Give us gridlock
Next Magazine (Second opinion A002, 2013.06.13)
It is now apparent that we have constitutional arrangements in Hong Kong that make it extremely difficult to legislate. The electoral system biases towards small parties, making working parliamentary majorities impossible to form. In the battle for a quota, locking in firm votes and differentiation is far more important than building majority appeal. The system keeps the legislature fractious and limits its ability to propose purposive measures. The executive branch of government is independent of the legislature and reliant on its ability to convince allies and others about its program.
However, Legco does act as a check on the executive government of the day. Committees have investigative powers. Budgets are scrutinized. Legislation is reviewed and amendments proposed to secure passage. These are vital functions of our governance that should be appreciated. They are part of the classically liberal suite of checks and balances that evolved as a limit on government power in an era when the franchise was narrower in most countries than it is today in Hong Kong. When complemented by the judiciary we have protections that are absent in many more majoritarian polities that are in practice less free.Perhaps, a government that can do little to legislate could emerge as a surprisingly good administration. The government surely has all the tools that it needs to deliver the municipal services we require to get on with our daily lives. We already have in place the rules for criminal, commercial and common law to ensure that in a large metropolis we deal with each other on a civil basis. Hong Kong is increasingly a center for arbitration and adjudication of disputes, with little need for the government to be involved.The government more than covers the costs of its operations from existing revenues and bloated reserves. It has the ability to address the costs of housing by continuing its program of increasing land supply for development, allowing redevelopment of urban and rural land on offer and facilitating changes of land use. From the new cultural center, Central-Wan Chai reclamations and the “central oasis” to the bridge across the Pearl River delta and Qianhai zone, extensive and not all necessary public works are underway.If the executive cannot legislate further, this by no means leaves it without an agenda. There is a great deal to do to increase the efficiency of the government, administer existing laws, improve rule making within those laws and complete work underway. If our current CE could from here simply administer the current laws well and complete projects underway, it would be an honorable record of achievement. It would avoid conflict with the legislature on all but constitutional issues.Government thus restrained leaves space for an agenda of the people. Most of the best things about Hong Kong do not come from the government. Two examples. Premier Performances Hong Kong was a private initiative to bring great chamber music to the city and introduce classical music to our children. It has been a great success and enriched the culture of the city more than new venues. The Karen Leung Memorial Foundation aims to support gynecological cancer research. These are both relatively new initiatives that build institutions in the city that are every bit as valuable and important as our constitutional arrangements and add to the rich tradition of private philanthropy and initiative in our city. Media and private organizations need to be vigilant about scrutinizing the extra judicial powers of government organs exercised under current laws. However, institution building in Hong Kong cannot be left to (mini) constitutions and treaties or legislative bodies here and in distant capitals. What is known in the US as “gridlock” has a fine liberal tradition and should not blind us to the ability of the citizens to maintain Hong Kong’s essential freedoms, provide for the welfare of those less fortunate and the potential that remains for people left alone by their governments to create prosperity.
Bill Stacey is in his 10th year as a resident of Hong Kong and is Chairman of theLion Rock Institute.We are now on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/Next2ndOpinion