Unfinished Business

Now that the dust has settled - at least temporarily -- on the government's political reform package with Democratic Party votes having secured its passage, it is time to return to the unfinished business of Tsang Yok Sing's position as LegCo President.

I say "unfinished" because the rapid press of events took us away from consideration of some very important issues of principle which were left hanging in the air. Let me start by stating forthrightly my conclusion: Mr Tsang is a good and honourable man, but I'm afraid he has cooked his own goose and he ought now to submit his resignation as President so as to uphold the dignity and neutrality of the office.

Why is that the case, notwithstanding his personal reputation and a strong statement of support from Chief Executive Donald Tsang? Neither President Tsang's supporters nor his critics seem to understand the situation properly, let alone be able to explain it to others, so here goes.

We need to start by reviewing the full range of the President's responsibilities. Many people see him only in his role of chairing sessions of the Legislative Council and ruling on procedural matters that arise. It looks on the surface not much more than a ceremonial position, the only excitement being when he is called to rule on possible expulsion of the banana gang. But there is a lot more to it than that. The President is the arbiter of much that goes on behind the scenes as well. The wording of questions, the wording of motions, the order in which amendments to them may be moved and voted on, what is in order and out of order etc., all these things have a huge impact on the political scene because they affect what happens on the public stage. So it is absolutely critical that every member of LegCo has confidence that the President is considering all the issues in a fair and impartial manner.

Hence the convention - following the UK example -- that the President does not speak out on or otherwise involve himself in day to day political matters, and he does not vote on matters under consideration by the assembly.

It is not easy to secure and retain a reputation for scrupulous fairness at the outset bearing in mind that initially the President (like the UK Speaker) obtains his seat as a member of a political party through a contested election. Mr Tsang seemed to understand the problem when he decided to seek office in the first instance, hence the public assurances he gave at the time about his future conduct.

What he failed to understand, then and now, is that the decision once taken is irrevocable. There can be no going back. He must never make known in public his views on any issue, nor other than in the most exceptional circumstances may he vote. There is in fact only one let out on this latter point and it is this. Contrary to public belief, the President never gives up his vote, he just chooses not to exercise it. But if an issue arises that the President feels is so vital to the future of the community that he has to vote, then he can do so. Without speaking out to indicate his intentions beforehand, he can vote on that issue, and must then immediately resign and retire completely from public life.

There can be no question of stepping down, voting in a partisan way, and then reassuming the cloak of neutrality. Whatever conversation President Tsang may have had with the Chief Executive, or persons acting on his behalf, is irrelevant. It is a non starter.

In fact Mr Tsang, by speaking out publicly on the political reform issue, has compromised his neutrality for all time. The fact that in the event he did not need to vote is irrelevant. No doubt he was acting from the best possible motives, but he was in breach of the convention. Paradoxically, the person called the Speaker in fact must never speak. So now he has to go.

Perhaps in the aftermath of the World Cup we can borrow a sporting analogy. Bearing in mind that Hong Kong is still finding its way in these matters and that this is a first offence, a sensible referee would probably see the incident more as a yellow card caution rather than a straight red dismissal. So Mr Tsang can stay on the political pitch. But he must give up the Presidential armband to another member of the team.