Legislators put party loyalties to one side as they find common ground on issues

The first legislature under C.Y.Leung has seen a blurring of party lines and a surprising number of bipartisan votes against the government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 5:40am

Legco's two main political camps - the Beijing loyalists and pan-democrats - are often perceived as diametrically opposed, but the voting record of the first year of the new Legislative Council suggests otherwise.

Mutual support - if not quite co-operation - between the two sides was apparent last month, when two Beijing-loyalist groups joined pan-democrats to shun a government request for funding to expand three landfill sites.

This was not an isolated instance. A South China Morning Post analysis of votes in the 2012-13 session, the first since the expanded Legco's 70 seats were filled in September's election, shows that Beijing-loyalist Federation of Trade Unions has backed pan-democratic proposals 41 per cent of the time, top among the pro-establishment camp.

Altogether, there were 25 motions and 124 amendments proposed by pan-democrats, compared with 28 motions and 44 amendments by pro-establishment lawmakers.

Most of these votes that gained bipartisan support concerned livelihood and labour issues. Labour Party's motion on universal retirement protection system, for instance, secured FTU support while most other loyalists abstained.

FTU's motions calling for a review of the mandatory provident fund were overwhelmingly welcomed by pan-democrats, only to be struck down by the functional constituency lawmakers - made up mainly of the FTU's pro-establishment allies.

And while the two sides retained their long-standing ideological differences over political reform and Beijing's influence in Hong Kong, their relationship was too warm to miss.

On motions and amendments put forward by the FTU, 70 per cent of pan-democratic votes were cast in favour, with 21 per cent against and a 9 per cent abstention rate.

The Civic Party gave it 78 per cent support, closely followed by what might be the most curious backing force, the Labour Party - with 74 per cent yes votes - though it is widely considered the closest comparison with the FTU on the other political side, especially given the Labour's link with the Confederation of Trade Unions.

Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching said FTU's motions were supportable because their demands "appeared" pro-grass roots.

The four Labour lawmakers - headed by former CTU leader Lee Cheuk-yan - voted for FTU motions three-quarters of the time, despite the ideological differences of the two union bodies.

The FTU frequently found itself going against its traditional ally the DAB. Many FTU members have also been DAB members over the years, such as lawmaker Chan Yuen-han, who quit the DAB only when she ran for a district council seat in 2011.

Chan returned to Legco as a "super seat" lawmaker last year, winning one of five seats in the district council functional constituency voted for by members of the public ineligible to vote in any other functional seat.

Chan's split with the DAB appeared to have been a sign of things to come.

"As time moves on, the FTU and DAB are walking along increasingly different lines. Our gap is widening," FTU lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin admitted.

The six FTU lawmakers were only willing to vote for DAB motions and amendments 60 per cent of the time, with the rest equally divided between "no" votes and abstentions.

The DAB seems equally unwilling to back its old ally. The 12 DAB lawmakers (excluding Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing) supported less than a third of FTU proposals. Although members of the city's largest party voted "no" only 9 per cent of the time, they abstained in 61 per cent of cases.

In the end, pan-democrats backed FTU proposals more than twice as often as the DAB.

Wong said that while the FTU focused primarily on labour and grass-roots issues, the DAB was looking to appeal to a wider voter base "and they do not only consider the grass roots".

Meanwhile, traditional foes were finding common ground.

"We share closer views with pan-democrats on livelihood issues - like forcing the government to invest more in welfare matters," Wong said.

Political analyst Ma Ngok said the FTU's growing willingness to stand with the pan-democrats reflected its grievances with the government.

"Having backed Leung Chun-ying in last year's chief executive election, the FTU now feels that many of his pledges have dissipated," said Ma, an associate professor at Chinese University's department of government and public administration. "The FTU now has to ask for them again, together with the pan-democrats."

But Professor Ray Yep Kin-man, of City University's public and social administration department, said the findings should not be directly interpreted as a split between the FTU and DAB. But, he added: "The DAB has a major duty to protect the government. Very often it could only choose to stand by it, rather than back livelihood issues."

The split could make the city harder to govern, Ma warned, if traditional supporters of the administration went against it in cases where its policies endangered, rather than shored up, their support from the public.

The landfill debate was a case in point. Not only did the FTU line up against the government alongside the pan-democrats but so did the Business and Professionals Alliance, a loose grouping of seven Beijing-loyalists formed after September's poll.

A leading light of the alliance, Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat, owns several plots in Lung Kwu Tan village next to the landfill. He vowed to do whatever it took to scupper the landfill expansion, saying the people of Tuen Mun had suffered long enough. Lawmakers later terminated discussion of the plan.

But through the year, the alliance showed little consistency. Its only directly-elected lawmaker, Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, often did not vote with her colleagues. The alliance has always said it was a loose partnership, with members saying from the start that they would not always vote the same way.Alliance member Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung was appointed by the chief executive to the Executive Council despite backing Leung's election rival, former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen.

But Liberal Party leader and Tang supporter James Tien Pei-chun has emerged as one of the least enthusiastic supporters of government bills among the Beijing-loyalist camp in Legco.

Of the seven government bills that had a recorded vote, Tien showed up and voted for the administration only twice, while party colleague Felix Chung Kwok-pan did so just once.

They were the least supportive loyalist members of Legco.

Tien defended his no-shows, saying the votes were on "minor, non-controversial" items - ranging from the budget bill's second reading to an amendment of the law governing district councils. He attended and voted in the final-stage third reading sessions of the budget bill and on an air pollution amendment.

Tien said he would also have supported the government if other controversial measures, such as restrictions on exports of baby milk powder to thwart parallel traders, had come to a vote.

The Liberals - the party for which Henry Tang was once a lawmaker - have kept their support for Leung's leadership lukewarm. The party even voted for three motions put forward by radical pan-democrats that were considered too politically sensitive for the DAB or FTU.

They included a call by Wong Yuk-man for education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim to step down amid huge protests against a national education curriculum in schools; a demand by "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung for the government to buy back The Link, the investment company that owns shops on public housing estates, and a call for Legco to investigate the saga surrounding the failed Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange, set up by Leung's key aide, Barry Cheung Chun-yuen.

Given the potential for chaos amid the split in the traditional alliance of government-friendly parties, politicians from all sides said stronger party politics was the path to better governance. But Ma believes that Beijing is not interested in political development along those lines.

Additional reporting by Danny Lee