Hong Kong reform vote debacle highlights lack of political maturity among lawmakers

Cliff Buddle says a massive political blunder like Thursday's would, in other countries around the globe, "see heads rolling"

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 6:10pm

The shambolic failure of pro-establishment lawmakers to vote for the government’s political reform package on Thursday made a mockery of Hong Kong’s attempts to bring about constitutional change.

This was supposed to be the most significant vote in the Legislative Council since the handover, the pivotal passing of judgment on proposals for universal suffrage.

The outcome was more comedy than tragedy. When the critical time for lawmakers to cast their votes arrived, the pro-establishment camp faced a dilemma.

One of their number, Lau Wong-fat, was stuck in traffic. He was in danger of failing to do his patriotic duty and vote for the government’s package. Beijing required every supporter to do his or her duty.

Concerned about his plight, many of Uncle Fat’s allies made a sudden departure from the chamber in the hope of holding up the vote until he arrived.  But they forgot to take the Liberals with them, meaning there remained a quorum and the vote could go ahead in their absence.

The result was an unthinkable defeat for the government’s package. It was voted down 28-8.  

What a farce! Imagine having to explain to senior leaders in Beijing that the all-important vote had been defeated because the central government’s supporters in Legco had stepped outside at the crucial moment.  

The electoral package would have been voted down anyway. All the democrat legislators voted against it, as they had pledged to do so (and they remembered to stay in their seats for the vote, too).

This debacle would not have been out of place in a sit-com. But it is no laughing matter. The chaotic end to two years of divisive debate about universal suffrage has highlighted, yet again, a lack of political maturity among lawmakers and flaws in our system of governance.

Many of the pro-establishment legislators are elected in small functional constituencies. A number of them do not even face a contest when election time comes around. This is not conducive to attracting the best and the brightest to politics or to developing talent.

Members of the camp are usually eager to follow Beijing’s orders, especially on a matter as important as a vote on universal suffrage. Ironically, it was their determination to do so yesterday – by ensuring every member including Lau was present to vote – which caused them to make the blunder. They failed to think on their feet.

It was a good day for the democrats. But they have problems of their own. The banana-throwing, placard-waving, insult-throwing antics we have seen from certain democrat lawmakers in the past does neither them nor Legco credit. Filibustering has its place, but even with that there have been times when it has gone too far.

Our legislators need to up their game and remember the responsibility placed on their shoulders when elected.  But part of the problem, again, lies with the system. The Basic Law provides for a weak, fragmented Legco. There is not much of a role for lawmakers in policymaking and it is virtually impossible for private members bills to succeed. Their power lies in the ability to delay and frustrate the government’s spending requests and legislative proposals – one which they frequently exercise.

We are in a Catch-22 situation. If we want to improve our politics and politicians, we need to change the system to make it more democratic and to give legislators a meaningful role in shaping policy. But that involves reaching a consensus, which requires the political maturity we lack.

A blunder on the scale of the one on Thursday would, in many parts of the world, see heads rolling. The legislators involved would, at least, be expected to lose their seats in the next election. It remains to be seen how this will play out in Hong Kong.

It would be nice to think that the forthcoming district and Legco elections will bring in some new blood and fresh talent. But until we find a way of fixing our system, I fear there will be more farcical days in Legco to come.

Cliff Buddle is the Post's editor, special projects