THE Governor's second policy speech next Wednesday will be watched closely here and in Beijing on how he is to tackle the current Sino-British row, which he started a year ago. His position on the record will have a direct bearing on the subsequent bilateral talks between China and Britain on the pre-1997 electoral arrangements for Hong Kong. Other substantial social issues in his annual address, however, are doomed to be overshadowed by the political debate. Mr Patten, for instance, committed himself early to offering a reply to the persistent call for a central provident fund in his upcoming annual address. All Legco factions are unanimous in their demand for a Government-guaranteed compulsory provident scheme. There could be serious political repercussions should he fall far short of their demands. Despite its significance on the retirement benefits of all 2.7 million local employees, the topic will have to play second fiddle to the wrangle over constitutional reform. Another issue that has failed to attract much media attention is the Governor's pledge to promote a free market in Hong Kong. In his previous address, the Governor conceded that ''a more sophisticated and prosperous community has become increasingly unwilling to accept unfair and discriminatory business practices''. Mr Patten undertook to join forces with the Consumer Council and legislators to ''defend free markets and to give consumers the full redress against unscrupulous business practices''. To underline his commitment, he even assigned as a priority for the Governor's Business Council to map out a comprehensive competition policy for Hong Kong. Yet, little has transpired over the past 12 months from the Business Council, which comprises about 20 prominent business figures. The body has been working under excessive secrecy, while the public is denied access to its agenda. Officials explain that confidentiality is a prerequisite for members to feel comfortable to speak their minds. But there has been no sign that the group has been co-operating with either the Consumer Council or the legislature for better consumer protection. On the contrary, there have even growing doubts on the logic of seeking advice from the representatives of big business on how to promote competition in the first place. Some liberal political parties have also taken their cue from the Governor's last policy address and started building up a platform on consumer rights. During the previous legislative session, Fred Li Wah-ming of Meeting Point sponsored a Legco debate to urge the Government to enact a Fair Trade Ordinance for better consumer protection. More recently, the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, headed by councillor Frederick Fung Kin-kee, also jumped on the bandwagon. The party has lashed out at textbook publishers, accusing them of producing unnecessary revised editions so that students are denied the option to use second hand books. Consumer rights is among the few issues which can appeal to wide cross-sectorial interests. It is thus conceivable that more politicians will start projecting themselves as defenders of consumer interests. A decision will be made one way or another on electoral reform by early next year, irrespective of whether London and Beijing can hammer out a consensus. The pace of democratisation before the 1997 takeover will then be settled and there is no point in the parties flogging a dead horse. Consumer protection may provide a convenient alternative rallying point for some of the liberal activists. Many may try to take advantage of the Governor's apparent failure to take any concrete steps in the area of fostering market forces. Councillors will have two weeks to digest Mr Patten's policy speech before they engage in a two-day debate on a motion of thanks. Why Mr Patten has failed to live up to his words in enshrining better consumer protection may become a lively sub-theme for the occasion.