The plan is: No plan   –   The collapse of consensus-seeking politics

The pro-est lawmakers are striking back to take all key posts in LegCo committees/panels. There is not much the pan-dems can do other than look back to the ‘good old’ days and cry foul – or search for new allies.


 

The pro-establishment lawmakers swore to seize all leading posts in LegCo’s five committees, three sub-committees and 18 panels. They meant it.

Their voting dominance has been put to good use, seeing them claim chairman and vice-chairman posts of the Finance Committee (FC) and House Committee and most of the rest. An ersatz olive branch – two chairmen and three vice-chairmen in the panels same as last year – was hotly rebuffed by pan-dems.

The pro-est called the manoeuvre ‘revenge’ for their rivals’ ‘ambush’ on the important Public Works Subcommittee (PWSC) and Establishment Subcommittee (ESC) of the FC a year ago, widely reported in this paper.

Politics is a show, however, and the pan-dems did their part by contesting all key posts with full knowledge they could not win. While miracles sometimes do happen in LegCo when Emily Lau Wai-hing (劉慧卿) was voted chair of the Finance Committee in the term 2008-2012, this session is miracle free.

 

Who started the fight?

Emily Lau, chairlady of the Democratic Party and lawmaker since 1991, tells Harbour Times the blame should be put on the pro-est for departing from a long-followed parliamentary convention that stresses consensus and instead abused its position as the majority since the start of the current term in 2012.

“Prior to the current term, we tried to work out who will be chair and deputy chair of the panels, of the Committee of Members’ Interest, of the Public Accounts Committee and so on,” Lau says. “On some [posts], there was no deal, like the [LegCo] president, and the chair of the FC and of the Constitutional Affairs Panel. But for the rest, there were always agreements. We have had to accept that they [the pro-est] are the majority – but at least we could work something out. So usually a compromise would have been made before the actual committee ballots.”

[I]t is not for the love of anybody but out of necessity that people see the need to negotiate and to work out. – Emily Lau Wai-hing

In many cases, one side would claim chairmanship while the vice-chairmanship went to the other side. There would be rotations in the middle of the term. Lau says the situation began to change in 2012 when the pro-est refused to negotiate and took most of the seats.

“We didn’t do anything in the first year and the second year. In the third year – which was last year – we were fed up. But it was impractical for us to join all committees and panels. So we decided to join the ones that matter most, namely the PWSC, and ESC [which approves funding for new positions in the civil service]. Now they want to mislead the public into thinking that it was us who started the fight,” Lau says. “If you have no agreement on any committee, it’s free for everyone to join.”

As Lau puts it, last year’s so-called ‘ambush’ was not – and should not be – part of a plan that would extend into this year as consensus-building would still be the preferred modus operandi. Considering the way things are playing out in LegCo, they may have been short-sighted to not expect a full-on exclusion from key posts the year after the manoeuvre.

 

Why it matters

Losing chairmanship implies surrendering the opportunities to sit on meetings with government officials in relevant policy areas and the important power to set meeting agendas.

Lau, however, believes that the year ahead will not be as tough as some speculators would suggest. “We will likely get none [of the key posts]. But even if you have no chair, you are still a member and can still do things. Why we think it is very unfair for them [pro-est lawmakers] to just scoop up all or most of the chairmanship is that this is not the way other civilised parliaments function,” she says, arguing that the sweeping of posts will expose the pro-est’s tyrannical face to the public.

With increasing radicalisation and hostility in Hong Kong’s political landscape, it is foreseeable that the Liberals will walk closer to the moderate democrats. – Johnny Lau Yui-siu

One thing she didn’t note was the lower workload in Committee management for pan-dems in the run up to an election. The peculiar formation of our LegCo and its voting rights mean functional establishment seats almost guarantee the government can eventually pass almost anything it wants, except constitutional amendments that need a two-thirds majority. The loss of ability to control the flow of debate in some committees may be outweighed by the benefit of a lower administrative workload, leaving more time for campaigning this year.

 

Unique Hong Kong

The Hong Kong parliamentary system is different from other parliaments where there are so many members that they have to limit the number of seats in committees. The seats – let alone the chairmanship – are allocated according to the proportion of seats a party gets in that parliament.

“In Hong Kong, it doesn’t work out that way,” Lau explains. “The sky’s the limit. But [if everyone signs up] to all committees, when in fact [they] can’t attend most of the meetings, a constant lack of quorum is the likely result,” Lau says. “The other way is [for members] to withdraw [from the committees] after the ballots [for key posts] – they would simply embarrass themselves.”

“Therefore, it is not for the love of anybody but out of necessity that people see the need to negotiate and to work out [arrangements],” says Lau.

 

The ‘troublemakers’

Looking forward, Lau highlights reclamation works and their impact on the environment as one of the subjects that her party would want to address in the LegCo this year. Other issues include the lead-in-water scandal and the Innovation and Technology Bureau controversy. The latter inevitably raises the question whether filibusters will be perpetuated in the city’s legislature. The blame is again put on the administration’s side.

“There was no discussion on whether the 22 of us [who formed the then pan-dem lunchbox meeting, excluding the outgoing Ronny Tong] should conduct filibusters. We recognise that it is a right for LegCo members to do it – and whoever wishes to do it will have to explain it to the public,” Lau says, suggesting it is not a no-cost tactic in the eyes of the public..

 

ITB and Filibusters

IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok (莫乃光, F-IT, Professional Commons) has campaigned long and hard for the establishment of the ITB, often in the face of resistance of his pan-dem allies. In the end of last year, however, it was the pro-government forces who put the ITB proposal at the end Finance Committee business last year and repeatedly rose to speak about nothing, ensuring its delay to this session.

“Many questions laid down by the filibustering lawmakers remain unaddressed by the administration who still fails to provide us with a clear blueprint on what the new bureau will be and can deliver, nor has it clarified how checks-and-balances will be met,” Mok says. “Many of those who oppose the establishment of the ITB are not necessarily against the cause. They just want the Government to explain the whole idea first.”

Mok believes that the likelihood for the ITB to get passage is high, given that the Government will have a whole year to engage the opposing legislators on the subject.

 

The way out or the way back?

Commenting on an optimal relationship between the executive and the legislative branch, Lau cited the glorious past of the ‘eight-party coalition’ in LegCo back in the early 2000s, when the pro-democracy Democratic Party, Hong Kong Association for Democracy, People’s Livelihood and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and the Frontier formed a cooperation framework with the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), Liberal Party, Hong Kong Progressive Alliance, and the Professional Forum.

The [eight-party LegCo] coalition marked the days when the LegCo’s popularity was at its highest. – Emily Lau Wai-hing

“The initial framework was formed in mid-1990s when I approached the then Liberal Party chairman Allen Lee (李鵬飛) to put pressure on the Government to address air pollution problem. The participating parties would convene meetings to discuss issues concerning mostly people’s livelihood on a rotation basis,” Lau says. “I also approached current President and the then DAB chairman Jasper Tsang (曾鈺成) to hold a joint-party meeting on measures to tackle SARS. And the administration back then was quite responsive to our calls.”

The coalition was short-lived as more and more pro-est lawmakers joined the Executive Council. The Article 23 debate in 2003 was the fatal blow. Its very existence however showed how legislators can be proactive in lobbying the Government in an ‘executive-led’ political system.

“The coalition marked the days when the LegCo’s popularity was at its highest.” Lau recalls.

 

Forging a new coalition

Seeking common ground among moderates from the two camps can be the first step to achieve a rapprochement in the LegCo, assuming that a replication of the ‘eight-party coalition’ is something desirable to the lawmakers. Prominent political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu (劉銳紹) says the Liberal Party can be the first and easy option for the democrats.

“There are different layers of pro-est groups in accordance to their level of obedience to the Beijing,” Johnny Lau says. “While the DAB is the core member, the Liberal Party is on the periphery. With increasing radicalisation and hostility in Hong Kong’s political landscape, it is foreseeable that the Liberals will walk closer to the moderate democrats.”

Indeed, the Liberal Party spoke publicly against breaking the convention to have a pan-dem as vice-chairman of the House Committee. The impact of this seemingly insignificant event could be far-reaching in the time.
Until then, the pan-dems will have to bear with its dominating counterpart, filibuster where it suits them and fight an uphill battle to make gains in next year’s LegCo elections.

the author

Alex Fok is a Harbour Times journalist monitoring Hong Kong's daily political scene and diplomatic updates. He obtained his bachelor's degree in Economics, Politics and International Studies from University of Warwick and his master's degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a former committee member of the Warwick-based Hong Kong Public Affairs and Social Service Society (WHKPASS) and was the chief editor of the society's magazine - PASSTIMES.