Hong Kong lawmakers should scrutinise, not sabotage, government’s funding requests

Pan-democrat legislators must stop their filibustering on important projects, particularly the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 11:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 11:29pm

The first hurdle for the government to put the controversial high-speed rail project back on track was cleared without a hitch. On Monday, the Mass Transit Railway Corporation secured 99.83 per cent support from shareholders in a supplementary financial agreement aimed at capping the ballooning cost at HK$84.4 billion. The meeting only took some two hours to complete. The next step is to seek approval from the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee, without which the much-delayed construction would be halted and ultimately abandoned.

If recent experience with other public works funding is any guide, the second hurdle will take much longer to clear. The request for an additional HK$5.4 billion to complete a bridge linking Hong Kong with Macau and the Pearl River Delta city of Zhuhai was only passed on Saturday, after 22 hours of tiring filibustering by pan-democrat lawmakers over the past month. Given the circumstances leading to the rail project’s mishaps, opposition to the HK$19.6 billion funding request is equally strong. Having gone through 13 hours of scrutiny in a sub-committee, the proposal will be put to the Finance Committee for a final vote.

Indeed, the efficiency of the legislature has been called into question by a heavy backlog of outstanding items. The contentious copyright amendment bill is still in limbo after 23 hours of debate since December. With 24 bills yet to be approved and another 20 waiting to be introduced, lawmakers have a heavy workload to clear before the legislative term ends in the summer. The situation with funding requests is particularly worrying. Before the passage of the funding request for the bridge, only one of the 72 items put to lawmakers – totalling HK$67.5 billion – was approved. Officials have warned that the rail project might need to be abandoned if the funding is not approved by this month. Other spending proposals in the queue, many of which involve people’s livelihoods, will also be delayed.

There can be no dispute that the government and MTR have done a poor job in adhering to the project schedule and budget. It is lawmakers’ responsibility to ensure that the money sought will be well spent. Officials therefore cannot expect an easy passage of their request through Legco like they did at the shareholders’ meeting. That said, there is a clear distinction between critical assessment and political sabotage. It is regrettable that some pan-democrats continue to drag out the process. With 75 per cent of the work already done, there is no turning back. It is in Hong Kong’s interest to get on with the project.