Constitutional Development Plans on Track for Chaos

It is like one of those nightmares you have as a child where you wake up sweating and calling out for Mum.

Two trains are moving in slow motion towards a deadly collision. You know the result will be a disaster but you feel powerless to prevent it.

Coming from one direction we have the train carrying the woefully inadequate reform proposals from the Government. By maintaining corporate voting and small circle functional constituency elections, the consultation exercise began as a farce.

And from the opposite direction comes the train carrying the equally farcical idea of the LSD/Civic Party coalition for a "referendum".

What gave rise to this nightmare and how can we prevent it from turning into reality?

We should begin with the consultation paper published by the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau in November 2009. We should be fair and note that it does propose improvements in several areas. One example is the increase in membership of the Electoral College which will choose the next Chief Executive, and providing that all of the additional members will be elected in a more democratic way. Although the paper proposes creating five extra functional constituencies (to match the increase in geographical seats), these seats would be filled through a more democratic process. A long way short of perfect, but at least some modest steps forward.

But the most important issue of all that needed to be addressed at this time has been ducked completely. Some time before 2020 the community needs to decide whether to scrap functional constituencies altogether or to make very substantial changes in the way elections for them are held.

And whatever the final decision, we need to make a start now by abolishing corporate voting immediately and setting a minimum number of human voters in each of the functional constituencies. This number could be increased for the 2016 elections. Then by 2018 when we need to bite the bullet for 2020 we would have a more representative legislature to reach a consensus and implement it. Failure to start now would mean some of the later steps would simply be too big.

It is inconceivable as we approach the second decade of the 21st century that private companies could still be choosing some of our legislators and others could be chosen in small circle elections. There may be arguments for broadly based functional constituencies of roughly equal size to be retained longer term (the so called "one man, two votes"option). Personally I don't find those arguments very compelling, but they are at least worthy of debate. But there is not a single argument for corporate voting to be retained. The consultation paper says that scrapping the system would be "too complicated" Such a remark is a disgrace and an insult to the intelligence of Hong Kong people.

The Government having got off to such a poor start, the way was open for the pro democracy camp to give the official side a thorough thrashing in public debate. But just to prove that it is always possible to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the LSD/Civic Party camp came up with the idea of demanding direct elections for both CE and all LegCo seats in 2012 and the immediate abolition of functional constituencies. And to force home the point, they have arranged for one member in each of the five constituencies to resign and seek re-election, the idea being that the simultaneous by-elections would constitute a referendum to show that Hong Kong people favour democracy.

There are so many things wrong with this proposed package that it is difficult to know where to begin. For one, we already know that Hong Kong people favour democracy by a wide margin so we don't need expensive by-elections to prove it. For another, Beijing - whose consent to the changes is required - has already ruled that 2017 and 2020 are the magic dates, and for 2012 the FCs must stay. What possible use is it to run for re-election on a manifesto that is impossible to implement? And of course by no stretch of the imagination does the series of by-elections count as a referendum.

So far, so bad. But developments since the two sides staked out their positions have seen us sink towards the abyss. In a strange reprise of "Dumb and Dumber" pro Beijing spokesmen scored two own goals with one shot by coming out to say that resigning to stage a referendum was illegal, thereby giving a status to the by-elections that they do not deserve and being wrong in law. The Liberals came out first with the right idea (whether or not assisted by a conversation with the Liaison Office we may never know) - a boycott of the whole silly exercise. As this countermeasure began to gain traction, the coalition responded by saying it would if necessary put up two of its own candidates in each constituency to ensure there had to be a vote.

How on earth would they be able ever again to criticise proposed Government expenditure if they engineered such a colossal waste of public funds?

The real danger in all this of course is that we run the risk of a repeat of 2005. Then the Government and democratic camp got so close to a deal but then both backed off at the last minute. Another failure to make progress would be a disaster for Hong Kong.

Can anyone save us? Just possibly, but it is going to take some statesmanship and common sense, two commodities in short supply up to now.

Since the Democratic Party itself has so far had the good sense to stay above the fray, it has retained the moral high ground. It can now set out clearly, behind the scenes initially and in public later, minimum improvements to the Government proposals that it will accept in return for reluctant support of the package. And the Government will have to be prepared to compromise.