Legislators have long complained that they do not always get the respect they deserve. When they take their duties seriously, they risk being accused of being hostile and unco-operative. But when they side with the government, they are denounced as a rubber stamp without exercising their monitoring role properly. Recently, their public image and credibility have been further dampened by the occasional rowdy behaviour that has erupted inside the Legislative Council chamber. Now that the 70 members have been formally sworn into office for a four-year term, it is to be hoped that they can do a better job.
Unfortunately, the new Legco does not appear to have gotten off to a promising start. A handful of rebel lawmakers have, as expected, used the swearing-in ritual for attention-grabbing stunts. One deliberately dropped some words while reading the oath, while others brought along props or added their own slogans when pledging their allegiance to serve. We do not doubt that their political convictions are shared by some people. But the public rightly expects more than political theatrics. Gestures and antics aside, there is a need for them to get down to business.
A looming battle is the vote on a new HK$2,200 monthly allowance for the elderly. Despite considerable public support for a means test to screen out those without genuine financial needs, some political parties have warned they will veto the HK$6.2 billion funding for the allowance if the test is not dropped. Some even threatened to drag out the procedures with filibustering. Others intend to use of the vote to force the government to give fresh consideration to a universal old-age-pension scheme, which was ruled out in favour of a mandatory provident fund by the colonial administration.
Lawmakers think they are right to push for a scheme that benefits as many as possible. But if that is achieved at the expense of fiscal prudence, there is reason to be concerned. We have been told that the annual expenditure will blow out to HK$13.6 billion if the means test is waived. The burden on taxpayers is likely to snowball given our ageing population. The government is, therefore, justified to insist on a mechanism that will ensure public funds are used in a responsible manner.
The new Legco may feel compelled to flex its muscles in its first tussle with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. But it will not help improve its image if members are seen as fighting only for the sake of fighting. Co-operation is preferred to confrontation.