Questions overwhelm the debate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 January, 2010, 12:00am

As lawmakers continued their barrage of questions on the technical details and cost of the multibillion-dollar project, the most familiar phrase came from the mouth of the Finance Committee chairwoman: 'Your time is up, please queue up again.'

Yesterday's meeting of the committee began amid concerns that pan-democrats might deliberately try to delay the proceedings. In the end, it was the chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, Tam Yiu-chung, who unwittingly opened up a new debate unrelated to the express railway plan.

After four hours in which lawmakers asked more than 40 questions, even pro-establishment figures said they could not accuse the pan-democrats of raising merely trivial matters. However, as the debate entered the third session with two hours remaining, Tam suggested to chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing to 'draw a line', even if there were lawmakers remaining who wanted to ask questions.

Uttering her trademark sigh, Lau said it was Tam's suggestion itself that was most likely to delay proceedings even further. 'If you continue to debate this issue, more people will put their hands up to argue with you,' Lau said.

On cue, eight hands shot up, leading to a 20-minute discussion about whether a vote had to be taken even if questions remained.

This proved a turning point as lawmakers started to accuse each other of wasting time.

Until then, pan-democrats had mostly been asking questions about whether it was necessary to build the station in West Kowloon given the existing congestion.

During one of the breaks, Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee conceded that the volume of questions still to be asked might mean a vote could not be held.

'But I don't feel we are having to force these questions out. The truth is, the issue of traffic congestion has genuinely raised a lot of concern,' said Eu, referring to a traffic assessment report that was only made publicly available yesterday.

Pro-establishment lawmakers, despite their worries about being able to vote within the allotted time, also used up considerable time expressing opinions.

Lau's exasperation showed again as the debate entered the third and final round of questioning at 9.40pm. Independent Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee suggested that if the questioning could not be done in the allotted time, lawmakers should submit their questions in written form so officials could have answers ready for the start of the next session.

Ip's suggestion was widely supported, but several lawmakers nevertheless wished to voice their support.

'Do we really have to debate this now?' Lau said. 'Written questions ... did we only enter the legislature yesterday?'

However, as the deadline of 10.30pm loomed, patience began to wear thin, with tourism sector lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun accusing pan-democrats of asking questions that could not be answered at this stage of the debate. This prompted the Civic Party's Ronny Tong Ka-wah to hit back: 'Is this time for asking the government questions, or for you to ask us questions?'