The new administration has all but admitted that its embattled plan for government restructuring will not be passed in the current legislature.
Widely criticised and subject to a lawmakers' filibuster, the scheme was pushed to the bottom of the lawmakers' agenda yesterday. Legislators across the political spectrum welcomed the government's move.
Announcing the decision, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the administration opted to give livelihood items the top priority because 'the chief executive attaches a lot of importance to promoting people's benefits'.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's revamp proposal involved creating deputies for the chief secretary and financial secretary, as well as two new bureaus.
'This is not a question of a concession,' Lam said. 'But you can say it is because the chief executive's policy vision places stress on livelihood issues.' The move was triggered by 'various serious, irrational delays instigated by the three Legislative Council members'.
She was referring to Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan Wai-yip of People Power, and Leung Kwok-hung of the League of Social Democrats. They have continued to drag out work on other government bills in plenary council meetings, in an apparent ploy to delay scrutiny of the revamp resolution.
Lam said she was not abandoning hope of seeing the proposed reshuffle approved by next Tuesday and stressed that the agenda switch was not a move to withdraw the plan.
'If it really can't be passed in this term, we surely have the responsibility to reassess [the situation]. Amendments will be made if needed. If there is no need to make any amendment, it be tabled to the legislature again [directly],' she said.
Lawmakers and critics said the change of direction came because the administration could see there was little chance of getting the plan approved by both the Legislative Council and the Finance Committee by next Tuesday, when the Legco term ends - in view of the delaying attempt by some pan-democrats.
Under the re-ordered agenda, only after all other government bills and motions have been dealt with will lawmakers discuss the resolution of the revamp plan in the plenary council meeting.
Excluding the Companies Bill, which is being scrutinised, the Legco secretariat estimates that it will take about 41 hours for legislators to handle seven other bills, 16 motions, panel reports and oral questions.
Lawmakers' motions are not expected to get to the discussion stage in this legislative term. That is because the secretariat estimated that there were only 47.25 hours for the council's next plenary meeting, which runs from tomorrow until midnight on next Tuesday. At the final Finance Committee meeting on Friday, which is expected to run for four hours, priority will be given to funding requests for such projects as expansion of the United Christian Hospital in Kwun Tong. Only then will scrutiny resume on funding for the proposed reshuffle.
People Power's Wong made clear that the group would not stop their delaying tactic immediately, for fear the government might make a U-turn and bring the proposal back again. Legco might also hold meetings at the weekend or overnight, he said.
Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin said the government had consulted them about the change in advance. Authorities had simply given way, faced with the near impossibility of getting the measure passed, he said.
'If they didn't re-order [the priorities], bills and motions on livelihood issues might fail to get passed as well. It would have a big impact,' he said.
Wong said the administration's 'concession' exposed loopholes in Legco rules of procedure. He was worried that some lawmakers might make use of them again in the next Legco term, creating uncertainty about whether and when the revamp plan could be passed.
Pundits said the revamp plan could face more uncertainties when it is tabled to the expanded 70-seat Legco, with many new faces, in the new term beginning in October.
Lingnan University political science associate professor Li Pang-kwong said Lam's decision revealed a serious miscalculation by the administration. 'The ministers simply do not know how to play the filibuster game, and how to tackle it.
'They badly overestimated the government's political power and the pro-government camp's back-up. They also underestimated the impact of the three pan-democratic lawmakers,' he said.
Legco president Tsang Yok-sing said: 'The government is being relatively more realistic to admit ... the chance that the proposal will not get passed in this legislative term is high.'
CLEARING THE DECKS
There are 23 bills and resolutions to be debated before scrutiny of the government restructuring.
Estimated time needed to clear them 35 hours 15 minutes (excludes Companies Bill which is currently being debated)
SOME OF THE MAJOR BILLS AND RESOLUTIONS
Buildings Legislation (Amendment) Bill
Tighten up certain measures such as allowing building officers to break into premises to ascertain safety conditions.
Trade Descriptions (Unfair Trade Practices) (Amendment) Bill
To improve consumer protection by expanding it to cover services.
Resolution under Article 73(7) of the Basic Law
To endorse the appointments of three judges to the Court of Final Appeal.
Resolution under Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Ordinance
To suspend the 0.03 per cent levy on trustees paid from MPF scheme assets to save members about HK$100 million a year.
There are eight funding requests to be discussed or endorsed by the Finance Committee.
Estimated time needed - four hours
SOME OF THE MAJOR FUNDING REQUESTS
Expansion of United Christian Hospital in Kwun Tong
Civil service pay adjustment
Adjustment of salary of political appointees
Construction of Runway Park at Kai Tak, Kowloon City
Trial of electric buses by franchised bus companies
Source: Legislative Council Secretariat