Filibusters bad, shortcut government worse

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With filibusters winning the day and government ineffective in controlling LegCo, the signs are the Administration may seek to circumvent it.


 

There was no love between Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the pan-democratic legislators on Valentine’s Day.

Speaking to the media on Saturday, Leung  ridiculed the pan-democrat opposition for having sent a Valentine’s gift to Hong Kong’s rival cities by aborting his plan to set up a new bureau on innovation and technology by filibustering before the current financial year ends. While vowing to try again, Leung has indicated his patience was running out. He lambasted legislators for blocking the governance of the government and progress of the society. “I think Hong Kong people feel enough is enough.”

Enough!

He accused legislators of abusing their rights under the Legislative Council’s Rules of Procedures in mounting filibusters. Leung urged people to reflect on the situation and give some thought as to what should be done.

It was not the first time Leung has risked being criticised for meddling with the functioning of the legislature by taking on their game rules when it comes to filibustering. He and his top aides have earlier called on lawmakers to change the rules to stop what they deem as aggravated filibustering by “a small number” of lawmakers.

There are more signs the central authorities have also taken seriously about filibustering legislators and, more important, the powers of the legislature in view of their growing concerns about the city’s governability.

Jasper Tsang: Rule of law

Asked by me at a Digital Broadcasting Corporation radio programme earlier, Legislative Council President Tsang Yok-sing revealed he had been asked by a central government official “to manage the legislature well.” He said he was urged to “stop filibustering when it should be stopped” to counter the non-cooperation movement of the pan-democrats. Tsang said he said sorry to the official, adding he could only act in accordance with the rules. He said rules could only be changed on the basis of consensus among members.

Aside from the not-so-gentle advice to Tsang to do his job, it has been reliably learned that senior officials in Beijing were looking at the relevant provisions in the Basic Law to find solutions to manage, if not end, filibustering. Beijing’s line of thinking is that the Basic Law has provided an executive-led system and that the relationship between the executive branch and the legislature should be governed by checks and balances plus mutual cooperation. But officials have argued the game play of filibustering lawmakers has already undermined the executive-legislature ties. They blamed failure to put an end to such power play as filibustering at an earlier time has turned it into a “norm”.

A well-placed mainland source said: “The present situation cannot go on forever. They (pan-democrats) have done a disservice to voters.” The source has declined to shed light on what they have in mind.

The Basic Law stipulates the executive branch should be accountable to the legislature, which enjoys a list of powers including approval of government spending and scrutiny of bills.

Executive led, LegCo accountable

Signs of unease among Beijing leaders about the so-called executive-led system (the term does not figure in the Basic Law but is generally adopted by Beijing) surfaced in 2008 during a visit by the then Vice President Xi Jinping to Hong Kong. He said in a speech there should be “mutual understanding, mutual support” among the executive, legislative and judicial organs.

His notion of “cooperation of three powers” has not gone unchallenged for obvious reasons. It raised serious questions about the independence of judiciary and the powers of elected legislature in holding government accountable. Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang was among a group of opinion leaders who have come out to argue Hong Kong’s system is built upon a “separation of three powers.” Citing remarks by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, mainland officials have insisted Hong Kong should not emulate Western countries in adopting a system of separation of powers.

Whether the present structure is a “separation of powers” system may sound academic. There are reasons to believe both the Central and Hong Kong governments have moved to rein in the legislature, if not also the courts, to reinstate what they deem as strong executive-led system.

It remains unclear how that could be done without changing the relevant provisions in the Basic Law through amendment (that has never happened) or reinterpretation (that, of course, has been done several times). What is clear is that the government has in the past and will seek in the future to use their powers as much as they possibly can within the parameters of law in their governance.

Take the example of the latest tussle over the formation of innovation and technology bureau. Departing from its previous refusal to alter the agenda of items submitted to the Finance Committee for approval, the government has twice pulled out items to make way for the IT bureau. The government had also demanded extra meetings on  Valentine’s Day to try to beat the deadline for an approval during the current financial year.

Although the attempt to clear the way for the bureau has failed bitterly, there is no doubting the Leung team has done, and will do, exactly what the anonymous official has said to Tsang Yok-sing, i.e. do what they think they should do.

Within the  Basic Law, outside LegCo

Put it in the context of the executive-legislature relationship, it means the government would try to use their powers to the maximum to get things done. No wonder speculation is rife that the application for funding for the formation of IT bureau may not be tabled for approval in the way as it was. Officials are exploring other means to ensure smooth and speedy passage of the funding.

An academic familiar with the aviation industry told me government officials and the Airport Authority were also thinking to circumvent the powers of the legislature to gain approval for the multi-billion-dollar third runway project. Experts are looking into the provisions of the Airport Authority Ordinance on how it can be done.

Filibusters bad, shortcut government worse

It can be argued that filibusters are generally unwelcome by the populace. This is despite the fact some quarters of society welcome it because they are doubtful about the merits of such initiatives as IT bureau and Northeast New Territories New Town Plan. They may not support filibusters, but are firm believers of the notion of powers being subject to effective checks and balances.

The last thing they want is a government governing not in the right way (正道), by being accountable and answerable to the people through their elected representatives, but through shortcuts for quick results at a price of profound damages to the whole system.