Easy come - and easier to skip the vote

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2010, 12:00am

As the city debated the role of functional constituencies in future elections, its least active lawmakers showed this session that the easier it was to get the job, the less likely they were to represent their electors' interests by voting.

Four out of the six most reluctant voters in the Legislative Council in the past session were functional constituency members who were returned to Legco uncontested in the previous election, according to an analysis of voting records by the South China Morning Post.

In 2008, 12 functional constituencies returned 14 lawmakers to Legco without contest. Over the past two sessions, those four members - David Li Kwok-po, Chim Pui-chung, Timothy Fok Tsun-ting and Abraham Razack - have accrued some of the chamber's lowest voting records.

Fok and Razack also had the lowest attendance in the chamber, by far - Fok attended 61 per cent of meetings while Razack attended 89 per cent. Nearly everyone else had a 94 per cent attendance - or two absences - or above.

The fact that functional constituency members vote less is not a surprise - the Post reported similar results for last year's session. But this year's voting records revealed a startling trend among the directly elected League of Social Democrats. The chamber's most ardent opposition party nearly quintupled the number of missed votes - from 8 per cent last year to 39 per cent this year, a figure that surprised observers.

'Everyone on earth knows David Li and other functional constituency lawmakers are lazy,' Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said. 'But even a banana-throwing opposition should cast their votes.'

Ma said directly elected legislators should be forced to explain why they missed out on voting.

The Basic Law states that legislators should debate issues of public interest but does not require them to vote on the issues. But lawmakers are supposed to reflect their electors' interest at the meetings - and in the ballots they cast. Each Legco member is entitled to an annual salary of HK$900,000 and a HK$50,000 travel subsidy. Members' ballots were recorded on 150 motions, bills and resolutions in the past session.

The council's most reluctant voter, for two years running, was banker Li, who represents the finance sector. The Bank of East Asia chief executive failed to vote in 87 per cent of the recorded votes this past session, similar to last year's list-topping 89 per cent. Li is non-executive director of SCMP Group, which owns the Post.

He said the politics in the chamber kept him from voting on most motions. 'These days, the debates on motions without legislative effect brought by members are largely fought for political gain by the parties. In the current environment, it is very difficult for an unaffiliated Legco member to have a positive impact,' he said. 'Now, the environment is too politicised, and many of the amendments to the motions simply impractical. I prefer to leave the showmanship to others.' He also missed the most votes on government-sponsored legislation, declining to cast votes 69 per cent of the time. He did not vote on the final minimum wage bill, but did vote on the appropriations and electoral reform bills.

Chim Pui-chung, representing the 580-elector financial services constituency, said it was time-wasting to vote on the members' motions as 'the government would not pay attention to the motions anyway'.

Chim was the second-lowest voter for all votes, and tied with Li for his failure to act on government-sponsored bills. He attributed some of the blanks to a conflict of interest of some bills related to his sector. For others, the reason was more banal: 'In some bills, such as the minimum wage bill, I was tired and had headed home when they voted at dawn.'

But Ma said studies had shown that functional constituency lawmakers tended to vote only on policies affecting their sectors. 'So if the issue [of missed votes] does not hinder the members from retaining the seats, these members may see another reason to skip the ballots.'

Not all functional constituency members see voting on members' motions as a waste of time. Insurance sector representative Chan Kin-por, who missed only two out of 150 votes this session, said his fellow functional constituency members should devote more time to the council.

'Council work is my top priority. But I think some other functional lawmakers have spent relatively more time on other work for the sector,' he said. 'You need focused participation for Legco and it is a core responsibility for legislators to vote.'

Third-ranked medical constituency member, Dr Leung Ka-lau, who failed to vote on more than half of the legislative items, said he had insufficient time to gain enough understanding of the motions to inform his vote. 'I am an independent. Without collective efforts with other parties it is impossible for me to understand all the issues to make a fair judgment.'

Functional constituency members on average failed to press the button in one out of four votes, while elected members failed to vote an average of 16 per cent of the time.

The parties with the best voting records were the Federation of Trade Unions (voting 96 per cent of the time), the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (89 per cent) and the Democratic Party (90 per cent).

The League of Social Democrats had the worst voting record, failing to press the button in two out of every five votes. Two out of the three league lawmakers were among the 10 worst voters in the chamber, failing to vote at least 40 per cent of the time.

League legislator Wong Yuk-man explained that his blank votes reflected the anti-government attitude of the league. 'Three league votes would not affect the outcome in most cases. We would rather cast blanks to maintain a consistent opposition stance,' Wong said, adding that it was a collective strategy.

James To Kun-sun, the Democratic Party lawmaker in the Kowloon West constituency, was surprised to hear that he had failed to cast votes in nearly 45 per cent of all government-sponsored bills and amendments.

After hearing the list of bills he did not vote on, including the appropriations bill, To explained that the missed votes were probably due to illness and urgent ward appointments. 'I am confident to say I am one of the most diligent and effective lawmakers in the council,' he said.

Only one member had a perfect voting record this session - DAB freshman Gary Chan Hak-kan, who said that voting was the basic responsibility of Legco members. 'I believe my colleagues missed the vote because they have some other responsibilities. But for me, I strive to speak and cast a vote at every Legco meeting,' he said. 'Every vote counts.'