Bill on elections may be gazetted before talks

THE Government would need to go ahead and gazette the bill on electoral arrangements for the 1994/95 elections if a decision on talks between China and Britain was not reached imminently, the official in charge of constitutional matters said yesterday.

Without offering any firm timetable on when the bill would have to be presented, the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Michael Sze Cho-cheung, said it had always been ''our aim to gazette the bill as early as possible, certainly by the end of February if we could''.

''Were we to go beyond that date, there would have to be a very good reason for doing so,'' he said.

''It would have to be for reasons which would be well understood by the Legislative Council and by the community.'' The Governor, Mr Chris Patten, was quick to point out that the timely introduction of the draft legislation did not amount to an ultimatum to China.

Until yesterday the Chinese side had yet to respond to the Government's call for talks on the 1994/95 electoral arrangements.

It is understood the Government is keeping the option that it may gazette the bill tomorrow if there is still no concrete plan for resuming negotiations.

Mr Patten said after touring Sha Tin yesterday that ''when we talk about the necessity of dealing with these issues, when we talk about the necessity of getting them to the Legislative Council as soon as we reasonably can, it is not an ultimatum''.

''And I guess if we could put things off indefinitely, we would, but that is not an available option,'' he said.

''The fact that we have all along tried to resolve this legislative issue and this administrative issue as soon as possible isn't a political tactic. It is a fact of administrative necessity.

''So we don't make up the fact that we have to have this arrangement in place this year [for the 1994 and 1995 elections], it is very easy to find reasons for putting off, for procrastinating.'' The Governor refrained from giving a deadline for the gazetting of bills, but said he very much doubted whether there were any Legco members saying they would have to deal with the legislation more expeditiously if there was a long delay.

''I haven't heard many councillors saying if there is a delay, they will shorten the time allocated to debate those matters.

''I don't expect Legislative Councillors to say that, and I don't think they will say it. So, what I have to do is to weigh these matters in the balance,'' he said.

In reply to a question by liberal legislator Mr Szeto Wah in the Legislative Council, Mr Sze said the timetable the Government had in mind was reasonable.

He stressed that the Executive Council would be consulted at everystage of any negotiations.

Mr Sze also said the Government had every sincerity in holding talks with China.

''The mere fact that we have delayed gazetting of this bill for two weeks already fully demonstrated that sincerity,'' he said.

He emphasised that gazetting of the bill and even its introduction into the law-making body did not mean the end of discussions.

''It merely is the beginning of another process, which would be lengthy,'' he said.

Mr Sze underscored the commitment that in any diplomatic talks, the Government would bear in mind the views of Hongkong people as expressed and reflected in the Legislative Council.

He said opinion polls had consistently shown that despite heavy criticism from a number of quarters, Mr Patten's proposals still retained a two-to-one margin of support in the community.

''We shall remind ourselves that the Legislative Council has the constitutional power to enact legislation for the electoral arrangements,'' he said.

''This will also [be borne firmly in mind] in any negotiations.'' Legislative councillors remained divided on whether the gazetting of the bill should be delayed.

United Democrats chairman Mr Martin Lee Chu-ming said the bill should be gazetted as soon as possible so that the legislature could carry on discussions while the Hongkong and mainland governments conducted negotiations.

The Democrats suggested that tomorrow should be the deadline for gazetting the bill.

But Co-operative Resources Centre convenor Mr Allen Lee Peng-fei said there would be difficulties if negotiations between the two governments went on at the same time as the Legislative Council debate.