Australians and Canadians have chosen to return to civilised political discourse. Can Hong Kong do the same?

Mike Rowse wonders whether HK politicians can learn from recent events in Australia and Canada, and create a more consensual and less confrontational style of politics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 November, 2015, 10:07am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 November, 2015, 7:38pm

Recent events in Australian and Canadian politics hold an important lesson for Hong Kong's politicians. I wonder whether anyone here will pay heed and, if so, who will learn that lesson first.

In Australia, Tony Abbott was booted out as Liberal Party leader and hence as prime minister, and replaced in both positions by Malcolm Turnbull. In Canada, Conservative leader Stephen Harper, who had headed a minority government for nine years, lost power in the general election to Justin Trudeau. Abbott and Harper are similar in one important respect: they are both political bruisers, with no quarter asked or given. As far as they are concerned, political rivals are enemies to be destroyed. Turnbull is a much more nuanced politician. Rivals are adversaries with whom you compete, sure, but you try to win by debating and gaining public support. Perhaps one day you could even persuade the opposition that there was some merit in your view.

Similarly with Trudeau in Canada. Just a few short months ago, his Liberal Party trailed far behind in third place and it seemed likely that, if there was any role for him in a future government, it would be as junior partner in a coalition. In the event, his party won an absolute majority and will govern alone. Although Harper portrayed him as inexperienced and not ready for responsibility, voters connected with Trudeau because of his open and personable style.

What the Canadian voters said, in effect, was that they were tired of the negativism and abrasiveness of their leader and they wanted a return to civilised discourse and consensus building. Members of the Australian Liberal Party obviously detected a similar mood swing in their own electorate and were afraid of a reckoning at the next election if they continued with Abbott as leader.

Leung Chun-ying has reached out and held discussions with some members of the pan-democratic camp. Not exactly a love-in, but at least not a continuation of the total freeze

I have a strong suspicion Hong Kong voters are in a similar frame of mind. They are fed up to the back teeth with opposition for opposition's sake - endless filibustering and automatic criticism of everything the administration puts forward. At the same time, they are not very impressed if the chief executive or other senior officials are seen to treat the pan-democrats indiscriminately as enemies. Indeed I think it was the previous chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who first used that explicit word following failure of the first reform package.

Is there no hope? Are there no shafts of light to split the gloom? Well, just maybe there are. Many pan-democrats refused to join the mindless filibuster of the technology bureau proposal orchestrated by their more radical colleagues, who persisted with it beyond tedium, despite at one point indicating they wouldn't. And on the official side, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has reached out and held discussions with some members of the pan-democratic camp. Not exactly a love-in, but at least not a continuation of the total freeze. Leung has even launched himself on Facebook in an effort to put across a warmer, softer image.

We should not get too carried away by these developments. There are still too many discordant notes. The seizing by pro-establishment forces of all the key positions in the House Committee and Finance Committee of Legco, including in the latter case its key subcommittees, plus chair and vice-chair of most subject panels, was provocative and unhelpful. It prompted Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit to describe the move as a declaration of war and to promise "they shall have it", though he has not repeated the threat recently. It was no defence for the pro-establishment forces to say they were merely responding to last year's ambush when the pan-dems took control of the establishment and public works subcommittees. If we are to improve the climate for cooperation, we need to break out of this childish cycle. Nor can we ignore the fact that the issue of political reform has not gone away - indeed cannot go away until we produce a structure and system that gives the chief executive a genuine mandate from the people. It is wishful thinking to pretend otherwise.

Mike Rowse is CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk