Travelling Hopefully

It was Robert Louis Stevenson who told us in 1881 that "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive".

Last week our Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, accompanied by Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen and Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Raymond Tam, set off on the road to universal suffrage.

They launched the public consultation exercise that, if it can achieve a broad measure of community consensus, will lead to significant reforms in the way our Legislative Council is elected in 2016, and our Chief Executive in 2017. The first set of changes will in turn pave the way for further amendments to the LegCo arrangements in 2020.

By the time Lam and her companions arrive at their destination – if they can – they will have found obstacles which demonstrate the truth of Stevenson's aphorism.

On LegCo, the main area of contention concerns the 30 sector-based Functional Constituencies. (The five so-called "super seats" are much less controversial as they are effectively filled by democratic election).

The basic position of the pan democrats is that all 35 FCs should be scrapped and become geographic ones open to universal suffrage immediately. The problem here is that there are not 47 votes in the current LegCo (the two-thirds majority needed to enact constitutional changes) who will support such a move because it would need the support of many of the FCs themselves and turkeys are not famous for voting for Christmas. Most members of the democratic camp – which has enough votes to block any changes -- understand this.

The challenge here will be to find a compromise by way of amendments to the FC arrangements which would bring the 30 problem cases much closer to universal suffrage (and also leave the abolition option on the table for 2020) but without upsetting overmuch the present holders. In other words, the consultation exercise needs to identify reforms significant enough to persuade the pan democrats not to exercise their blocking veto while being at the same time moderate enough to persuade a good many FC incumbents to accept them.

Two amendments jump off the page. Corporate voting must surely be scrapped immediately. I can (just) see some more moderate members of the democratic camp swallowing their impatience, accepting FCs survival for the 2016 election and biding their time until 2020. But I cannot see any way they would vote for a package which included companies continuing to have voting rights.

The direct corollary of this change is that once humans have replaced inanimate voters there should be a reasonable minimum number of voters in each constituency.

These two changes might be further than the Central Government Liaison Office and Beijing would wish to go this time around. But it is a necessary minimum so they are going to have to do some swallowing of their own.

The second tricky area is over the nomination process for Chief Executive candidates. Pan democrats have floated the idea of direct nomination by large numbers of ordinary voters. Conversely, the chairman of the Basic Law Committee of the National People's Congress Sub Committee has suggested that all proposed candidates should be supported by a majority of the members of the Nominating Committee before the electorate chooses between them.

I don't think either of these ideas is worth pursuing, as it would be totally unacceptable to the other party. Indeed it could be argued that one or both may contravene the Basic Law.

Direct nomination by the public at large is not practised widely elsewhere and is wholly foreign to Hong Kong. Moreover any such nomination could only go forward via the Nominating Committee in order to comply with the Basic Law, so such a provision would not achieve anything in the real world.

Requiring approval for every candidate by a majority of Nominating Committee members would also represent a substantial deviation from the present practice whereby candidates need to secure the support of only 12 and a half per cent of the members. There is no such requirement in the Basic Law.

Telling Hong Kong voters "here are three candidates pre-approved by the Central Government, now make your choice" would strike many as offensive. Moreover there is no need for such a provision. Beijing should trust in the good judgement of Hong Kong people. They know best what is in their own best interest. And in the unlikely event they have a rush of blood to the head and elect someone demonstratively unacceptable to the CPG, Beijing can choose not to appoint that person and there will have to be a new election.

So, good luck Carrie. And remember the last part of Stevenson's quote: "and the true success is labour".