The tyranny of public opinion

Regina Ip says for a democracy to work, politicians elected by the people must have the courage to take decisions for the common good, even when a majority believe otherwise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 5:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 7:59am

The recent controversial decision on TV licensing triggered a fresh round of questioning on the extent to which the government takes account of public opinion before reaching its decisions. A Chinese University student publicly slammed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying for ignoring public opinion. Executive Council convener Lam Woon-kwong expressed misgivings about the gap between public expectations and the Executive Council's decision.

Yet the fact is that it is never easy to determine the precise state of public opinion on any particular issue. It could fluctuate wildly within a short space of time, prompted by a sudden turn of events or powerful images.

Hong Kong witnessed such a wild swing recently in connection with its spat with the Philippines over the Manila hostage tragedy. Three weeks ago, the local community was fuming with anger over the Philippine government's refusal to apologise or compensate the victims. In a matter of days, Hong Kong people's perception of the Philippines changed radically.

After images of the pitiable devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan were broadcast on television, Hong Kong people became overwhelmed with compassion for the plight of the victims. The Legislative Council speedily approved replenishment of the city's disaster relief fund for overseas victims to the tune of HK$40 million. Talk of sanctions all but died down.

Public opinion also varies greatly depending on one's values and whether one's interests are affected. Hong Kong people who see their vital (property) interests affected have been protesting against every infrastructural project with real or imagined impact on the environment. Extensions to landfills, the construction of public housing estates, homes for the elderly and international schools have sparked strong objections in different localities. City-wide opinion surveys, however, show majority support for such facilities.

Public opinion could be irrational, ignorant or geared to short-term or sectoral interests, without regard to the "common good". Our people have been calling for trade sanctions against a sovereign state where our power to do so hardly exists, or urging the chief executive to emulate Macau in handing out cash.

The "common good" or the "will of the people" is often so hard to determine that political scientist Joseph Schumpeter, writing in 1942, and having observed the many real-life problems with the workings of democracy, was compelled to question the classical definition of democracy as "the institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realise the common good by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will". How do you determine the "will of the people" and who is to judge "the common good"?

Because public opinion could so often amount to no more than "an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions", Schumpeter decided that the political game needs to be played by "specialists", individuals with the aptitude and techniques to act as representatives of the people.

In his alternative theory, democracy is defined as "that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote". The difference between the two definitions is that Schumpeter placed the accent on the vital fact of leadership and the role played by elected leaders in making political decisions on behalf of the people.

We saw an example of a political decision taken on behalf of the people recently - albeit in a small way. In the course of Legco's discussions on funding to aid the victims of Haiyan, legislator Leung Yiu-chung said he had received many calls from his constituents objecting to disaster relief for the Philippines. But he decided humanitarian principles overrode such complaints and supported the government's request for funding. So Leung formed a judgment on what constituted "the common good" and took a decision on behalf of his constituents.

In the 1970s, the Hong Kong government, guided by the humanitarian principles of its British sovereign, did the same thing on a much grander scale. It offered shelter to hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people seeking shelter in Hong Kong, over the strong objections of the locals. From time to time, governments need to ride roughshod over public opinion and take tough decisions on behalf of the people.

Such political decisions are not risk-free, of course. A good example is 18th-century Irish statesman Edmund Burke who supported free trade over the objection of his electors in Bristol. Burke pleaded with his voters that, once elected to Parliament, he ceased to be a member of Bristol, but a member of Parliament, which is a "deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole". Burke's voters disagreed and failed to re-elect him. Burke lost a seat, but gained a place in history as the classic example of the exercise of the "unbound mandate" in the public interest by a true statesman.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party