Public engagement on political reform must truly engage the people

Alice Wu believes that for democracy to take root and grow strong in Hong Kong, we must learn the art of meaningful public debate

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 November, 2013, 6:39pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 7:00am

Let the stand-off at Tamar over television licensing serve as a reminder to those in power that distrust doesn't happen overnight, that it breeds more distrust and fuels emotions that turn conflicts into head-on collisions. Left unaddressed, distrust makes political life unbearably Hobbesian.

With public consultations for political reform set to begin in this hyper-political environment, there is more reason to worry that if the government plans to conduct its obligation to consult the public in the same way it has before, it's going to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly.

While town hall meetings are an integral element of government consultation exercises, an evening-long discussion is hardly enough. And if our typical town hall meetings continue to be engineered gatherings packed with supporters, or a show of flexing political muscles in mobilisation, then we can be sure they will attract much heckling and little in the way of meaningful discussion.

If the government plans to seriously engage the public, as a show of good faith it has every incentive to introduce new ways for people to take part in shaping the political reform. After all, we are not only reforming our electoral arrangements; we're reforming a system that needs changes in public engagement, participation and decision-making.

What better way to move towards democracy than to begin with changes that will enhance the deliberative character of our political life? By providing the right settings for a more thoughtful and more engaged public, we aid our own quest for more direct democracy.

If we are serious about political reform, if we truly believe that people can deliberate rationally, fairly and wisely, then we need a new way of talking to one another. The "D-day" (deliberation day) set-up proposed by American political scientists Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin may not work for us, but as the authors of the proposal said, it should be used as a prompt, rather than a guide.

The important thing is to see that there are alternatives to the typically degenerative political conversations in this city that alienate people and make consensus impossible.

It is true that democracy is not a panacea for all our ills. But the civic values that buttress democracy - pluralism, mutual respect, reason and thoughtfulness - are needed.

So, instead of making public consultation exercises fertile ground for yet more confrontational politics, the government would be wise to take this opportunity to really engage the public. It should trust the people, allowing room for the development of civic virtues that will shape a more liberal, deliberative and collaborative democracy.

To build strong democratic traditions, we begin by laying solid foundations. If we ask for civic participation and public-spiritedness, then public consultation exercises become not merely a duty but a part of our democratic and political process.

And that process needs to be one that crosses political divides and differences, instead of one that accentuates them.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA