Sincerity the key to consultation
A fresh public consultation on the arrangements for mid-term vacancies in Legco has finally been launched. Propelled by an outcry against the government's controversial plan to scrap by-elections, the belated exercise appears, at first glance, to be an attempt to get back to basics. While it still disparages what it calls the 'mischief' arising from the resignations of five members last year to launch what they wanted to be seen as a de facto referendum on political reform, the 65-page document offers more options for consideration than the government had earlier proposed. But a closer look would compel many to ask - is this a genuine consultation?
The government deserves some credit for asking a fundamental question: Is there a need to plug a perceived 'loophole'? Although the rationale for adopting the replacement mechanism rather than by-elections still dominates, the paper also lists other possible views. For instance, it acknowledges that some consider it is appropriate for lawmakers to convey a political message in a contrived by-election. But it also warns that if by-elections were to continue, 'a considerable amount of public funds - HK$126 million as in the previous campaign - will be spent'. Understandably, the way the questions were phrased has led to criticisms that they are loaded.
The fresh options put forward include restricting resigning members from standing again. Another possibility was only holding by-elections for vacancies arising from death or illness. But whether these options conform to the Basic Law remains unclear, raising concerns that the community may end up choosing one which is legally unsound. Constitutional chief Stephen Lam Sui-lung also would not be drawn on whether the bill would be withdrawn if the public was clearly opposed to any change. He insisted there was wide public support to plug the perceived loophole. Such an approach, which follows two major U-turns on the proposals, does not instil confidence that the consultation is genuine and credible.
Regrettably, Lam has further linked the referendum campaign to recent rowdy protests inside and outside Legco, saying the thinking behind such actions was the same. Although the community clearly disapproves of violent protests and wasteful by-elections, it would also object to bundling two issues which are fundamentally different. The right to demonstrate and the right to vote are both guaranteed by the Basic Law. Any attempt to restrict such rights should be handled with great care. Lam's comparison unnecessarily complicates the issue and arouses suspicion that disorderly protests may be the next target. If the government is sincere as it says in conducting a genuine consultation, it is imperative for it to keep an open mind and listen to the opinion expressed.