On race, the government should lead by example

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am

As the city's largest employer, the government should be a leader in the fight against racial discrimination. Given its avowed aim to make Hong Kong Asia's world city, this should be considered an important mission. But the way in which it has approached the legislative process for the race discrimination bill sets a poor example.

It has taken years to get the draft law before the Legislative Council, even though Hong Kong has long been a signatory to an international convention that requires such legislation. Now we have a bill - but it is flawed.

The draft law exempts from its provisions many of the government's public functions. This not only departs from international norms but from existing laws that ban discrimination on the basis of gender and disability. Top Hong Kong lawyers and human rights advocates flew to Geneva in March to raise their concerns with the United Nations committee overseeing the convention. The draft law has managed to achieve something very rare in Legco - uniting the major parties on the bills committee in calling on the government to amend it.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has come up with an eminently sensible proposal to resolve the impasse. Legislators promise easy passage for the changes if the government agrees to make them. One might have thought that the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau would jump at the chance. But no. Sadly - and characteristically - it is still stalling for time.

The commission proposes a separate process of compliance for the government and other public agencies, as has been the case in the UK since 2000. The government would acknowledge in the law a general duty to promote racial equality and assess the impact of its policies on ethnic minorities. It would be required to set up a racial equality scheme, collect data on ethnic minorities and come up with measures to remedy any adverse effects caused by its policies. It should already be doing so; enshrining such duties in law should not be difficult for an enlightened government.

If officials want exemptions because they are worried about frivolous lawsuits, the commission's proposal provides some protection. It proposes that individuals not be allowed simply to sue the government. Instead, the commission would issue a compliance notice if it judged that a case of racial discrimination had arisen. Only when such a notice was ignored could it then ask the courts to order compliance. Judicial reviews may also be sought.

While he did not reject the proposal outright, Deputy Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland affairs Arthur Ho Kin-wah warned that making the changes at this late stage would be time-consuming. His argument is unconvincing. Lawmakers have pointed out that only a few lines would need inserting into the bill to require that such a scheme be set up. The scheme itself could be established at a much later date, after the bill has been enacted.

The government's record as an employer compares favourably with that of the private sector. Given that legislation also has an educational purpose, it should lead by example in the fight for racial equality and harmony. The EOC's proposal should be accepted.