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Legislative Council of Hong Kong

How can Hong Kong end the gridlock, filibustering and partisan strife in its Legislative Council?

Pauline Ng, who ensured Legco’s smooth running for more than two decades, decries partisan rancour, which she says has kept the legislature from doing its job

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 6:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 3:12pm

Gridlock and partisan strife have become the norm in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council over the past couple of years, the most recent flare-up coming when pro-Beijingers moved to change the parliament’s rules and curb the pro-democracy bloc’s filibustering.

The pan-democrats responded to that anti-filibuster measure with a new filibuster, and applied for a list of their own rule changes. Both sides’ applications are still working their way through the system.

And now the woman who ensured Legco’s smooth running for more than 20 years has called on both sides to step back from the brink, saying rule changes – which could have long-term repercussions – require consensus.

Pauline Ng Man-wah, who oversaw Legco’s administrative wing for more than two decades before retiring in 2012, also lamented the breakdown of trust between politicians of opposing stripes, saying it had hamstrung the institution in its main task of scrutinising the government.

Ng’s call came amid tension over the Legco rules of procedure. The pro-Beijingers’ proposals would effectively curb their opponents’ delaying tactics and make it harder for the legislature to investigate officials.

The camp has grown increasingly riled by its opponents’ stalling tactics, which include lengthy speeches, tabling stacks of amendments and calling for quorum counts.

It hoped to push through the changes while the pan-democrats’ numbers are weakened. Six elected pan-democrat legislators were booted from their seats over improper oaths of office. Four of the six empty seats will be filled at by-elections in March 2018.

Ng, who has spent three years writing a companion to the rule book which provides an authoritative guide on council proceedings, said politicians from both camps have sought her advice on how to amend the rules, and she hoped they could try to do it through consensus.

“The lawmakers should all be open-minded and try to understand what concerns each other has in a bid to find a middle ground that is acceptable to both sides,” Ng said.

“It’s important for them to demonstrate to the public that they are amending the rules for the sake of the council’s integrity and operation, instead of taking away the powers it originally enjoyed.”

And striking on a mutually acceptable proposal could pave the way for coordination in future, she said.

The two blocs agreed last week to set up a new platform in the near future to explore ways out for the impasse.

Pro-democracy politicians have said that pro-establishment members pushing the changes while their opponents are weakened is unfair. But Ng said it was an unprecedented opportunity that could force lawmakers to “face the reality” that many members have long wanted to change the rules, and hammer out a deal.

No one bothered to touch the thorny issue while pan-democrats had the power to block changes, she recalled.

The Legco secretariat – a neutral party – could have served as a middleman to bridge the divide, Ng said, adding that the council passed a number of procedural amendments in her time without any controversy.

Ng said that the legislature, often paralysed by filibustering, had in recent years failed to play its role. And she said some of the amendments floated by the pro-establishment camp were not without merit, and had precedent abroad.

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For instance, the parliaments in Australia and Canada have already changed the rules to put all procedural motions to vote immediately without any debate in a bid to combat filibustering, she said. The UK gave extra powers to the house speaker to decide if there should be any debate.

Many legislatures in the world have also given house speakers the right to select the meaningful amendments for debate, she added.

Ng called on lawmakers across spectrum to put aside their differences as she recalled “touching” scenes in the chamber which now seem of another age.

“The best moment was to see them join hands regardless of their political affiliations in forcing the government to make concessions ... that is something I have not seen for so long,” she said.