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Legislative Council oath-taking saga

Demand for ousted lawmakers to return payments is political persecution, and Hongkongers won’t stand for it

Mike Rowse says Legco’s choice to pursue repayment of salaries and allowances from the four disqualified members is illogical and hypocritical, and may backfire in court and with voters at the ballot box

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 December, 2017, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 December, 2017, 7:01pm

The decision by the Legislative Council Commission to seek refunds from four disqualified Legco members scores a rare triple whammy: it is morally reprehensible, legally doubtful and potentially a spectacular political own goal.

Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen confirmed that reimbursement of salaries and allowances would be retroactive to October 1 last year. However, there would be no similar effort to retroactively undo what they had done as members.

There is no logic to this. The four were members, entitled to draw salaries, hire staff, rent offices, purchase equipment and so on – or they were not, in which case everything they did should be unravelled.

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It is worth reminding ourselves how we arrived at the present situation. In fairness, it should be remembered that it began when the four members in question – Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai and Edward Yiu Chung-yim – took their oaths of office in a variety of silly ways – long pauses between words, suddenly going falsetto, etc – instead of in a solemn, serious manner. They used the ceremony to make a political gesture. The president accepted their oaths at the time, deeming it better to get on with public business than make martyrs out of them. But this was insufficient for others, including government officials, who took it upon themselves to challenge the validity of the oaths in court. The legal outcome was inevitable, as there was already relevant case law in Hong Kong to ensure disqualification.

The NPC Standing Committee jumped in with its unnecessary ruling as well, thereby ensuring politicisation of the whole exercise.

Leung is especially badly placed, as it was he who originally accepted their oaths as legitimate. That surely makes him as culpable as the disqualified four.

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Now the story turns sinister. The four are manifestly not well off, unable to repay the sums, ranging from HK$2.7 million to HK$3.1 million each. The money was spent, and is not lying around in a bank account. There are already murmurings that, if the case is pursued, all four face bankruptcy. Not only would they be barred from public office in the future, their earning capacity would be adversely affected for the rest of their lives. As three of them are relatively young, the punishment would be disproportionate to the crime.

Leung, by contrast, is a well-to-do businessman who could pay up, if necessary on behalf of everyone – but he is not writing to himself to suggest such a thing.

The excuse that the commission must pursue return of the sums because “public money is involved” is a masterstroke of illogicality. How can it make sense to spend millions on court proceedings, known from the outset to be useless, as those involved do not have the money? Common sense says the wisest thing, bearing in mind the culpability of their own president, would be for Legco to stop right away. All this in a council which cheerfully funds cost overruns which make the HK$12 million at stake here pocket change.

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If the case proceeds to court, at further cost to taxpayers, the outcome is far from certain. How will surviving members feel if they lose and are also ordered to pay the costs of the defendants?

In addition to any financial penalty, there would also be the political cost the pro-government forces pay at the next election. It never ceases to amaze me how often personalities across the political spectrum underrate the intelligence of Hongkongers.

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The pan-democrats are making this mistake now with their mindless opposition to the practical co-location immigration arrangement at the high-speed rail terminus in West Kowloon. And the pro-administration members can come up with as many excuses as they like, but people will see the reclaim exercise for what it is: political persecution. The message proponents would send to our young people is that not only can we stop you from doing what you want, however well intentioned, if you oppose us, we will smash you. Some members have since perhaps realised the politically dangerous course they are pursuing and have hinted at compromises.

In local politics, persecution is unacceptable. Unless the reclaim hawks draw back, they risk judgment from the men and women of Hong Kong.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. mike@rowse.com.hk