Time to seize opportunity for constitutional reform

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 February, 2010, 12:00am

The public consultation on constitutional reform has been dominated for much of the past three months by disputes over a plan by five pan-democrat lawmakers to trigger by-elections by resigning. Only in the final two weeks, as various organisations have published their responses to the government's proposals, has attention begun to focus on the core issue of precisely how our political system should be changed. Now it is time for the government to listen to the views that have been expressed and significantly improve its package.

Many different opinions have emerged since the proposals were published in November. That can be seen in this newspaper's poll of different members of the community published today. But the differing views in society can no longer be used as an excuse for inaction. That said, no progress will be made unless at least two-thirds of our lawmakers vote in favour of whatever proposals are ultimately put forward. The government will need to win over some democrat votes while keeping its own supporters happy. There must, therefore, be some give and take if a deal is to be done. But everyone concerned must remember there is a constitutional duty to make progress towards the introduction of universal suffrage, which Beijing has said can happen for the chief executive election in 2017 and the Legislative Council in 2020. More to the point, that is what the majority of people in Hong Kong want.

The changes introduced in 2012 must, therefore, be substantial and have the effect of making the system much more democratic. The government's proposals, no doubt aimed at achieving a consensus, simply do not go far enough. Some critics, including the Law Society, have put forward cogent arguments that the creation of five more functional constituency seats - to be given to district councillors - is a retrograde step that will make it more difficult to remove the trade-based seats when universal suffrage is introduced. Such criticisms should be carefully considered.

There is a need for the proposals to be improved. Officials must now assess the 40,000 responses they have received. They should keep an open mind and be prepared to make changes. The package would be improved if certain key steps were taken. Corporate voting, with all the lack of transparency and potential for abuse that it brings, should be scrapped. The ban on the chief executive being a member of a political party should be removed, as this is necessary if Hong Kong is to mature politically and develop stronger political parties.

The proposal to add almost 100 directly elected district councillors to the committee that elects the chief executive is undermined by the plan to also increase the other three sectors by the same number of members. It would be much more democratic to allow all elected district councillors to sit on that committee.

But the question most likely to make or break any deal is what will happen after 2012. Democrats have been seeking assurances from the government that functional constituencies will be scrapped and that there will be no screening mechanism for chief executive candidates when universal suffrage is introduced.

It is difficult for the government to make a commitment beyond 2012, given the arrangements put in place for making changes to the political system. But any reassurance that can be offered, either from officials in Hong Kong or Beijing, would be helpful in securing democrat votes and ensuring that progress is made. The journey towards democracy has been painfully slow. We now have an opportunity to move forward. It must not be missed.