TV debate is a gamble that's well worth taking

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 May, 2010, 12:00am

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is not known for springing surprises, especially not on the topic of our city's political development. His invitation to Civic Party chairwoman Audrey Eu Yuet-mee to debate constitutional reform on television is as unexpected as it is welcome. Sensible debate on these issues has long been badly needed.

If Tsang is going to debate one on one with anyone, Eu is a worthy opponent. She is highly respected both as a lawmaker - until recently the city's most popular - and as a barrister. We can therefore look forward to a lively contest. That said, the invitation surprised the pro-government and pan-democrat camps alike. As far as public opinion is concerned, the government seemed to be well-positioned with its modest reform proposals for the 2012 elections, given the low turnout for by-elections last weekend that were supposed to mobilise support for faster progress towards universal suffrage.

There have been suggestions that the choice of debating partner - a woman whose party promoted the by-elections as a 'referendum' on democracy - is an attempt to drive a wedge between democrats, since the Democratic Party remained aloof from the exercise. But it could also upset and annoy moderate democrats, the very people Tsang is relying on for votes he needs to get his reforms through.

The move involves taking a risk. Tsang is up against an accomplished advocate. We know that televised debates can influence public opinion. In the recent British election, the popularity of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, now deputy prime minister in a coalition government, soared in polls on the strength of one appearance in a televised debate with the major party leaders.

So it is a bit of a gamble. But we welcome it. With luck the debate will lead to people being better informed and play a part in the striking of a deal on improved proposals for democratic development. The exclusion of a public audience limits participation but may lead to a more orderly productive debate. Televised debates aside, though, Tsang should also be engaging with other political parties and the broader public.