since 1997. If a white bill is considered unnecessary in this case, it is difficult to see why in future it should ever be necessary to issue a white bill.

In the words of Mrs Ip: 'What is wrong with the blue colour?'

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator