A SECTION of Governor Chris Patten's policy address in October has become uncomfortable reading after what transpired in the council last week. 'Under the Hong Kong system, it is the Government's role to put its legislative and expenditure proposals to the Legislative Council, but the Legislative Council alone has the power to decide whether these proposals will become law or receive funding,' said Patten. 'If I may paraphrase Thomas a Kempis, the administration proposes and the legislature disposes.' Clearly, the administration's decision to withdraw the bill on long service payments after it was successfully amended was a violation of the principle of legislative autonomy expounded by the Governor. So far, Mr Patten has not been called upon to reconcile his backing of the withdrawal decision and his view on legislative autonomy. In fact, the signs are that his officials are prepared to use the facility of withdrawing a bill as a means of getting their way in the face of an increasingly obstinate Legco. A clear indication was contained in an open letter by Secretary for Recreation and Culture James So Yiu-cho about the Hong Kong arts development council bill last Thursday. The letter warned that the administration would withdraw the arts council bill if the Legco bills committee insisted that council members be elected. 'The administration will not compromise the principle that no exceptions can be made to the tried, tested and well established appointment system that is used for all Government statutory and advisory bodies,' said the letter. 'The administration will therefore have no choice but to withdraw the bill if the Legislative Council bills committee were to insist on introducing into the bill an element of elections into the process of selection.' The significance of So's threat and Leung's execution of his threat to withdraw a bill is that the administration has no other choice when it believes that a bill will be passed in an unacceptable form. Previously, the administration could rely on cajoling the appointed members into supporting its preferred version. Today, appointed members have asserted a more independent stance; those who have political ambitions are contemplating running in next year's election when the appointment system is abolished. In the meantime, the number of elected members has increased and they have become harder to please and less willing to compromise. Under the circumstances, officials are being forced to manipulate the rules of the game as best as they can, including withdrawing a bill at the very last moment. Section 23 of Legco's Standing Orders provides that 'the member in charge of a bill may, at the beginning of the proceedings on a bill at a sitting, announce that he withdraws or postpones the bill'. While the provision has existed for a long time, the administration's decision to withdraw the long service payment bill at the beginning of its third reading and after an amendment proposed by Mr Lau was passed during the second reading was unprecedented. The rows over the long service payments and arts development council show once again the tenuous relationship between an unelected administration which does not have a party to push through its policy proposals in the legislature, and an elected legislature whose members have no hope of taking charge of the administration under Hong Kong's unique executive-led governmental system. Mr Patten is fully aware of the predicament. In his policy address he noted: 'Hong Kong has been provided by history, design and chance, with a constitution which, without goodwill and common-sense on all sides, could be a recipe for political and administrative gridlock.' It is for the public to decide whether in the long service payments row, either or all sides have displayed goodwill and common sense. On the one hand, the Government said it had to withdraw the bill because the amended version did not have the blessing of the Labour Advisory Board. On the other hand, members of the LAB said they had been used as scapegoats as they had never been asked to consider the ceiling on long service payments - the subject of Lau's amendment. Opinion polls have shown that the public is not happy with the way the Government has acted to override the decision of the Legislative Council. Certainly, a display of goodwill and common-sense could not mean the administration withdrawing the long service payment bill at the very last minute because some of the Government's supporters in the Liberal Party failed to turn up to vote in its favour and others unexpectedly voted for Lau's amendment. This is not to say the administration should not wield the power of withdrawing a bill. It only means it must exercise this option sensibly. According to the Royal Instructions, the Legislative Council is free to make any standing rules and orders to regulate its proceedings. It would be a sad day for Hong Kong if the legislature voted to abolish the facility of withdrawing a bill as a means of depriving the administration of a way of forestalling the passage of bills over which it had lost control.