Birthday boy loses out to parlour games

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 December, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 December, 1993, 12:00am

LEGISLATIVE Councillors gave Tam Yiu-chung a 44th birthday present to be remembered. Not only did they give him their backing for the most controversial private member's bill ever tabled, but they embarrassed the Governor into the bargain.

On any other day, Mr Tam would have been the hero of the hour for forcing the Government to back down over its plans to allow expatriate civil servants to switch to local terms and getting Chris Patten to sign a bill he hates.

But his moment of glory was overshadowed by the official announcement of old-age pensions for all - soon-to-be-septuagenarian Jimmy McGregor managed to thank the Government twice for its generosity - and by Emily Lau's and Eric Li's gratifyingly belligerent questions on Sino-British relations.

Question Time in Legco is one of the great political parlour games.

Legislators ask controversial questions of senior civil servants, knowing they have about a one-in-50 chance of hitting the jackpot with a controversial answer.

Miss Lau certainly did not expect a positive answer when she asked if the Government had asked Britain to explain publicly how it could justify handing Hong Kong people over to China.

But the odds shorten dramatically with each supplementary question, depending on the skill of the players.

Students of form know Lee Wing-tat will usually exasperate Legco President John Swaine by asking a question which ''goes beyond legitimate elucidation of the main reply'', but stands a fair chance of getting a more interesting answer. (Mind you, he failed this week.) Chim Pui-chung usually lets his victim off the hook by asking such incomprehensible questions that Mr Swaine is moved to suggest the Secretary need not answer. Yesterday was no exception.

But one or two members of Legco's feisty and strong-willed female contingent regularly outwit the Secretaries for Bureaucracy and Obfuscatory Affairs wheeled out for weekly target practice.

Which must be why Selina Chow got so irritated with Michael Sze.

Not only could she not get the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs to say anything remotely interesting. She could not even get him to answer her question.

Mr Sze had said the best way of ensuring Hong Kong could have confidence in its future would be to ensure a vigorous and accountable executive, a broadly based and credible legislature, and an independent judiciary remained after 1997. How, Mrs Chow demanded to know, would the Government be able to achieve that goal if it could not reach agreement with China? ''These institutions already exist,'' came the reply.

Mrs Chow rose to her feet, clearly ready to let off a few of the fireworks Legco so rarely gets the chance to enjoy.

''Mr President, may I ask you to direct the Secretary to answer my question please,'' she hissed.

''I have no powers to direct,'' said Mr Swaine, ever the diplomat.

A pity, really. There were a few other people in the chamber who seemed as if they might have been interested in an answer.

Especially since Mr Sze had taken the trouble to offer a serious answer to Dr Conrad Lam's jolly proposal for a public debate between Mr Patten and his nemesis over at Xinhua (the New China News Agency), local Director Zhou Nan.

''I do not personally think,'' he said, without a hint of a smile, ''that a direct debate between the Governor and Mr Zhou would necessarily satisfy everybody''.

It would be fun, though, wouldn't it?