Persuasion is a lost art at the top

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am


The government's abrupt turn on the Legislative Council amendment bill last Monday perfectly illustrates the textbook definition of 'crisis', meaning 'a turning point in an unstable situation, generally implying urgency'.

Drafted with a view to blocking a loophole in the existing system, whereby a legislator could resign at will to force a so-called 'referendum' on contentious issues, the bill was introduced into the Legislative Council only on June 8.

In an unprecedented move, the government urged legislators to charge ahead with scrutinising this politically sensitive bill, despite the lack of any public consultation, with a view to having it enacted by the last sitting of the council this summer on July 13.

High-profiled objections from legislators from the pan-democrat camp and the legal profession, however, soon turned the 'replacement mechanism' enshrined in the bill into a lightning rod for public protest in the mass procession on July 1, an annual event that has become a well-accepted barometer of public discontent.

The administration insisted repeatedly that the bill must be enacted by mid-July to ensure that the so-called referendum device could be proscribed before the next Legislative Council is sworn into office in October 2012.

Yet last Monday afternoon, after a group of pro-establishment legislators told the administration they could not bring themselves to support the bill, the administration turned- and announced that it would put on hold the legislative process and conduct a formal consultation from July to September.

So, for the second time in six months, the government backed down in the face of strong public objections in a potentially perilous situation, the first time being the about-turn it made following widespread criticism of the budget in February. By turning, the government averted a showdown with the people and restored a semblance of stability. But what does it say about the quality of governance of our administration?

First and foremost, both events reflect very poor political judgment by the administration. In the case of the budget, officials seemed glaringly detached and unaware of strong public sentiment against further cash injections to the Mandatory Provident Fund, and deep disappointment at the administration's refusal to do more for the people, whether immediately or in the long term, despite its record fiscal surplus.

In the case of the controversy over the proposed replacement mechanism for filling seats vacated by legislators, it is mind-boggling that the officials handling the bill could have skated over the fact that the proposed mechanism threatens to take away the right of legislators in the pan-democrat camp to force a by-election in 'single seat, single constituency' arrangements, which had proven to have worked in their favour, a deprivation that was bound to provoke a bitter fight.

They overlooked how the issues involved - whether the substantive proposals or the indecent haste with which the bill was pushed- had all the ingredients of a perfect storm.

Though in a much more limited way compared to the national security legislation launched in 2002, the replacement mechanism impinged on citizens' rights - in this case, the electoral right to stand for office in a by-election and to vote for a replacement candidate- which Hong Kong people guard jealously. Its introduction could so easily be blown out of proportion and misrepresented as another shamelessly heavy-handed exercise to curtail Hong Kong people's rights.

Indeed, critics were quick to draw comparisons with the failed national security legislation campaign, except to point out that the current exercise was much more brutally disrespectful of public opinion- the national security legislative exercise allowed a three-month consultation exercise, and officials submitted themselves to over 100 hours of agonising scrutiny in the legislature over six months.

The government had not learned from past inadequacies and failed to recognise the paucity of its lobbying resources. As in 2002, the current exercise was spearheaded by one lone bureau director, with little tangible support from other senior officials. The usual chorus of pro-Beijing lawyers, academics and other sundry pro-establishment figures was conspicuous by their absence.

Worse still, the administration seemed unaware that after repeated setbacks and scandals in recent months over illegal structures erected by senior officials, alleged political interference in the award of an e-learning contract, and so on, the administration is suffering from a rapid depreciation of its political capital to the extent that any further accusation of injustice or malfeasance could be the last straw.

When the time came to count the votes, the administration woke up to the fact that they fell short. But it is not clear whether it understands that it should have made a much more valiant effort to woo the public, rather than pursuing the legislators. Lawmakers are constrained by voters. The government would have held a much stronger hand if the people were on its side. It's as simple as that.

So, for now, a crisis has been averted. But it is not clear how the administration will be able to wrap up this botched legislative exercise without further damaging its relationship with the people and weakening itself. It needs a thorough rethink of its political philosophy and strategy.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party