Taking emotion out of the debate is the only way forward
The government's renewed attempt to talk to reclamation opponents is the right step to take to avoid a new flashpoint in its relations with the public.
In doing so, officials hope to refocus the emotive debate from 'yes or no' to finding the right balance between harbour protection and transport/economic needs.
Only when public consensus on the need to build the Central-Wan Chai bypass is affirmed can the government move to break the impasse over whether the reclamation plan is appropriate.
Last night, Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung said he lamented the sudden change in public sentiment. 'The whole thing began only two weeks ago,' he said. 'To be honest, I knew nothing about the project before that. To me, this is also a learning process.'
Mr Suen could be excused because, as far as the government is concerned, the project has undergone due process, with approvals from the Town Planning Board and the Legislative Council.
If officials have stood by the present plan, it is because they are adamant that due process, the spirit and letter of the law have been upheld.
Even though going against the people is the last thing the government wants to do given the current climate, it will put itself in a no-win situation if it allows policy-making to be compromised by emotions or misunderstanding.
Mr Suen is keeping his fingers crossed on whether a consensus can be reached through fresh dialogue ahead of two court rulings on reclamation projects scheduled for December and early next year.
His cautious optimism over the 'room for rational debate' may not be unfounded, with the emergence of more calls for cool-headedness. Some Chinese newspapers yesterday said the anti-reclamation activists should not take to the streets after their court defeat.
By seeking input from key players such as Winston Chu Ka-sun and legislators, the government has put the ball in their court to come up with a viable alternative.
If they are unable to do so, officials stand a better chance of convincing the public they made the best choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.