The Biggest Losers

Some readers might be hoping that the by-election saga is self contained and drawing to a close. But in fact its implications spread far and wide, and the horror is only just beginning.

Let's take stock of where we are: last year five pan democratic members of LegCo resigned to create what they hoped would be seen as a referendum on democratic reform. This was a waste of time because Hong Kong people have shown repeatedly for decades, whether in elections, or consultation exercises, or public opinion surveys or however, that they know exactly what democracy is and they know they want it.

There is a public consensus that the ensuing by- elections, costing something over $100 million, in which all five were returned effectively unopposed, were a waste of money. So far, so clear.

Now enter the Government officials responsible for constitutional development. Apparently spooked by use of the word "referendum", they came up with a wild overreaction. Deciding that this was a "loophole" and claiming – falsely – that there was also a consensus that the loophole needed to be plugged in the most emphatic fashion, they produced without any meaningful consultation whatsoever a draft bill to scrap by-elections irrespective of the circumstances. In future, vacant seats would not be contested but instead would be awarded to the unsuccessful candidate from the last election with the most votes -- "the biggest loser".

I hope the organizers of the annual 1 July march sent them bouquets to thank them for boosting attendance. The exact number who participated is less important than the fact that there were many tens of thousands of protestors. They were orderly and restrained but by golly they were also steaming mad at the impending loss of their democratic rights.

For any idiot could see that there were many democratic ways of addressing the situation, plus some borderline undemocratic ones. But incredibly the officials responsible for leading Hong Kong towards its more democratic future had come up with the one option which was not only undemocratic but actually anti democratic.

Let us look at the options in descending order of democratic acceptability: first, no change, by-elections to be held in every case, leaving it to the electorate to punish through the ballot box incidents of foolish behaviour. Having regard to the reaction to the 2010 episode, voters could be relied on to apply the necessary discipline. Second, by-elections in every case, but where the vacancy arose through resignation the person triggering the vacancy would be barred from standing again until the next general election.

Moving on down to third, vacancy to be filled by the next on the party list of the departing member. If no-one else on list, or no-one on list willing, then by-election.

After these three democratic options there is a big gap until the Government's original "biggest loser" proposal.

Some suggestions have since been put forward to occupy the grey area in between options three and four.

The first came from the surprising quarter of the Central People’s Government's Liaison Office. Alert to the danger that Hong Kong would become an international laughing stock if the SAR Government's proposal went ahead, and aware of who would likely get the blame, they made a few phone calls and suddenly there was a revised proposal. The "next on list' method would be the default option, and "biggest loser" would only kick in if that did not work.

It was left to the Minister concerned to explain why the option he had only hours before described as having practical difficulties had suddenly become the right way forward.

Next it was the turn of the Liberal Party, which suggested by-elections for death and incapacity cases, with "next on list" only to apply in healthy resignation cases.

Faced with a near mutiny even by its friends, the Administration backed away and announced there would after all be a two-month consultation on the way forward (having just days previously declared that no delay was permissible) but it would be on the basis of its original proposal (whatever that now is).

Some questions are in order: when the first nonsensical proposal reached the Executive Council, which includes two aspirant candidates for Chief Executive in next year's election, what advice did Members give the current Chief Executive? Did they raise their hands and object and query why the democratization process was going backwards instead of forwards? Or did they sit on their hands and say what a fine idea it was to strip the community of some of its rights? Messrs Tang and Leung in particular will be wanting to rehearse their answers to these questions to avoid becoming the Biggest Losers in their turn.

And why must we be forced to look to the Liaison Office – not, one would have thought, the most obvious body to shield the flame of liberty – to save us from the anti-democratic instincts of our own Ministers? Apart from their intervention this time, the office also vastly improved the political reform package last year in a backroom deal with the Democratic Party after sidestepping the Administration.

And why must we always look to the Liberal Party to save us? The sensible comments from current chairman Miriam Lau this time round are a reminder of James Tien in 2003 who courageously stopped the Administration jumping off the Article 23 cliff.

The biggest threat to Hong Kong's future was never going to be heavy handed intervention by Beijing. Rather it was the risk that some Hong Kong politicians with more ambition than talent would be prepared to sacrifice the community's interest on the altar of their own advancement by second guessing what they thought might please the Central Government.

If that were to happen, then our city, and our country, would indeed be the Biggest Losers.