25 years of dysfunctional constituencies is enough

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 April, 2010, 12:00am

'Answering lawmakers' questions, he [Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen] said he would not merely adopt arrangements from other jurisdictions. 'We have always been of the opinion that with its historical background within the legislature, [the functional constituency] has had a function and made a contribution,' Tang said.'

SCMP, April 15

I shall grant you, Henry, that there is indeed an historical background to functional constituencies. The brainwave of inflicting them on us dates back all the way to 1985. That's a whole 25 years of history, count 'em yourself - five hands worth of fingers if you don't bend your thumbs out of the way.

Meanwhile, democracy, a system of government that functional constituencies were cobbled up to undermine, goes back only to the golden age of Athens. That's a mere 2,500 years of history, Henry, not much, and if you want a feel for how short it really is, just try counting it down - 'if one of those bottles should happen to fall, there'd be 2,499 bottles of beer on the wall'.

So if we are to subject different forms of government to the test of time, perhaps democracy comes out a little more tried and true than functional constituencies, just perhaps, perchance. Maybe we could even 'merely adopt' this arrangement from other jurisdictions.

But let's review how the thinking stood 25 years ago. Back then it occurred to the old colonial government (which also held democracy in disfavour) that the Legislative Council should be able to draw on experience from all walks of life.

Why not, in that case, have the experts in each major field choose one of their own to sit in Legco? What a collection of brainpower this would bring together.

The thinking was flawed. Government can always call on professional expertise when needed and finds it in many other places than functional constituencies. Most people willingly offer their expertise as a public service and any legislative initiative is preceded by extensive briefing papers (barring always a certain HK$66.9 billion railway, of course). What is needed in legislators is not so much expertise as sound judgment to put the expertise in perspective.

If you are called on to decide whether public revenues should be used for old age assistance, construction of a bridge, the funding of civil service pensions or better food for prison inmates, it doesn't help you to be an expert in any of these fields.

In fact, you are probably worse off. Your expertise will cloud your judgment. You need to be a generalist.

And this is what you find in the legislative assemblies of democracies. Political parties in Parliament or Congress are founded on general views of what government should be and do. It is how they balance the widely different claims of old age assistance and bridge-building with some consistency. The voters choose what general platform they favour and the specific decisions then follow with input from experts as needed.

We have done things 180 degrees the other way round with our functional constituencies, put the cart before the horse again.

But it gets even worse. Take the transport functional constituency, which the incumbent Miriam Lau Kin-yee won by 147 votes to nine in the 2008 Legco elections and won uncontested in the 2004 elections.

She has held the seat since 1995. She clearly has the confidence of her electorate.

This electorate consists of only 178 voters, of whom 34 represent the taxi business and 20 the minibus business. Meanwhile, Kowloon Motor Bus, the biggest of the franchised bus companies, gets only one vote despite carrying almost three times as many passengers every day as the entire taxi fleet. The MTR also gets only one vote. Does the word 'skewed' come to mind?

Now imagine that government should have to make a decision that will favour either taxis or KMB. Which way do you think Lau will vote?

Exactly. She won't get 16 times more support than her opponent at the next election if she considers the matter without prejudice. The Fraternity Association of N.T. Taxi Merchants would have something to say. This is not to impute any base motives to Lau. The fault lies with the system, not with her.

Equally, if she barters her vote on construction matters for support from the fellow who holds the construction seat on things dear to the heart of the Tuen Mun Public Light Bus Association, well, it is what her electorate wants her to do and what our government has approved her doing by creating this daft system.

The result is a form of corruption quite different from anything that comes under the nose of the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

It differs in costing us much more than anything the ICAC has ever tried to stop. The public expenditure waste is immense.

But we all know what lies behind this. The firm of Donald, Henry and Co favours functional constituencies so strongly because they are overwhelmingly held by Beijing lapdogs. When told to sit, they sit and when told to bark, they bark. Who wouldn't be fond of pets like this?