Scrutiny of bill makes a mockery of the system

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2003, 12:00am

The passage of Hong Kong's new national security laws through the Legislative Council started badly, then deteriorated, and has now descended into farce. Consider Saturday's performance. The action began when the bills committee embarked on the all-important clause-by-clause examination of the draft legislation, which many fear will restrict our freedoms. This was an opportunity for careful scrutiny of every word used in the bill, which introduces offences such as subversion and secession and is required by Article 23 of the Basic Law. It was a chance to debate the potential implications on Hong Kong's way of life.

But, with the exception of one lone representative, the democrat legislators were not there. These, remember, are the lawmakers who have led opposition to the bill. They were attending a forum nearby at which international legal experts debated the national security legislation. While the desire to learn more about the laws is to be commended, their absence from the bills committee was to have lamentable consequences. Indeed, the use to which it was put by the pro-government forces who did attend has damaged the credibility of the whole process.

The clause-by-clause examination of a bill is crucial. It can often take weeks, sometimes months. This time, with no troublesome democrats present, the bills committee was able to complete it in less than eight hours. The atmosphere was nice and cosy, and the proceedings moved quickly. During one period after lunch only seven of the 50 members of the bills committee were present. No one pointed out that certain clauses are not required by Article 23.

But closing the process in a day - greatly helping the government's aim of getting the bill passed into law by July 9 - was not enough. An unprecedented motion was then passed to make absolutely clear this was the end of the clause-by-clause stage. No wonder Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee was smiling.

Whether you blame the democrats for failing to attend, or the pro-government forces for making the most of their absence, these events make a mockery of the system. The democrats could reasonably argue their attendance would not have made much difference. Pro-government legislators have a majority in the bills committee and have made sure they use it to keep to the government's timetable. But the presence of the democrats is needed if there is at least to be a genuine debate. The committee meets again tomorrow. There is still some room for discussion, and for amendments to be made. The Article 23 concern group, comprising lawyers and academics, has put forward thoughtful proposals for change. It is vital suggestions such as these are properly considered. The issues raised by the laws are too important to be sacrificed for the sake of party politics.