Functional constituency 'reforms' miss the mark

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 December, 2009, 12:00am

The Hong Kong government, while explaining that the consultation paper on constitutional reform is limited to the elections in 2012, insists that it marks a step towards greater democratisation and will prepare us for future elections by universal suffrage.

Granted, the hands of the government are tied by the National People's Congress Standing Committee decision in 2007, which rules out universal suffrage in 2012 or increasing the percentage of legislators elected in geographical constituencies.

That leaves the government room for reform only in certain areas, and it has proposed some positive changes, such as enlarging the size of the Election Committee to choose the chief executive and increasing the number of legislators from 60 to 70, with the five new functional constituency legislators being district councillors.

But one area where the government has not taken action - and still can, given the political will - is the reform of functional constituencies. In fact, even without abolishing them, there is much that can be done - yet the government has chosen to do nothing, either in 2005 or this time.

The unrepresentative nature of functional constituencies has become increasingly obvious. In 1998, when the first elections were held under Chinese sovereignty, 10 of the 30 functional constituency seats were returned unopposed. But, in 2004, 11 seats were unopposed and, last year, that figure was 14. This means that almost half the voters in these already-small electorates have been deprived of a vote, since the trend is not to have contested elections at all.

The government's standard position on functional constituencies was reiterated last Wednesday, when Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung said that there were 'still diverse views within the community on the universal suffrage models and how the functional constituencies should be dealt with'.

Lam said the government's task was 'to deal with the methods for selecting the CE and for forming the Legco in 2012, with a view to furthering democratisation of the electoral system ...'

It is true that the government, in proposing five new functional constituency seats, decided not to create them in the traditional mode with extremely narrow bases. However, if it wants to show it is serious about democratisation of the election system, it should be proposing reforms to the make-up of some of the existing functional constituencies.

As it is, the only proposal in the reform package on the existing functional constituencies says: 'Do you agree that the method of replacing 'corporate votes' with 'director's/executive's/association's/individual votes' should not be adopted?'

That is to say, the government does not even support replacing corporate voting with voting by human beings, such as company directors.

Even though half the legislature has to be elected through functional constituencies, this does not mean the constituencies themselves cannot be overhauled. The think tank Civic Exchange, for example, published a 390-page book on functional constituencies in 2006, complete with recommendations. More recently, Professor Michael DeGolyer, who heads the Hong Kong Transition Project, put forward ideas for widening the base of functional constituencies while maintaining the original intentions of the government.

But there is not a word about such proposals in the consultation document. It is difficult to believe the government is sincere about wanting to hear public opinion when it ignores proposals by responsible people with Hong Kong's interests at heart.

The government could better demonstrate its sincerity if it were to propose changes to the existing functional constituencies. Since it is not doing that, it should make it clear that it would consider proposals - including those already in the public domain - that would make the existing constituencies more democratic.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.