Rushing the debate on security laws is wrong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2003, 12:00am

Given all the pressures on Hong Kong as it fights the Sars crisis, now is not the time for the Legislative Council to be pushing through legislation as important as the national security bill. There can be no doubt that it is a bill Hong Kong must debate - but not now.

The council's bills committee dealing with the legislation to comply with Article 23 of the Basic Law is aiming to get it passed before the end of the current session in June or July. Saturday's hearing - the final public consultation - produced ample evidence of indecent haste to achieve that goal. More than 50 groups from religious, legal and human rights fields spent eight hours delivering speeches of five minutes each. This is not consultation, it is a circus - one that makes a mockery of the considerable thought and effort these groups have put into their submissions.

Certainly, most had already taken their chance to make written submissions during the government's initial consultation exercise that ended late last year. The problem is, however, that the government produced no white bill, no draft of the legislation. Instead, it treated this important exercise like any other law, by introducing a blue bill that has to be passed within a set time frame. Public hearings, therefore, were the only outlet for those concerned to affect the course of final draft legislation.

By clinging to an artificial deadline of its own making, the government risks dooming any resulting law to perpetual controversy. The bitterness created now could take years to erase, given the breadth and depth of concern in the community. Consider the goodwill engendered by the government's amendments following its first consultations, and it becomes even more rash. Some of those making submissions acknowledge the requirement for some sort of legislation and are acting with the best intentions. This is not a government, it must be remembered, with a great deal of political capital to squander in the first place. Its own actions here are merely adding another weight to the burden of unpopularity.

All is not yet lost, however. The administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has always acknowledged that the mid-year deadline was an arbitrary preferred option. Certainly, as Mr Tung himself admitted, there is nothing the Basic Law to stipulate the timing. It merely says the government 'should' legislate. The gravity of the Sars crisis - certainly the first thing on every legislator's mind now - gives the perfect opportunity to put the brakes on. Just as the bills committee can set its own rules concerning how it takes submissions, it could surely find a way of suspending a final draft until the next session, allowing for proper liaison with concerned parties. This could take many forms. Rather than giving everyone the chance to speak, the panel could scrutinise the written submissions and call for debate issue by issue, asking questions and seeking counterproposals. Their passive approach breeds suspicion.

Mr Tung's administration has nothing to lose. The bill's final passage into law is not in doubt. The bills committee is dominated by pro-government figures. The government will get its national security law, one way or the other. It would be sensible for it to ensure that the form and the timing is as widely accepted as possible.

The day 60,000 Hong kong people took to the streets to peacefully raise their concerns about the government's proposals, in the biggest march since 1989, seems to belong to another age. Yet it was only in December. Not only do many fears remain, but they are being amplified by the legislature's actions now. The government and legislature must show they have not forgotten the voices raised five months ago.