The calm political climate that has prevailed since last month's election provides Hong Kong with the chance to make progress towards universal suffrage. This is a time when we need to work hard developing, debating and refining ideas for the future and to strive to create a better understanding with Beijing so that we can move closer to the goal envisaged by the Basic Law. Some democrats, however, are acting like the proverbial old generals: they are still fighting the last war by pushing hard for a plebiscite or referendum on universal suffrage. This is a purely symbolic gesture which is, at best, a distraction from the challenges ahead. It may even harm the pro-democracy cause. The proposed plebiscite would involve a vote by all people on whether or not we want universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2007 and the Legislative Council poll in 2008. What would this achieve? It would tell us what we already know: most Hong Kong people want direct elections as soon as possible. This has been shown by many opinion polls and by the popular vote - more than 60 per cent - won by democrat candidates in the last election. The leader of the Democratic Party, Yeung Sum, would surely agree. He is on record as describing the election result as 'tantamount to a referendum on the city's democracy'. There is no need to hold another one. But there is another reason why a plebiscite on universal suffrage for 2007 and 2008 would be a bad idea. Hong Kong people would be asked to vote for or against direct elections - which have already been ruled out by Beijing. A great deal of time, money and energy would be wasted in gauging the community's support for something it cannot have. That battle has been lost. A high 'yes' vote for universal suffrage would step up the pressure on Beijing. But a plebiscite is most unlikely to persuade the central government to change its mind. Rightly or wrongly, Beijing views plebiscites with the greatest suspicion. This can be seen by the adverse reaction of mainland officials to the proposal. They would see a plebiscite as a challenge to the authority of the central government. And that is not going to help Hong Kong make progress towards universal suffrage. The democrats have reached a cross-roads. Beijing seems prepared to enter into discussions with at least the more moderate members of the camp. This provides an opportunity to explain Hong Kong's position, to negotiate, lobby, reassure, reason and persuade. Success will depend on the building of mutual trust and understanding. This requires more skill, sophistication and downright hard work than the traditional confrontational approach - but it is the only way in which progress can realistically be made. Some democrats would no doubt enjoy the kudos that would come from an all-out push for a plebiscite. It provides a fine opportunity for grandstanding - but not for progress. Certainly, the government must make every effort to ensure that the public is fully consulted on the proposals it puts forward for political reform. During the first public consultation, forums were arranged for only 870 people from the business sector, the professions and district and social groups. Our officials will have to do better than that when the next report is published before the end of the year, otherwise they could run into similar problems to those encountered during the consultation on national security laws in 2002. Only through engaging the public will it be possible to achieve the government's declared objective of deciding on a 'mainstream proposal' that enjoys strong public support. But whatever form the proposal takes, it will not involve universal suffrage, making a plebiscite a waste of time and money. The democrats should put a stop to this self-indulgence and start doing the hard work that will be needed to develop - and win - improvements that can be implemented in the next round of elections.