Flawed system also fails functional seat lawmakers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Every year when the Legislative Council goes into summer recess, the press reports on which lawmakers voted the least. The stories feature mainly the same people every year, usually from functional constituencies.

In all fairness, frequency of voting is not the only measure of whether a legislator is working hard. Helping constituents and serving on bills committees can take up a lot of time, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes negotiations on bills with officials.

And when one low-voting member was quoted as saying that many non-binding motions were simply political posturing, I have to say he had a point.

Even so, the story inevitably attracts attention. People know lawmakers' salaries are a multiple of what most people earn. The popular perception is that the lawmakers who represent functional constituencies are lazy and focused only on the interests of their own industries.

This year, the story comes at a time when there is already a public backlash against perceived business greed and wider unfairness in Hong Kong. Everywhere we look, there is a sensitive issue making people angry. As well as the property developers and property prices, we have the outcry over the sale of Octopus card users' personal information, the debate over a minimum wage, and even the court case involving a top judge's niece who was convicted of assaulting a policeman.

Few people would try to defend functional constituencies - they are, after all, aligned with business interests. But the summer recess report does not tell the whole story: change is almost certainly coming.

During my years representing the insurance industry in Legco, I came to two conclusions. First, the job of a lawmaker was becoming a full-time one. The days when members might just drop in occasionally, as if Legco were a club, are over. Second, every legislator, regardless of party or constituency, must consider the interests of Hong Kong as a whole - as if he represented the whole city. The days when small circles with their own narrow interests can have a seat for themselves are surely numbered.

Extending the vote for the five new district council seats in Legco to the whole electorate is one possible way in which functional constituencies could evolve (given that they will be with us at least for the 2012 and 2016 elections). Larger franchises would be more demanding.

Voters would expect their representatives to dedicate time to do the job properly, and to work for the good of the community as a whole.

Until then, you could say that the current system is in some ways unfair to functional constituency representatives with 'small circle' electorates. In my case, I was fortunate that the interests of my industry never conflicted seriously with those of the public. But some legislators feel they have no choice but to fight hard for their voters' interests in the face of public opposition.

Yes, in theory, they could take the moral high ground and defy their constituency. But as members of the same business themselves, it is hardly surprising that they do not, and it is hardly surprising that, as a result, the integrity of those members, constituencies and even whole industries suffer. Future reforms need to tackle this.

My successor in the insurance trade seat was named in this paper's report last month. Chan Kin-por got a mention for missing only two out of 150 votes in the last Legco session - giving him the second-highest voting record of any legislator, either from geographical or functional constituencies. That is certainly better than I ever managed.

So long as functional constituencies exist, this is the way they need to go.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils