Politics is a dirty business (in case you already didn’t know)

The furore over Democrat Ted Hui’s phone-snatching incident in Legco is just a sideshow; both the government and opposition have long resorted to dirty tactics

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 4:41am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 4:41am

The news headlines may have focused on the furore over Democrat Ted Hui Chi-fung snatching the mobile phone of a government official. However, the incident actually highlighted a common but controversial government practice.

Whenever there is an important meeting or vote in the Legislative Council, a junior officer is often dispatched outside the chamber to monitor the comings and goings of lawmakers. When there is a danger of not meeting a quorum or securing a majority vote, missing lawmakers friendly with the government are immediately alerted to show up.

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It is ironic that few opposition members have complained about this practice, until now. Former lawmaker and localist politician Raymond Wong Yuk-man was one of the few to challenge it, yet never had much support during his tenure.

Now, a group of opposition legislators and activists have filed a complaint with the Ombudsman. It is hard to see how they could have a case, though. The practice may be borderline dirty trick, but it is not illegal.

The officers are never inside the chamber but are usually stationed outside, in a public area. Sometimes, it is downright laughable because the officers are so junior they sometimes don’t even recognise some of the lesser-known legislators.

Why Hui suddenly had an outburst and snatched the woman’s mobile phone this time is anyone’s guess, as the practice has been around for years. For his action, he is facing a police investigation and his Democratic Party membership has been suspended.

The privacy commissioner has already declared the government practice does not violate privacy rules, as lawmakers’ whereabouts inside Legco are of public interest and they can’t expect their behaviour not being observed in public places.

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Arguably, the monitoring is comparable with another dirty trick of the government getting friendly lawmakers to ask what it wants during questioning of officials in the Legco chamber.

In fact, the monitoring pretty much started as a response to the opposition’s indiscriminate use of filibustering and other delaying tactics such as counting the number of those present for a quorum to sabotage a Legco meeting.

It is hard to see how such deliberately imposed delays are any more politically legitimate than someone monitoring lawmakers going in and out of the chamber. But clearly both sets of tactics – by the opposition and the government – are not illegal by any stretch of the imagination.