Turn again

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 July, 2011, 12:00am


How many U-turns have you counted so far? I have lost track. There have been way too many to remember. Who can forget Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's whopper of a U-turn in March? After insisting he would not budge on his budget, he did just that, and gave every adult citizen a HK$6,000 handout.

That, I thought, had to be the mother of all government U-turns. I was wrong. Last Tuesday saw a U-turn even more jaw-dropping. (Surely, nothing can ever top that. But do not underestimate this government - it survives on U-turns.)

For days, the government had insisted it would not budge from its decision to scrap mid-term elections, a decision it said was constitutional, morally right and enjoyed public support. For days, constitutional affairs chief Stephen Lam Sui-lung recited a mantra that the move was necessary to stop legislators from forcing elections by resigning.

Then, faced with public fury, the government suddenly did a U-turn. Lam's numbing mantra disappeared. We are now being fed a new mantra that says the government's revised plan is constitutional, morally right and enjoys public support. What was good is now bad, and what was bad is now good. Orwellian, wouldn't you say?

You could argue that U-turns are good. They prove that the government responds to public opinion. But there Is a big difference between listening to the people and governing by U-turns; reversals on policy initiatives just show that officials make decisions without first listening to the people and are then forced by public outrage into U-turns.

Lam says the people had already expressed their disapproval of by-elections when five legislators resigned last year to force new elections which they called a referendum on democracy. But Lam is wrong. The people have only said they don't like frivolous resignations that waste public money. They have not said they would exchange some of their voting rights to prevent such abuse.

The government's revised plan has not calmed critics. Most legal experts say it is still unconstitutional. Most people still want to be consulted first about something as fundamental as their voting rights. The government consults on issues from idling engines to rules for tour guides. So why is it so against consulting on voting rights?

The government has now trapped itself in a dead end from where it must find a way out. When you reach a dead end, you have two choices - U-turn or stay put. Can you imagine the public ridicule if the government were to do another U-turn, perhaps in response to last Friday's mass street protest? This time, it would have to be a complete one - scrap the proposals altogether or consult the public first.

If, instead, the government presses ahead with its proposal, it would effectively be governing from a dead end for what little life remains of this administration. Lawyer groups have declared the proposal an abuse of voting rights. Even the government's backers in the Legislative Council are wary. Some have yet to commit their votes. What to do? Over to you, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Or should I say, Beijing?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster. mickchug@gmail.com