Reform plan for by-elections is just spitting the dummy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2011, 12:00am


Last year, five members of the pan-democratic camp did a very foolish thing. They resigned their Legislative Council seats to force by-elections and create what they hoped would be seen as a 'referendum' on political reform.

The move flopped disastrously when the government came up with the perfect response: ignore the whole thing and let the public see the manoeuvre for the childish game it was.

Fortunately for the reform camp, the government later came up with some political missteps of its own so the negative impact on the famous five's reputation was reduced.

But having won this particular public relations battle, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung seems determined to lose the war. He has now wheeled out a reform package that would scrap the need for by-elections in future instances where vacancies arise mid-term for whatever reason. In such cases, the replacement would be found by looking at the person who secured the next highest number of votes.

The new arrangements would apply only to the most democratically elected Legco members - that is, the 35 to be elected through the geographical constituencies plus the five to be elected via the new super functional constituencies, all by proportional representation.

The proposed arrangements are unreasonable and unfair. And unlike those schemes elsewhere which try to dispense with the need for by-elections, there is no attempt to fill the vacant seat with someone from the same political persuasion, so they are manifestly undemocratic.

The government is justifying its undemocratic plans on the grounds that it would prevent future 'referendum-type' exercises, thereby saving public funds. (It claims HK$120 million had to be spent last year.) This from a government that has wasted HK$5billion on the unloved Community Care Fund and decided to spray around HK$6,000 handouts in a knee-jerk response to unfavourable comments about the budget.

More importantly, the plan is unnecessary; there are better ways of addressing the situation.

For example, a member resigning could be precluded from standing in the subsequent by-election and obliged to wait until the next general election. He could not plausibly argue that he was being denied the right to stand for office, because he would have voluntarily stepped down from the office of his own free will while holding it.

The administration is presumably encouraged to think it can implement this dreadful scheme by riding the public wave of discontent over last year's exercise, which most people saw as a complete waste of time and money.

But therein lies the paradox: members of the public do not need the government to act on their behalf to deter foolish acts by legislators. They are well capable of exacting their own punishment at the ballot box next time around. And if the public chooses not to impose that sanction, then ipso facto the public did not see the by-elections as unnecessary.

The government's proposal constitutes at best overkill, taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. At worst, it is an immature revenge being exacted by those embarrassed at being obliged to organise the by-elections last time round.

When young children throw a tantrum, they have a tendency to throw their toys out of the cot (or pram) as far as they can. So when we see adults losing their temper and doing something irrational, we use the same terms to describe their behaviour. Secretary Lam seems to be saying to the pan-democrats: 'You have acted in a childish way, but I can throw the toys even further than you.'

So you can, Stephen, and no doubt your mum is very proud of you.

But those of us paying you over HK$3 million per year for responsible leadership on political development can be excused for feeling short-changed.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong