Political reforms should allow chief executive to be party head

Mike Rowse urges a fix on constitutional flaw blocking policy execution

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 5:25am

There is both good news and bad news on the subject of governance in Hong Kong. First the good news - public consultation on political reform has already started, mostly behind the scenes, and much of the shape of a compromise package is beginning to emerge.

Starting with ideas for reform of the Legislative Council in advance of the 2016 election, we have to accept that there simply are not 47 votes - the minimum needed for a two-thirds majority - for the immediate scrapping of all functional constituencies. So the focus has to be on how to reform them.

First to go is the concept of corporate voting, for two reasons. It is in principle indefensible, and any failure to scrap it would mean rejection by pan-democratic forces of the entire reform package.

As a direct corollary of that change, there must be a minimum threshold for the size of the electorate in any functional constituency. A suitable figure might be 50,000 or so (so 30 functional constituencies would account for around half the electorate, while the other half would be voting in the five super seats), but there is room for flexibility on the exact size.

That gets us to 2016, and sets the scene for implementation of universal suffrage at the Legco level in 2020. But the shape of arrangements for the 2017 election of the chief executive is somewhat less certain.

Singapore has five incinerators, our government cannot get approval for even one

I find it difficult to get excited about the idea of direct nomination by a vast number (80,000? 100,000?) of ordinary voters. The sheer logistics just seem so daunting. So I suspect we are stuck with a nominating committee. It is important to increase its representativeness.

Once again, scrapping of corporate voting tops the list. There are a number of other worthy reform ideas being floated. It should not be beyond the wit of man to put together the best of these and come up with a plausible nominating committee of around the same size as at present.

The decision on which name to put forward to Beijing for appointment as chief executive must be left to the people of Hong Kong or universal suffrage won't mean very much. The central government still holds a veto in case we lose our collective heads and elect someone totally unacceptable, but the danger of this is slight.

Reforms along these lines will mean we end up with a chief executive who has a popular mandate - thus addressing one of the weaknesses in the present arrangements - and a legislature which is demonstrably democratic.

But then we come to the bad news - good governance requires three things: a willingness to address key issues; an ability to devise effective solutions; and the capacity to implement them.

The present team under the leadership of Leung Chun-ying is doing reasonably well on the first aspect, and passably on the second. The real problem has been securing implementation.

One obvious example is in waste disposal: whereas Singapore has five incinerators, our government cannot get approval for even one. Cities all over Asia have introduced charging schemes while we are still girding our loins for yet another round of consultation.

There are major structural flaws in our constitutional arrangements. The main one is the disconnect between the executive and the legislature, caused in part by our curious attitude towards political parties. Far from banning the chief executive from being a member of one, we need to move towards a situation where he runs for election as head of a party (or coalition of parties) that in parallel seeks a majority in the legislature so that he can govern.

Unless we can solve this structural problem, all the other worthwhile reforms will probably not achieve very much.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk