The Incredibly Shrinking Minister

Last year five members of the pan democratic camp did a very foolish thing. They resigned their LegCo seats to force by-elections and create what they hoped would be seen as a "referendum" on political reform.

The move flopped disastrously when the government came up with the perfect response: ignore the whole thing and let the public see the manoeuvre for the childish game it is.

Fortunately for the reform camp, the government later came up with some political mis-steps of its own so the negative impact on the famous five's reputation was reduced.

But having won this particular PR battle, our Minister for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam seems determined to lose the war. He has now wheeled out a reform package which would scrap the need for by- elections in future instances where vacancies arise mid-term for whatever reason. In such cases the replacement will be found by looking at the person who secured the next highest number of votes.

The new arrangements will apply only to the most democratically elected of our LegCo Members, that is the 35 to be elected through the geographical constituencies plus the 5 to be elected via the new super Functional Constituencies, all by proportional representation.

The proposed arrangements are unreasonable and unfair. And unlike those schemes in other countries which try to dispense with the need for by- elections, there is no attempt to fill the vacant seat with someone from the same political persuasion, so they are manifestly undemocratic. More important they are unnecessary, and there are better ways of addressing the situation.

For example, a Member resigning could be precluded from standing in the subsequent by-election and obliged to wait until the next general election. He could not plausibly argue that he was being denied the right to stand for office, because he would have voluntarily stepped down from the office of his own free will while holding it.

The Government is justifying its undemocratic plans on the grounds that it would prevent future "referendum-type" exercises thereby saving public funds (It claims $120 million had to be spent in 2010). This from a Government that has wasted $5 billion on the unloved Community Care Fund and has decided to spray around $6,000 per head totally unnecessarily in a kneejerk response to unfavourable comments about the draft Budget.

The administration is presumably encouraged to think it can implement this dreadful scheme by riding the public wave of discontent over the 2010 exercise which most people saw as a complete waste of time and money.

But therein lays the paradox: members of the public do not need the government to act on their behalf to deter foolish acts by legislators. They are well capable of exacting their own punishment at the ballot box next time around. And if the public chooses not to impose that sanction, then ipso facto the public did not see the by-election as unnecessary.

The Government's proposal constitutes at best overkill, taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. At worst it is an immature revenge being exacted by those embarrassed at being obliged to organize the by-elections last time round.

When young children throw a tantrum, they have a tendency to throw their toys out of the cot (or pram) as far as they can. So when we see adults losing their temper and doing something irrational we use the same terms to describe their behaviour.

Minister Lam seems to be saying to the pan democrats "You have acted in a childish way, but I can throw the toys even further than you."

So you can, Stephen, and no doubt your Mum is very proud of you.

But those of us paying you over $3 million per year for responsible leadership on political development can be excused for feeling shortchanged.