Too many parties, too few policy ideas
The last thing Hong Kong needs is a new political party. There are too many already. Fellow columnist Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee has much to contribute to Hong Kong politics but the idea that creating parties increases interest and participation in politics is nonsense. It reduces it to politics driven either by personalities or single-issue ideologies. No wonder, then, that government officials and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong were among those on hand to welcome the new creation. The more splintered the party system, the easier for the largest, most disciplined party, the DAB, to lead the field and protect the government.
It has been said that politics is the art of the possible - about achieving enough common ground to get things done. This requires compromises to prevent the best from becoming the enemy of the good. If we look around the neighbourhood, we can see how party discipline and commitment to a broad principle can deliver effective, at least quasi-democratic, government.
Take Malaysia, where one party, the United Malays National Organisation, has kept power for 50 years by focusing on its key goal - Malay supremacy within a multi-ethnic structure. After so many years in power, it has become corrupt but the party organisation has always been the equal of its leaders. In contrast, in the Philippines, parties are meaningless as politics revolves around personalities and shifting alliances.
What principles are espoused by the New People's Party? Why would anyone vote for it other than the fact that they like either Ip or her deputy Michael Tien Puk-sun, both aged 60 and long members of the elite? But before criticising them for the lack of a substantive platform, one must ask whether the existing parties have coherent platforms and policy proposals that can be taken seriously. It is the duty of opposition politicians to not only oppose, but also present policies on key issues, such as the budget and health.
The Democratic Party does its best at times to represent grass-roots interests but can be accused of being too concerned with democracy as an end in itself rather than as a means to the end of better, more open and fairer government. Its well-known divisions are over constitutional issues. The Civic Party may aim to represent fairness and middle-class liberal aspirations but it too often appears as a clique of barristers mainly preoccupied with legal and constitutional issues. Both parties have rightly focused on criticising government extravagance such as the high-speed railway and its contrasting meanness towards the disadvantaged. But positive proposals are needed, too.
The League of Social Democrats is perhaps the one which best achieves its function - expressing the anger of the underclass and under-represented at the abuses of the ruling elite. Its popularity stems from the vigour of members' opposition. They don't need to offer realistic policies.
With the budget approaching, this is an excellent time for all the parties to come up with reasonably detailed proposals, first for the best ways of spending the mostly one-off windfall surplus which is being generated this year - probably at least HK$60 billion and more if one tracks the billions pushed into slush funds used to escape legislative spending scrutiny. Second, to propose disposition of some of the accumulated HK$1.2 trillion reserves to address the ageing issue. And, third, to propose changes to the taxation system which would provide a more stable revenue stream and reduce the interest of the government and developers in creating artificial land shortages which damage the broader economy.
If the various parties lack the resources to come up with coherent policies, it is time for mergers to create broader-based organisations that can attract support for their mix of clout and ideas rather than as fronts for personalities. The Liberal and New People's parties should be the first merger.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator