A patent act of deception

THE shocking revelation in yesterday's Sunday Morning Post that the British and Hong Kong governments secretly amended the Letters Patent, the colony's constitution, last July to limit the number of directly-elected seats in the Legislative Council in 1995 to 20 has raised disturbing questions about the administration's integrity and credibility.

The act flies in the face of repeated assurances by senior officials, including the Governor, that Legco would have the final say on Legco elections in 1995. Being a colonial legislature, legislation passed by Legco can only take effect after it is signed by the Governor. After that, the Queen can still disallow it.

Thus, I have never had any illusions about Legco's legislative power. It was with these questions in mind that I asked Mr Patten during Governor's Question Time on February 24 whether the administration would block my amendment for an entirely directly elected 60-seat Legco.

The Governor flippantly responded that it was a hypothetical question and he wanted to see how many votes I managed to secure before he would give an answer.

It was quite apparent that he was caught off the hop and the secret amendment of the Letters Patent last summer had escaped him. It was unfortunate he did not use the opportunity to inform Legco that amendments to the Letters Patent had been made, and would come into force once gazetted.

The current constitution gives Hong Kong people no say over any amendments, but I expected the Government to have at least the decency to inform Legco and the public if and when amendments are made. After all, amending the constitution is a big deal and should not be done surreptitiously, either before or after 1997.

The post-1997 scenario is unsatisfactorily addressed in Article 159 of the Basic Law, which gives the power of amendment to the National People's Congress (NPC). However, it stipulates that proposals to amend the Basic Law can only be made with the consent of two-thirds of Hong Kong's deputies to the NPC, two-thirds of all Legco members and the Chief Executive. Hence Legco could look forward to a limited role in future.

The Government may argue that the amendments to the Letters Patent were necessary in the light of its own proposals contained in the Governor's Policy Address to Legco in 1992.

While briefing Legco members last year, officials referred to the need for amendments to the Letters Patent and nobody disputed it. However, that does not mean the amendments should be made stealthily, with no consultation and no explanations offered.

The administration must now explain why Legco and the public were kept in the dark when the amendments where made in London last summer. Surely this must be at odds with the Governor's vaunted guiding principles of openness and accountability.

To compound the problem, the Government did not even bother to inform Legco via the Legco Brief on the second part of the constitutional reform package which was introduced into Legco on March 9. This should have been the final opportunity to inform Legco formally of the amendments. Such an oversight is intriguing and unforgivable.

TRY as the Governor might have done to evade my question last month, the administration must tell the Hong Kong people where it stands on the 1995 Legco elections.

It is all very well for the Government to say the elections should comply with the Basic Law, which permits only 20 directly-elected seats in 1997. In almost the same breath, officials maintain that the final say on election proposals should rest with Legco.

If I manage to secure enough votes for more than 20 directly-elected seats, as permitted in the Basic Law, will the Government try to block me with the Letters Patent? It's high time Mr Patten and his team recognised they cannot have it both ways. They must reconcile the apparent contradictions and state their position.

If the Government is sincere in not wishing to stifle the debate on democracy, it should declare its readiness to amend the Letters Patent should a Legco vote result in more than 20 directly-elected seats in 1995.

After all, it has been the British Government's declared policy to persuade the Chinese Government to allow more than 20 directly-elected seats in 1997. If that policy objective has been quietly abandoned, the Hong Kong people are entitled to an explanation.