No defence for attack on Legco's limited powers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 October, 2010, 12:00am

Why is the government so keen to reduce the already very limited powers of the Legislative Council? And does the Tsang administration realise that, in so doing, it is fermenting unease among even its most poodle-like allies?

Now that legislators have overwhelmingly voted to overturn an executive order to expand the Tseung Kwan O landfill, it is quite possible that the administration will make another visit to the National People's Congress to block this move or it may appeal to the courts for a reversal.

As matters stand in Legco, the so-called law-making body has the dubious distinction of barring lawmakers from initiating legislation without the permission of the executive. And, even if they do manage to pass or amend a law, it can be vetoed by the chief executive. Their powers of oversight are also hugely limited. Their only real power is one of blocking financial allocations, a sort of blunderbuss that prevents creative lawmaking, leaving only a blunt instrument at their disposal.

By insisting that lawmakers cannot challenge an executive order, the government has adopted the bizarre argument that the legislators themselves had supported the terms of the ordinance, which prohibit the repeal of such an order. The reality is that the Country Parks Ordinance and its provisions were pushed through a non-elected Legco by the former colonial government. Once again, we see the administration clinging tenaciously to the worst practices of old. There is a reasonable debate to be had over the landfill issue, which relates to wider environmental questions. But this has now been overwhelmed by this constitutional stand-off.

Tsang Yok-sing, the president of Legco, acted properly in defending the powers of the council. His ruling that the legislature could discuss this matter should be treated with greater respect by the government because it comes from someone they regard as a 'safe pair of hands', a stalwart of the pro-Beijing camp.

Yet the government seems to take the view that it is never wrong and seems likely to further undermine the concept of 'one country, two systems' by running off to Beijing to settle an affair that should be resolved by the special administrative region itself. If it does so, the government has only itself to blame for dragging the SAR away from the realm of autonomy it was granted under the Basic Law.

Meanwhile, the government seems determined to allow the integrity of the legislature to be brought into question by insisting that one of its most senior members, who has also been elevated to the Executive Council, should suffer no repercussions following serious breaches of the rules on disclosure of interests. Lau Wong-fat admitted he had breached these rules, then breached them again by 'discovering' previously undisclosed property holdings. Characteristically, he blamed his staff for the omission and blamed the public for having envious feelings when they criticised him.

Politicians in trouble often respond by hitting out at defenseless subordinates and well-known bad guys such as the media. However, it is the duty of senior officials to disassociate themselves from this kind of behaviour and insist that the rules are followed - with no exceptions for the powerful.

Not only is the administration keeping its head down, but members of the government appear to be offering support to Lau. The latest expression of support came from the chief executive himself who testified to Lau's integrity and suggested that the rules on disclosure were at fault, rather than the breaker of the rules. This defence of the indefensible wilfully ignores the damage Lau is doing to the reputation of Legco. The suspicion lingers that officials are not worried by this outcome.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur