Strong position, strong arm or strong man? CY Leung’s LegCo approach over the next few months will cement his legacy.
When the US Federal Government entered a technical shutdown in 2013 after the two legislative houses of government failed to agree on appropriations resolutions, it struck some raw nerves in senior echelons of the Hong Kong Government.
They fear the scenario of the city approaching a fiscal cliff in view of the growing intensity of LegCO power plays and adversarial politics in the society at large. With less than three weeks to go before the Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah (曾俊華) delivers his 2016 Budget, officials fret about being victimised by the fierce bull-fight between the pan-democrats and the Government over controversial bills and funding proposals. The possibility of a government shutdown on April 1 simply cannot be ruled out.
That could happen if legislators refuse to give approval for temporary funding, equal to two months of operating costs, in a bill scheduled for mid-March. As the fiscal year starts on April 1, the funding will allow the Government to operate while the 2016 Budget is going through the process of scrutiny. It is expected Budget approval will come by the end of May, ideally before the temporary funding has been spent. That assumes all goes according to Government plans. However, many are feeling growing uncertainty in the face of the escalating warfare between the Government and the pan-dem opposition in the legislature.
The truth is an approval of the interim funding in Council could be anything but certain if the wrestling over the copyright amendment bill drags on. Officials are hoping that the deliberation of the bill, dubbed by detractors as “Internet Article 23,” can be completed by mid-March.
Even more urgently, the Government must secure approval of an extra HK$20 billion funding for the construction of the Hong Kong-Guangdong high-speed rail link.
Government officials and the MTRC have warned of a steep rise in the construction bill incurred by a delay of additional cash, which will force a suspension of work due to a lack of funding. Delays mean higher costs as construction costs rise and contractors, sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors sue each other over the chaos in their operations that delays incur. The Government needs funding to be approved by the Legco Finance Committee by the end of February to avoid a work stoppage catastrophe.
On Tuesday, Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung (張炳良) announced the Administration would submit the funding proposal to the Finance Committee on Friday, although debate about the item at the Public Works sub-committee has not yet completed. He admitted it was unusual for them to bypass the sub-committee and to seek funding approval at the Finance Committee directly. The decision, he said, was taken after taking into account the chain of consequences of arising from a suspension of work, and the merits and demerits of the legislative manoeuvre.
Tough by necessity
Cheung’s defiance of parliamentary convention, to press legislators for an early vote on the rail link funding, was primarily driven by practical need. The hardened deeds and words of top government officials towards the pan-democrats in the past two weeks are indicative of a tougher approach towards the opposition in the remaining months of the Legco session.
(Wo)Manning the battlements
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (林鄭月娥), dubbed Hong Kong’s “Iron Lady,” fired a salvo about two weeks ago when she listed the pay and benefits of lawmakers to argue they are obliged to attend meetings. She castigated pan-dem LegCo members for playing hooky meetings to force adjournment of meeting through lack of quorum.
It was followed by a round of salvos fired by colleagues, Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po (陳茂波) and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英), against the “congestion” in Legco’s works sub-committee over the scrutiny of dozens of projects. Speaking to business leaders at a post-policy address luncheon, Mr Leung called on the business community to speak out against the pan-democrats for having impeded the city’s economic development. On another occasion, he said delay in construction projects could take its toll on graduates from related fields such as engineering, who might find difficulty in their job search this summer.
While lashing at the pan-democratic legislators for having “made use of their powers to their maximum extent,” Mrs Lam took the risk of being criticised for trying to interfere with the business of Legco by raising their concerns to Legco President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing (曾鈺成). She wrote a letter to Mr Tsang complaining of member’ filibustering and followed it up with a face-to-face meeting.
By mounting a high-profile offensive against the pan-democrats, the Administration is hoping to galvanise public opinion to put pressure on them for them to give a green-light to a list of Government bills and plans.
Elections in sight
With the next Legco election in about seven months, the Government understands it is unrealistic to expect the lawmakers, in particular the opposition, to give them an easy time. Even many small-size functional constituency lawmakers cannot ignore public opinion, mindful of the potential damage to re-election chances for themselves and party colleagues if they are embroiled in negative publicity.
In times of low government popularity, the pro-establishment camp has become more hesitant in throwing their weight behind this Administration, particularly on controversial issues such as the copyright amendment bill and, to a lesser extent, the high-speed rail project.
Including the election year factor, the militant democrats and some half-hearted pro-establishment lawmakers, the Mr Leung and his team face immense difficulties in governance for the last 17 months of their reign.
No heroes in sight
The assessment of Mr Leung and his team is that the pan-democrats and Legco as a whole are now no more popular than they. They feel confident people from different walks of life are getting fed-up with the theatrics in Legco and want the Government to act with guts to bring the pan-dems to their knees.
There is no doubt the toughening of the Administration towards the pan-dems will win applause from the pro-establishment camp in some quarters, in and outside Legco. But there is a big question mark over whether such tactic helps the Government win over the hearts of the bigger crowd at the centre of the city’s political spectrum. The moderate centre would like the Government not to make use of their powers to the largest possible extent and use their majority in Legco to bulldoze controversial bills and funding.
Voters will defy calls by Mr Leung to vote the pan-democrats out in the next Legco election if they find a hegemonic government without effective checks and balances more menacing and disturbing compared with the theatrics and filibustering of some pan-democrats.
The Government’s choice of tactics in an election year will determine what kind of LegCo and CE Election Committee they face for their last year of administration and CY’s re-election campaign. It is a tricky tightrope to walk between playing a strong hand and playing the tyrant.