Days numbered for filibustering Hong Kong pan-democrats as pro-Beijing camp set to table 24 proposals
Most controversial and powerful one would lower quorum requirement from 35 to 20 for aspects of weekly meetings
The days of Hong Kong pan-democrats dragging out legislative meetings are numbered as the pro-Beijing camp is set to move 24 proposals on Wednesday to amend the rulebook to restrict such tactics.
The pro-establishment camp expressed confidence it would gain passage in January, despite questions whether one of its most powerful proposals was consistent with the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
The power wielded by pan-democratic lawmakers to block the impending changes was significantly weakened after a court removed six pro-democracy members for improperly taking their oaths of office.
That has opened a window of opportunity for pro-establishment legislators to change procedural rules before by-elections to fill four of the vacant seats on March 11. Pan-democrats are expected to win back some of the seats.
The pro-Beijing camp’s 24 proposals would effectively curb their opponents’ delaying tactics, which include repeatedly calling for quorum counts, making lengthy speeches and tabling stacks of amendments.
In recent weeks, the pan-democrats filibustered other bills to try to defer the house rules debate and table a list of their own rules changes.
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Among the pro-government camp’s 24 proposals, the most controversial and powerful one would lower the quorum requirement from 35 to 20 for aspects of the weekly meetings of the 70-member council.
According to Article 75 of the Basic Law, “the quorum for the meeting of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be not less than one half of all its members.”
The pro-Beijing camp argued the quorum requirement did not apply to the council meeting when it entered a stage of bill scrutiny where the 70 lawmakers were allowed to give an unlimited number of speeches.
The opposition lawmakers, holding 30 seats before the six were disqualified, have in recent years repeatedly called quorum bells that last for 15 minutes each to grind proceedings to a halt to block bills or motions they deemed inappropriate.
In 2015/16, a record high number of 596 quorum bells was recorded. Weekly council meetings were halted for a total of 115 hours that legislative year. Eleven of the bells caused an early adjournment of the meetings, after the pro-Beijing camp failed to secure a sufficient number of lawmakers in the chamber.
The pro-Beijing camp’s proposal was backed by the opinions of two legal advisers they hired: former Legco legal adviser Jimmy Ma Yiu-tim, and Lord Pannick.
Yet the pair’s opinions were at odds with previous outside counsel on the issue that Legco retained in 2014 and last year.
Senior counsel Ambrose Ho and Lord Lester had said it was most unlikely the drafters of Article 75 intended the quorum requirement not to cover that stage of the council meeting, calling the process of debating and voting on each clause of a bill integral to a full meeting.
Facing two conflicting legal opinions, Legco President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen finally gave the camp a green light to table the amendment.
“It is expected that some people will file a judicial review [once the amendment is done], so there is a chance Beijing will interpret the Basic Law,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun said.
If that happened, Tse added, Beijing’s interpretation could go further and more deeply curtail pan-democrats’ leeway to drag out meetings.
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu lamented the development.
“It is an utterly unfair game, as the Legco president and government all stand on their [pro-Beijing lawmakers] side,” he said, adding the camp had the “ultimate god” on its side in the National People’s Congress. The body has the power to interpret the Basic Law.
The government did not table any bills for the meeting this Wednesday, drawing criticism from the pan-democrats who claimed it was paving the way for a house rules debate.
Other proposals from the pro-Beijing camp included granting the Legco president power to decide whether to resume a meeting adjourned for lack of quorum on the same day instead of the following week. Another plan is to increase the number of lawmaker signatures needed from 20 to 35 to form a select committee to investigate government officials.
Meanwhile, Leung allowed the pan-democrats to table their own 24 proposals, but ruled another 14 inadmissible.
The pan-democrats vowed to resort to dilatory tacts in the upcoming house rules debate, but Yeung said the odds of their succeeding were not high.