South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Anson Chan says the stakes have never been higher to return a legislature that will respond to the public mood and bring hope of ending the downward spiral that has gripped government and society alike
As Hong Kong voters prepare to go to the polls, the stakes have arguably never been higher. In the four years since the last Legislative Council election, our way of life, supposedly protected under the mantra of “one country, two systems”, has faced unprecedented challenges in the form of a systematic undermining of our core values and freedoms.
I used to believe in the maxim that people get the government they deserve, but no longer. Hong Kong people certainly deserve better than the current quality of governance. The problem is that, in the absence of full universal suffrage, there are very few direct actions we can take to bring about change.
This feeling of powerlessness is at the root of the frustration that drove tens of thousands of our young people to occupy the streets for 79 days in 2014 and is now fuelling the localist and pro-independence movements.
In the midst of this turmoil, we badly need the incoming Legco to respond to the mood of the community and generate some hope that the downward spiral in the quality of our governance can be reversed.
Going forward, we must find a pathway to a more mature party political system that can aspire one day to work shoulder to shoulder with a democratically elected chief executive. To achieve this, we need to be more effective at grooming political talent; we need to select the most able candidates to fill seats on government advisory committees – rather than establishment “yes” men and women – and then encourage them to work their way up to higher political office.
We need greater focus on inclusiveness and the development of broad-based policy platforms, capable of attracting support from a wide range of age groups and social sectors. We need less tub-thumping and more willingness by parties to work together on policies where there is a broad consensus on objectives.
While Legco needs to put its own house in order, it is perhaps even more important that the chief executive demonstrate greater willingness to embrace all lawmakers, irrespective of their political affiliations, in the governance of Hong Kong. A great deal of the current tension between the executive and legislative arms of the government is due to the intransigence of the current chief executive. The incoming Legco offers a fresh start to building more trust and co-operation. The chief executive would do well to grasp this opportunity to mend the relationship.
Most importantly, we need to press for a reopening of the debate on constitutional reform.
Functional constituencies fly in the face of the concept of fair and equal suffrage and, in the long term, can have no part to play in our political system. While we are stuck with them for at least another four years, we will continue to work with young members in the growing number of functional constituencies that are committed to reform by broadening their electorate, ousting the old guard leadership and ultimately paving the way to vote themselves out of existence.
We must also press for a more productive and effective relationship between the legislative and executive councils. Under the Basic Law, Exco remains one of the fundamental cornerstones of our system of governance. In the past, it played a crucial role in ensuring the highest standards of policy formulation on the part of the civil service, tempered by the scrutiny of unofficial members of integrity and high standing in the community. Under the current chief executive, it has become a shadow of its former self, populated largely by individuals handpicked to toe the line. There are voices saying it has outlived its usefulness.
My feeling is that we should aim to foster Exco’s role in maintaining essential checks and balances between the powers of the executive and the legislature and safeguard its potential to evolve into a “cabinet” that advises future democratically elected chief executives.
Exco members should consider themselves every bit as accountable to the community as other members of the executive, but these days you hardly ever see an Exco member in front of the cameras defending policy decisions. Arrangements should be made for them to regularly meet Legco representatives to solicit and listen to views on important policy issues. In this way, it may be possible to avoid the sort of deadlock that has plagued proceedings on controversial issues and hopefully lead to greater mutual understanding of the role and responsibilities of the two councils.
As someone who has spent many hours sitting in Legco meetings, I know just how hard most members work. It frustrates me that Legco workings get so much bad press. The focus always seems to be on the filibustering and quorum calls, while hardly any coverage is given to the fundamentally good work that goes on, scrutinising bills, monitoring public expenditure and holding policymakers to account. Despite the filibusters, lawmakers approved 83 of the 89 government bills presented to them during the last session and posed nearly 6,000 questions to ministers.
I think a bit more appreciation of the diligence with which many members fulfil their duties is in order, even if we can’t always respect the behaviour and tactics of some.
The late Dr Martin Luther King once said: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
We still have a long road to travel to achieve the governance we deserve; new and unexpected threats to our core values and lifestyle have suddenly appeared. We are learning the hard lesson that, no matter how strongly the institutions of government are structured, how seemingly robust the checks and balances, all systems are only as good as the people administering them.
For the time being, we must do what we can within the constraints we face. I urge all of you who can, to go out and vote this Sunday and ensure that the incoming Legislative Council contains as many men and women as possible who are of high moral principle, who embrace the values and freedoms that we cherish and who, above all, are prepared to stand up and defend them.
Anson Chan Fang On-sang is convenor of the think tank Hong Kong 2020 and a former chief secretary. This is an edited excerpt of her speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club this week