When a new round of public consultation begins on the national security laws next month, it should be taken as an opportunity to make a fresh start. The process will begin almost exactly a year after the launch of its ill-fated predecessor. This time, we are promised, things will be different. In some respects at least, they will be. The political climate has changed since the mass demonstration on July 1 and listening to the public is now the order of the day. This has been underlined by the departure of combative former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. We can expect a less confrontational approach from her successor, Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong.
Mr Lee has made a cautious but encouraging start. He was quick to place the winning of public support for the laws at the heart of his strategy. In the wake of the protest march, he could hardly have done anything else. The difficult part lies in achieving this objective, and much will depend on the form the consultation process takes. Mr Lee has the advantage of being able to look back on a classic example of how not to do it.
When considering the way forward, it will be helpful to keep in mind a few basic principles. There is no question of postponing the passing of the laws indefinitely, however attractive this may seem. We have a constitutional requirement to comply with Article 23 of the Basic Law. It is true that no threat to national security exists which our present laws cannot deal with. But the absence of any emergency makes it a good time to tackle the laws, and should enable people to take part in a calm and rational debate.
The process, however, should be allowed to move at a pace the community is comfortable with. This is essential if the consultation is to be genuine. The government has therefore been wise not to set any deadline by which it wants the laws passed. While it would probably prefer to see them enacted before next year's Legislative Council elections, any attempt to push the laws through before the public is ready will risk a similar response to the one given by half a million people on July 1.
Another important step the government should take is to remove the blue bill which is currently before Legco and start afresh. However reasonable the bill may now be, having been amended 54 times it has been tainted by past events. It would also be unsatisfactory to have the consultation running simultaneously with the legislative process. The better approach would be to consider views which have already been expressed and to incorporate them in a white bill, or its equivalent, for consideration by the public. The text of this new bill should be included in the consultation document, along with a simple explanation of how each law will work and any impact it may have on everyday life. A commentary on the thinking behind the proposals is also required for people to understand the legislation.
Publishing a white bill would also provide an opportunity for reviewing the laws and producing a document that is more cohesive and complete. Hurried last-minute amendments were announced last month, and they will require further thought. In particular, the nature of a 'public interest' defence to be introduced for the disclosure of official secrets needs to be carefully considered. Once the consultation process is completed, further changes are likely to be needed to accommodate opinions which have been expressed. A new blue bill could then be presented to Legco.
Ultimately, the aim should be to do no more than Article 23 requires and to produce clear, narrowly drafted laws, which comply with international human rights standards. This will, most of all, require the government to listen genuinely to the people and to keep an open mind.