The vexed question of political reform has polarised Hong Kong for long enough. For the sake of the city's future it must be resolved. The chief secretary said as much in unveiling the long- awaited green paper on constitutional development yesterday. On that count, however, the consultation paper is disappointing. It is clear most people in Hong Kong want universal suffrage as soon as possible. But the green paper is far from a simple design for a new political system. It does not even attempt to map a path towards democracy or give alternative models of political development from which to choose. Instead, the government has produced an open-ended consultation paper that effectively puts the whole issue in the lap of the public. It neither offers the views of the government nor rules out any option. The result is a complex web of multiple-choice questions about the mechanics and timing of elections for the chief executive and Legislative Council. This is a peculiar departure from the way of structuring consultations to which we have become accustomed. Fall-back position This bottom-up approach reflects the government's overriding objective of forging a consensus. There is an argument to be made for seeking consensus on principle first and building on that, rather than the top-down approach of trying to impose the government's preferred model on the public. In that respect the government can be said to have learned from past experience. When its preferred model for political development was defeated in the Legislative Council in December 2005 it was left with no fall-back position and progress was stalled. While the bottom-up approach has merit, however, leadership still has a role to play. Charting the way forward to a new political system cannot be reduced to multiple-choice questions and answers. Political development is not like a buffet. Preference for, say, option A in one element of a new political system may be predicated on preference for option B in another part of the system. For example, how can you make an informed choice on how the nominating process for chief executive candidates should be conducted if you don't know how the nominating committee is to be constituted? This seemingly objective way of collecting public opinion also leaves room for manipulation of the results. The process of formulating a proposal for political development, therefore, will test the political skills - and the conscience - of the Hong Kong administration and the central government. It is to be hoped that the consultation confounds the critics by achieving the true purpose of such an exercise - to genuinely gauge the views of people. This is the only way in which to arrive at a mainstream proposal that reflects the community's wishes. That will depend on the government keeping an open mind and taking an objective approach. It must avoid giving rise to the perception that an open-ended consultation has been launched merely as a means of legitimising a pre-determined model of political development that is assured of securing Beijing's approval. A critical question is how the government will collate and assess opinion in order to determine consensus. Will it supplement the results with opinion polls? Will it give more weight to the opinions of certain sectors because they are deemed more important? Another is the way chief executive candidates are to be nominated and whether they will be screened by the committee formed for this task. Whatever arrangements are put in place, they must ensure that candidates from across the political spectrum have a fair opportunity to stand. Political reality The government's appeal to everyone to be pragmatic and strive to reach a consensus is to be welcomed. The community has been expending its energy debating political reform rather than focusing on the other important issues confronting Hong Kong. It is time for everyone to try to forge a consensus so that the debate can be put behind us. We can then devote our energy to building a better life and ensuring Hong Kong's future success and prosperity. Our existing political system has proven ineffective in resolving disputes in society. In terms of political maturity, Hong Kong is ready for universal suffrage and, therefore, 2012 is the preferred date for electing the chief executive and the legislative council by one person, one vote. However, the political reality may be that this is not possible. If we are to put our faith in consensus to overcome road blocks on the path to democracy, it must be one that transcends a grass-roots consultation and embraces all of Hong Kong, including our political parties, the business and professional sectors and the government, as well as Beijing. Such an accord would be unprecedented. But it is one we must strive for if progress is to be made. The ultimate goal of universal suffrage stated in the Basic Law will not be achieved without give and take on all sides. That includes vested interests, which must be persuaded to sacrifice their privileges and put the wider needs of Hong Kong first.