DOES the Government have a hostage-taking strategy as far as dealing with the Legislative Council is concerned? It would appear so from the Employment (Amendment) Bill 'affair' which ended with Lau Chin-shek's resignation from the Council, and a debate last week where the Government was severely criticised by legislators. In that 'affair', the message from the Government was: amend at your peril. The strategy used basically abandoned dialogue and compromise, and transformed the legislative process into a zero-sum game: either pass the legislation in the form that the Government wanted, or run the risk of having no legislation at all. The legislature deals with matters of importance to the community. It cannot be acceptable that the Government's notion of accountability only means that it explains its policies to the legislature, listens to suggestions and criticisms, and then proceeds to ignore them. And, if councillors persists, like they did in the 'affair', then the Government has shown itself to be quite capable of bullying them. The affair has made legislators more sensitive to the application of the strategy in other areas. For example, it could be applied to the discussion of equal opportunities and sex discrimination. Many councillors would like the Government to address other areas of discrimination as well but it has so far only indicated a possible willingness to consider consulting the public on age, sexuality, marital status and maybe even union membership. A vague promise to consult the public is not the same as a commitment to legislate for those important areas. It is no more than a mere delaying tactic. As for political and racial discrimination, these areas seem to be just too difficult for the Government to even contemplate. As its arguments to deal only with a narrow range of discrimination fail to persuade legislators, the Government might use the Equal Opportunities Commission, provided for in the Sex Discrimination Bill now before the Council, to hold legislators hostage. The Government knows that councillors in general want the Commission. The legislative provision to establish the Commission is controlled by the Government, since a private member's bill cannot be used to set it up without government approval. Therefore, from the way the administration has dealt with the 'affair', it could use the Commission to make sure legislators do not stray too far from the Government's narrow ideas about discrimination. If they attempt to stray, the Government could threaten to withdraw the Bill. In the 'affair' the Government tried to paint legislators' complaints as unreasonable. It argued that legislative and financial priorities are carefully formulated by the executive (or even by an advisory body, like the Labour Advisory Board), and so should not be altered by legislators. It argued that legislatures elsewhere are also limited in how they can amend government bills or move private member's bills. BUT such comparisons with practices of democratic governments elsewhere are wholly inappropriate and misleading. Hong Kong is regrettably not yet a democracy. In a democracy, a government's decision to block consideration of an important matter can ultimately be overcome by a public vote removing the government from power. Hong Kong is not able to do that. The government party here is the civil service, which is wholly unelected. It has the power to withhold any money bill from the legislative agenda indefinitely. Legislators are excluded from policy formulation, a process that is conducted behind closed doors by a handful of civil servants, along with a small coterie of unelected part-time advisers to the Governor. Public input is sought, not through the active participation of elected representatives in formulating policy, but through a carefully controlled process of 'consultation'. That process is restricted to the extent that the Government asks for it, and it is often based on whatever information it chooses to release. It is ironic that, after battling to upgrade the legislature's representativeness, which caused such a stir with Beijing, that the Governor and the civil service then continue to cripple its effectiveness by a determined refusal to take account of, and to act upon, the legislature's views.