By-election ruling too complex to rush

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 June, 2011, 12:00am


When a significant policy change is proposed by the government, the community must be given sufficient time to consider it and provide feedback. Vigorous vetting of any changes to the law is also needed to ensure they are legally sound. This is especially important if the policy has an impact on people's rights under the Basic Law. Worryingly, these principles have not been followed by officials when seeking to scrap by-elections triggered by the resignations of lawmakers in geographical constituencies.

The proposals for change were prompted by the resignations of five pan-democrats last year in order to prompt city-wide by-elections styled as a de-facto referendum on universal suffrage. The democrats' strategy failed. There was a very poor turnout for the by-elections and concerns raised about the public money spent on the polls.

But the government's proposals for change are unnecessary and officials are attempting to push them through Legco with undue haste. Now, the issue is being used by organisers of next week's July 1 march as a rallying point for opposition to the administration.

The proposed legal changes are complex and the proposals will, if adopted, restrict the right of people to vote. There are also practical implications for the way the electoral system works. Changes such as these must be carefully thought through and thoroughly debated.

There are legal concerns to be considered, too. The Bar Association argues that the proposed mechanism to fill vacancies when lawmakers resign is contrary to the Basic Law. It says that in the absence of a by-election, electors will be deprived of the right to vote when the vacancy is filled by the candidate who won the next highest number of votes in the last Legco poll. These are important matters which could end up being decided by a court if sufficient care is not taken to ensure the proposals are constitutional. Mainland and constitutional affairs chief Stephen Lam Sui-lung appeared to brush such concerns aside, arguing that giving a seat in Legco to the candidate with the next highest number of votes still reflected the preference of voters. But there are two sides to the argument.

This is not a bill to be rushed through Legco. Lawmakers have, however, only been given around a week to vet it. The government should remember that one of the factors that triggered a mass protest against proposed national security laws in 2003 was that people felt the changes were being pushed through without adequate time for debate.

More time is needed. There should be a public consultation and efforts by officials and lawmakers to ensure any changes to the law are carefully considered - and constitutional.