Setting a new benchmark of tolerance
On June 18 the Legislative Council passed amendments to the Domestic Violence Ordinance. The bills committee, which I sat on, met 10 times over 12 months, considering input from the government and the public about the proposed law.
The bill aims to give the courts wider powers to protect victims of domestic violence, for example by banning an individual from entering a particular residence. While the old law only covered spouses (and unmarried cohabitants) and children at home, the new version covers a wider range of family members, plus children not living at home, and makes it easier for other relatives to apply for protection for children.
This is a good example of law-making responding to public opinion. Several shocking cases of domestic violence have raised public awareness in recent years and prompted demand for better civil remedies for victims. So the bill didn't seem likely to cause offence when gazetted a year ago.
However, several human rights and gay rights lobby groups demanded that the bill should be extended to cover same-sex couples. Some religious groups oppose the idea.
This is something of a taboo subject, probably because of fears that public opinion is extremely sensitive or even hostile to the idea. Whether this is true is hard to say: those lobbying for and against are mainly small, or in some cases, fringe groups.
Either way, from a politician's point of view, there are no votes in it. The government, with several devout Christians among its senior members, including a Catholic chief executive, takes a fairly conservative view. Officials told the bills committee that including same-sex couples would conflict with the administration's policy of not recognising same-sex relationships.
However, the bills committee decided to look further into the issue. The Basic Law and the Bill of Rights Ordinance both say that 'all' people are equal before the law. We asked the Equal Opportunities Commission for their views, and they cited a court judgment saying that different treatment could only be justified if it could clearly be shown to be necessary.
The committee came to the conclusion that the law should cover same-sex couples. The government didn't really like the idea, but eventually accepted it so long as it was strictly in the context of domestic violence and did not affect its non-recognition policy. For technical reasons, however, it will have to be dealt with in a separate amendment bill in the next legislative session. The amended law passed two weeks ago still does not cover same-sex couples.
It will be interesting to see whether the amendment bill dealing specifically with same-sex couples raises any broad controversy. Same-sex civil partnerships - even marriages - are being allowed in more and more jurisdictions around the world, and there are calls for Hong Kong to follow suit.
We would be the first place in Asia to take such a radical step, and Hong Kong often seems to be more progressive than the rest of the region. We are one of few places in Asia to have abolished capital punishment, and our record on freedom of speech and other human rights stands out.
Whatever officials like to think, the amendment to the domestic violence law in the next legislative year will probably be seen as a sort of recognition of same-sex partnerships. So we might find out how sensitive public opinion is on the issue. It raises the question of whether Hong Kong is conservative or liberal. We have some very outspoken groups pushing what they see as high moral standards, but it appears they lack broad-based support.
If any one label describes Hong Kong people's social attitudes, it would be 'tolerant' - as in staying out of other people's business. It could be that supporters of legal recognition for same-sex unions have a better chance of success than they might think.
Bernard Chan is an executive councillor and a legislator representing the insurance functional constituency