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Legislative Council of Hong Kong

Hong Kong opposition filibuster blocks Lam’s plan for Legco to prioritise joint checkpoint debate

Bloc makes 15 quorum calls during nine-hour meeting, halting proceedings for a total of 2.5 hours

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 October, 2017, 11:24am

The Hong Kong leader’s Herculean mission of improving ties between the government and lawmakers got off to a rocky start on Wednesday, as opposition members filibustered on the first day of the new Legislative Council session.

The pro-democracy camp proposed 34 amendments to Legco’s rules of procedure, which they said would boost the parliament’s transparency and efficiency, and bring it “firmly into the 21st century”.

The bloc’s united action was seen as an attempt to stymie their opponents’ plans to tighten the Legco rule book, to effectively curb such filibustering and make it harder for the legislature to investigate city officials.

The Beijing-friendly camp has a window of opportunity to push through procedural changes, while their opponents’ numbers are weakened. The pan-democrats have this year lost six members, whom a court removed from their seats for badly taken oaths.

That window of opportunity could close in March next year, when there will be by-elections to fill four of the empty seats. The other two will be voted on later.

Asked if Wednesday’s deluge of amendments was intended to block their rivals’ attempts to tighten the rules, Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok did not deny it, but said: “Different people will have different interpretations about what we are trying to do.

“What we are trying to do is to improve the rules of procedure of Legco ... If you care about the Legislative Council being a modern, efficient and powerful institution on behalf of the Hong Kong people, then you should support these amendments.”

The 34 amendments tabled by nine pan-democrats – which they expected to be discussed on November 15 – included one calling for the Legco president to be drawn only from the geographical constituencies, which are directly elected, and not from the trade-based functional constituencies.

A pan-democrat source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said their action would make it almost impossible for their rivals to tighten the rules before the by-elections.

“Each of our 34 amendments would take six to seven hours [to discuss], meaning it would take almost 200 hours – or nine to 10 council meetings – to handle them all,” the source said.

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The source said the council would have to start the long debate on the annual budget before March.

The pan-democrats, who used stalling tactics to drag out the session on Wednesday, also opposed Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s request to reshuffle the day’s business by postponing a potentially long debate on the stamp duty bill to November.

With the postponement, the debate on her controversial border checkpoint plan for the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou – which would have mainland officials enforce mainland laws in the city – could take place at next week’s meeting on October 25.

But the filibuster delayed that reshuffle, making it very unlikely that Lam would get her wish.

Lam has repeatedly pledged to mend the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government, which turned sour during the term of her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, amid heated debate on political reform.

But warming ties were not in evidence on Wednesday.

The camp called for 15 quorum bells during the nine-hour meeting, halting proceedings for a cumulative 2.5 hours.

By law, at least half of all members need to be at a debate for it to go ahead. The quorum bell rings each time a member calls for a headcount, and if half of all members are not in the chamber after 15 minutes, the meeting is adjourned to the next sitting.

Pan-democrats have frequently used the calls to delay approval of government proposals.

Lawmaker Charles Mok, convenor of the pro-democracy bloc, said his allies had agreed to employ the stalling tactics on Wednesday. He criticised Lam’s attempt to bring discussion of her checkpoint plan forward, and said she was “trying to override livelihood issues with politics”.

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Pro-establishment legislator Gary Chan Hak-kan, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said the pan-democrats should follow custom by having the amendments discussed in the Committee on Rules of Procedure first, instead of jumping the queue and moving them in the council meeting.

Wong Kwok-kin, a pro-establishment legislator of the Federation of Trade Unions, made his point rather more forcefully.

Speaking to the Democratic Party’s Lam Cheuk-ting outside the legislative chamber, Wong said: “Thanks for your help; what you’ve all done has proven what we are doing is right,” referring to the bid to stiffen Legco rules.