Hong Kong lawmakers who abstain from a vote should be given the chance to say why

Alice Wu says a watchdog’s report castigating ‘lazy’ lawmakers for not moving a motion, not showing up for a vote, or abstaining from a vote may be oversimplistic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 9:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 9:15am

For the past 24 years, the Catholic Monitors on Legislative Councillors has been keeping tabs on who’s been naughty or nice. Its annual “report cards” do serve a purpose: making our lawmakers, the people who are duty-bound to monitor the government, squirm and answer for their own “poor” performance.

The focus of this year’s report is, interestingly, on one of the seven deadly sins: sloth. And the group measured sloth by calculating the number of motions moved or amendments to other motions lawmakers had put forward. This is part of what legislative councillors do, but to make sweeping conclusions based just on those figures may be oversimplistic. Lawmakers’ submissions of motions and amendments are intricate affairs. Among a long list of considerations are party strategies, delegation, and process time and order. “Laziness” may be a factor, but filibusters seem to be the more likely suspect.

If we give filibusters such a generous place in our hearts, perhaps we should also be forgiving of the fact that less work was accomplished

The Democratic Party’s Albert Ho Chun-yan, who has been awarded a “laziness” distinction, defended his honour by pointing out that filibusters took up most of the time. While it would be nice to see our lawmakers take some responsibility and acknowledge their own part in the tardiness (and, if needed, apologise), Ho does have a point. The point of filibustering is to take up time. And when talking a bill to death is a strategy, there’s naturally less time left for other motions and amendments. And if we give filibusters such a generous place in our hearts, perhaps we should also be forgiving of the fact that less work was accomplished.

Seven lawmakers were found to have not shown up for a vote, or abstained on more than half the occasions when they were required to vote. The monitor group criticises such behaviour, citing the lawmakers’ “responsibility of telling the public their position on a social issue”.

READ MORE: Hong Kong’s Legislative Council must reconsider its procedural rules that are open to abuse

READ MORE: ‘It doesn’t matter; it’s not a sin’: Lawmaker with lowest Legco attendance unrepentant

Lawmakers do have such a responsibility. However, before we criticise them, we need to differentiate a no-show (which is a missed vote) from a vote to abstain. No-shows without a legitimate reason are irresponsible. To abstain from something, however, could be a tactical manoeuvre or a statement. The members’ voting panels do have an “abstain” option, so to conclude that such a vote is deserving of criticism is, again, an oversimplification. An “abstain” vote is not in and of itself unethical. If it were, then it shouldn’t even be an option.

A chance for our lawmakers to explain would be a constructive solution to unnecessary speculation; it would foster greater transparency and accountability

This is an opportunity to discuss why lawmakers abstain from a vote. There is plenty of scholarly work on the topic. Should lawmakers abstain, assuming they have done all their homework (reading all the documents, studying the issue and consulting their constituents), then there may be good reasons for their voting choice.

Perhaps the better option, before we criticise someone for abstaining, is to ask for an explanation. In the US House of Representatives, members are given the chance to provide official explanations even for missed votes, and how they would have voted if they were present. These explanations go on public record, although they do not change the result. A chance for our lawmakers to explain would be a constructive solution to unnecessary speculation; it would foster greater transparency and accountability.

Our lawmakers can be greatly disappointing, but we must be more rigorous with crunching numbers and interpreting the results. We are all plagued by human bias. In the spirit of Christmas, let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the writers of the report: good-intentioned but, perhaps, misguided.

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