Put Legco effectiveness on our reform agenda

Bernard Chan says constitutional debate must consider Legco restructure

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

This is the time when we welcome back our legislators: the new Legislative Council year started on October 1, and the first full meeting is next Wednesday.

You might think I am joking. Legco is not a popular institution. Depending on your point of view, you might dislike some members because they are childish or disruptive; because they support (or oppose) the government; or because they push narrow vested interests. I was a legislator for 10 years, and I worked with, or sometimes against, quite a few of the members who are still there.

Despite public perceptions, radicals do make constructive contributions to bills

The media likes to report exciting incidents like walkouts, shouting and banner-waving. But a lot of Legco's work is serious and focused. Committees debate the wording of bills that will, if passed, become part of the law we must all obey. Members hold the administration to account by demanding details on policymaking and how money is spent. Despite public perceptions, outspoken radicals do often make constructive contributions to bills, while pro-establishment figures often criticise officials.

Although I am no longer in Legco, I often see and hear things that bring back memories. Even events overseas take me back. The recent filibuster attempt by US Republican Senator Ted Cruz and the showdown over the federal government budget got me thinking about parallels in Hong Kong.

Filibustering has happened on occasion in Legco - by both pro-government and opposition camps. Each time, it provoked bitter debate. Supporters claimed it was democracy in action, while opponents said it went against the public interest. Cruz was specifically trying to derail President Barack Obama's health reforms, which some would argue surely had a popular mandate thanks to Obama's two presidential election victories.

I remember Legco once coming close to rejecting a government budget; officials and civil servants ended up having to get pro-government lawmakers out of bed.

Constitutional reform is coming: how will a chief executive elected by universal suffrage affect Legco's mandate? This is something lawmakers - and the rest of us - need to start thinking about.

Even a TV show brings back some Legco memories. I recently saw an episode of the 2013 remake of Yes, Prime Minister, the British comedy from three decades ago. Lord Wei, a member of the UK's upper chamber, told me the show was considered old-fashioned and that viewers think the more adult series The Thick of It is more accurate.

In the older series, politicians have convictions and policymaking is driven by principles, against the wishes of civil servants who try to stop them. In The Thick of It, politicians care only about getting votes, and policymaking is driven by focus groups and spin. In Hong Kong, we sometimes see politicians clash over principles, but we also see them pander to interest groups and lobbies demanding special treatment.

Constitutional reform will involve reforming Legco, too. Too many people seem to be focused on the 2017 chief executive election. But issues like the relationship between the executive and legislature, and what drives policymaking, go much further. The structure of Legco's constituencies and the election system used in the 2016 and future Legco elections will be just as important.

We can add to the list the issue of political parties as well.

How chief executive candidates are chosen, how lawmakers are elected and the legal status and role of parties - they are all linked. People zeroing in on one detail should step back and look at the big picture. Our lawmakers getting back to work next week should lead the way. I wish all of them every success.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council