Reaching Consensus

The paper issued by the government to launch the second phase of consultation on political development raises almost as many questions about what is missing as it does in the text itself.

Moreover though it is replete with the usual pious platitudes about the need to reach consensus, some of the obvious areas where that happy state might have been achieved have been omitted altogether.

The problem starts with the title. The first round of consultation from December 2013 to May 2014 dealt with methods for selecting the Chief Executive in 2017 and for forming the Legislative Council in 2016. The report by the SAR government to the Central Government covered the same ground, as did the decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress promulgated on 31 August.

Yet what we were given earlier this month deals only with the method for selecting the Chief Executive in 2017, and urges us to "seize the opportunity". I would like to seize the opportunity to ask what happened to the many good ideas for reforming the way Legco is elected.

The omission is significant. There is a de facto consensus that it will take more than one round of reform to achieve universal suffrage at the LegCo level. Notwithstanding that there is a good measure of public support for scrapping all Functional Constituencies immediately, there is certainly no two-thirds majority for doing so in LegCo. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. In order to achieve the necessary level of support, we need to start with a set of modest reforms that doesn’t upset the FC applecart too abruptly, and we need to start as soon as possible. If we take the first steps in 2016, we can reasonably hope to finish the job by 2020 or at latest 2024.

As things stand, without any reform in 2016 we won’t even start until 2020, and then only if there is agreement on the 2017 election of the CE – a prospect that looks pretty remote right now.

Some explain the lack proposals with respect to the legislature on the section of the 31 August decision which says there is no need to amend Annex II to the Basic Law, and an earlier decision which said universal suffrage for LegCo must come after it has been achieved at CE level.

But the decision does not on the face of it preclude modest reforms in 2016 that fall short of universal suffrage. And it should be possible to reach consensus in at least two areas about what sort of gradual and orderly progress might be made.

The first such area is the scrapping of corporate voting. There must be a consensus in this area because not a single word appears in any of the consultation documents or decisions to justify its retention. Indeed sitting here in the second decade of the 21st century it is difficult to understand how such an anachronistic device has survived so long. It has not been defended because it is manifestly indefensible.

Replacing corporate voters with human beings does not seem too radical a proposal, and it makes possible the second area where it should be easy to reach a consensus, and that is ensuring that each functional constituency has a reasonable number of voters. Whereas the "superseats" have hundreds of thousands, some of our functional constituencies have just a few hundreds. Pushing these up to several thousands is still a long way short of universal suffrage, and the incumbents should not find this too much of a leap in the dark.

So Yes, the effect of the NPCSC decision is that the balance between geographic seats and functional ones is maintained at 35 each, it means the sectors and professions which enjoy the privilege remain the same, and the split voting method lingers for at least another four years. But it does not mean we cannot make any change at all.

So my question for the Hong Kong government is simple: if you are sincere about wishing to lure a small number of moderate democrats to break ranks and support the very conservative framework for electing the CE, an area in which admittedly the Central authorities have left you little or no room for manoeuvre, why do you not start by offering them some progress in those areas where you do have some wiggle room.

And my question for the pan democrats is the reciprocal one: when are you going to stop asking for the impossible, get real, and ask for some tangible practicable progressive changes that are within the SAR’s powers to make. Better a bowl of congee now than a notional rich feast at some unknown time in the future.