PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2011, 12:00am


The government has just announced a three-month public consultation on whether to build a third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport. Public consultations have also been held recently on a regulatory framework for the property management industry, health care reform, the updating of air quality objectives, whether to establish an independent insurance authority, and a climate change strategy.

Since this government is unelected, such care to involve the public is understandable - and commendable. So when the government announces a major decision without any consultation whatsoever, people wonder what is going on.

This happened when the government announced that it would introduce into the legislature today a bill dealing with the resignation of legislators in the geographical constituencies. The government is proposing that any vacancy be filled by a candidate who lost the previous election, instead of through a by-election.

This decision stems from events last year when five pan-democratic legislators resigned to trigger by-elections in their constituencies. They treated the subsequent city-wide election as a referendum on universal suffrage. The attempt failed since no one contested the seats and the five were re-elected unopposed. But Beijing was not pleased.

The government, of course, did not mention Beijing's unhappiness in its announcement. Instead, it cited the financial expense of holding elections, saying the one last year cost HK$126 million.

Surely there is a way of preventing a repetition of the 'de facto referendum' farce without doing away with by-elections. Wouldn't it be possible simply to amend the law so that whoever resigns cannot run for the same seat?

Instead, the government wants to bar by-elections and justifies it by saying this is also done 'in some countries where the proportional representation list voting system is practised'. However, it does not name any of these countries. Could it be that there are not really many countries with strong rule-of-law records that it can point to as models?

One example that does come to mind is Taiwan under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek. Then, the Kuomintang claimed that it was the government of all China and, since legislators elected in Taiwan could not represent China, those elected on the mainland in the 1940s were kept in office for life. And, when old legislators died, the losers - the 'runners-up' - took their seats. This practice was not abolished until after the death of president Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988 and Taiwan embarked on the road to democratisation.

There seems little reason for Hong Kong, which is ostensibly heading towards full universal suffrage, to emulate such a disreputable system. Actually, on an issue of such political sensitivity, the government ought to bend over backwards to allow the public a say in the way the matter is handled. That is to say, it should hold a public consultation.

But evidently, on this issue, the government doesn't seem to want to know what the public thinks. It already knows what Beijing thinks, and that seems to be enough.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@scmp.com Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1