Putting a brave face on a dysfunctional system

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 February, 2010, 12:00am

It was famously said long ago, and repeated often since, that democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others that have been tried. Hong Kong's experience of government by consensus rather than by the democratically expressed will of the majority through universal suffrage raises no argument with that. Indeed, in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post reported today, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen defends his government against criticism of inaction by referring time and again to the need for consensus.

From the drawn-out introduction of the plastic bag levy, to the stalled ban on idling engines, to the lack of proper safety inspections of decrepit buildings, to the pressing need for reform of health care financing, Tsang cites consensus as a precondition for effective governance. Speed in getting things done should not be confused with quality of governance, he insists. Rather, the process of good government is necessarily slow.

That is putting a brave face on the political dysfunction that arises from the lack of a popular mandate to govern, and a political system that allows interest groups to stall legislation. Ironically, in that respect, Tsang does have a point about reconciling divergent views. That is the need to reach consensus on political reform for the 2012 elections. They are, after all, supposed to pave the way for universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017 and the Legislative Council elections in 2020, as permitted by the central government.

It will not be easy. The government's modest proposals for changes for 2012 have led to demands from the pro-democracy camp for a road map to universal suffrage that addresses the future of functional constituencies and corporate voting.

In the interview, Tsang declined to express his personal views on functional constituencies, although the government has already conceded that, in their present form, they are not compatible with universal and equal suffrage. He observed, rightly enough, that if he says functional constituencies might be retained, the pan-Democrats will be up in arms, and if he says they must be scrapped the other side will be fuming. While we would prefer the government to be bolder in setting out a vision for 2012, we can sympathise with his position. For him to express a personal opinion might not help reach a consensus on reform - just when that is needed if we are to achieve universal suffrage according to the timetable laid out.

But Tsang also declined to take a position on whether he would vote in by-elections prompted by the resignation of five pan-democrat lawmakers, because they had been 'engineered' as a so-called referendum on democracy. We do not yet know if anyone will stand against them. In any case, the vote is secret. We think the chief executive should set an example and fulfil his civic duty to vote.

The resignation plan is a needless distraction from the important business of striking a deal on democratic reform for 2012 that improves on the government's proposals. We do not need a vote to confirm that Hong Kong people want democracy.

If the by-elections go ahead they should be treated as such and no more. They do not amount to a referendum. They will return five lawmakers to Legco. Legislators have great responsibilities that go beyond the issue of democratic reform. Voting in elections is a rare and precious right. When opportunities do arise to use our vote, we should do so - no matter whom we decide to vote for. If the by-elections go ahead, everyone should turn out to register their preference, and Tsang should show the way by casting the first vote.