How to put life in Legco

NO issue stirs up stronger emotions in the Legislative Council than the members' right to speak. Any suggestion of restricting that right would spark off a heated debate.

Observers of Legco's interminable Wednesday afternoon sittings might have concluded that the age of lucidity is long dead. It is understandable that members jealously guard their right to speak but I sometimes wonder whether it has gone too far.

More than 30 debates were held in the 1992-93 Legco session, usually with two debates held in one sitting. There is a weary feeling in some quarters that Legco must have debated everything under the sun, yet the debates will go on.

In the past few years, Legco has debated a number of subjects to death, such as retirement schemes, public housing, women's rights and the MTR. Apart from the feeling of deja vu, not much seems to have come out of the incessant talking.

I have no desire to dampen members' enthusiasm to speak, but I wonder whether we have succeeded in highlighting the problems and finding solutions.

Many debates are poorly attended because members only turn up to speak and do not stay to listen to others. Under Legco Standing Orders, members can each speak for 15 minutes in debates on bills.

As for motion debates, members agree that the mover of the motion has 15 minutes and the rest seven minutes each. Even with this self-imposed time limit, many debates last more than two hours.

As for the speaking order, members have to indicate in advance their wish to speak. Legco staff will compile a list of speakers according to seniority for the president, John Swaine, to call upon one by one.

In the past few months, some members decided to speak at the last minute, making the debates even longer. Although every member has the right to speak, it was suggested that late-comers should be given three instead of seven minutes. The proposal sparkedoff a heated debate of its own in the House Committee meeting and was finally rejected.

I have often asked what is the point of having endless debates if they cannot capture the interest and attention of members, the Government, the news media and the public.

Some people argue the debates are important because they provide a forum for members to account to their voters. As an elected member I don't necessarily share that view. For Legco members to impress the public, surely it must take more than reading prepared speeches, which in some cases are not even written by them. SINCE many of the debate subjects can be and are being discussed in Legco panels and committees, do they still need to be debated in full Council? I am repeatedly reminded by my colleagues ofthe Chinese saying ''rarity makes a commodity valuable''. If we choose our topics judiciously and sparingly, we may be able to create a bigger impact.

This, of course, is easier said than done. So long as members insist their subjects are more important than anybody else's, it will be impossible to agree on a short list of meaningful and significant debates.

As someone who will not give up easily, I hope to inject some liveliness and spontaneity into the often mundane and sterile Legco debates. For a start, I suggest getting rid of the speaking order and encourage members not to read from prepared texts. They can use notes but should refrain from reading the script, as in the Australian parliament.

In this way, only the names of the mover of the motion and mover of amendment will be known. After a motion has been moved, the president would call on a member to speak in a free for all situation.

Those who wish to speak will put up their hands and try to catch the president's eye, as MPs do in the House of Commons. Members who intend to speak will have to stay in the chamber until they have been called.

The flexibility will also allow the president to call upon people from different political factions, a process which might promote more cut and thrust arguments.

If members can be persuaded to abandon their prepared speeches, listen to what others have to say and respond spontaneously, this should liven up the dreary proceedings and make the debates more interesting and meaningful all round.