Pursuing repayment may fuel antagonism
Although the Legislative Council Commission may think it has grounds to demand that the six disqualified lawmakers return their full salaries and office expenses, the escalating tension does nothing for the reconciliation and cooperation championed by the new government
The disqualification of six Hong Kong lawmakers for failing to take their oaths of office properly is no doubt controversial. Demanding that they return their full salaries and office expenses is equally so. Although the Legislative Council Commission may think it has grounds to pursue the claims, doing so may well fuel more antagonism and prolong the bitter saga. While two of those disqualified had barely started their terms of office, four only had their seats invalidated in July, nine months after they had been determined to have been sworn into office properly by Legco. For the better part of a year, they discharged duties and had their salaries and office expenses paid like any other lawmaker. The commission already took the two who were disqualified early on, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang, to court last month for failing to return some HK$930,000 each in salaries and allowances. The claims for the other four also are backdated to the start of the Legco term on October 1.
The legislature had taken a passive role in the oath-taking saga. But after Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law and the local court rulings, the responsibility for handling the aftermath is now back with Legco. The commission, dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, is understandably under pressure to take follow-up action.
The Legco chief stressed that because public money is involved, the commission had the legal duty to recover the funds, which total HK$13.6 million for the six lawmakers. Some believe that it is a matter of principle to recover public funds dating back to the very first day their oaths became invalid. To do nothing also may be seen as going against Beijing’s tough stance against those who do not fully embrace the Basic Law.
Whether the claims can withstand legal challenges is another matter. The oaths of the four in question were ruled by Legco as valid in October. It would seem unjust to pursue money from them retroactively. After all, they already have served for nine months. As long as the public funds have been legitimately spent in relation to their Legco duties, there is arguably no reason to seek recovery. Additionally, if the four were not considered properly sworn in and had to repay all expenses relevant to their duties from the start, it must be asked whether their participation in Legco and their votes in relation to legislative and funding proposals are valid.
The claims have sparked outrage in the opposition camp and prompted one activist to apply for a judicial review over the legitimacy of the Legco proceedings over the past year. The escalating tension and uncertainty do nothing for the reconciliation and cooperation championed by the new government. The stakeholders should reflect and find a better way to resolve the matter.