Beware a Minister Bearing Guarantees

The Democrats must be very careful not to squander the political capital they have earned by their sensible response to the Government's political reform package. And in particular they should be wary of trading their position for a Ministerial "guarantee".

Let us quickly recap the situation. The Government's consultation package was like the parson's egg: good in parts. It did bring a little more democracy into the process of electing the Chief Executive; and though it proposed creation of extra functional constituencies (FCs), the way of filling these is demonstrably better than for some of their peers. But the package ultimately fell short of the community's reasonable expectations by failing to address the issue of corporate voting which - incredibly in the 21st century - still applies in some of the FCs.

The Civic Party in response set out on the road to political oblivion by jumping into bed with the League of Social Democrats and calling for an uprising. So those who throw bananas are now allied with those with a penchant for slipping on their skins.

But the Democrats had the wisdom to hold back. As a result they are now in the driving seat. They have the votes to deliver the Government's package - and the good Lord knows the Tsang administration could not survive another failure on this score - but can insist as the price for doing so on some improvements to the proposed 2012 arrangements.

What should they be asking for? Some like Emily Lau have been calling for a "guarantee" that there will be genuine democracy in 2017 and 2020. I hope this is only a tactic and that the real price will be something more tangible. After all, who could possibly give a guarantee that would have any credibility?

A public commitment from Beijing might do the trick, although many would still doubt it. But the question is academic because no such commitment is likely to be forthcoming. That leaves us with Hong Kong Ministers. An indication that the idea might be gaining some traction was an inspired leak to the SCMP earlier this month to the effect that a Ministerial statement could be put on formal record when the legislation to implement the Government package is presented to LegCo. Who would give it -- Stephen Lam? Henry Tang? Who in their right mind would believe an undertaking from either of these gentlemen? Everyone would know that the undertakings would still be open to "interpretation" by Beijing when the time came for them to be honoured, by which time the individuals concerned might no longer be in post.

Even the Chief Executive himself - he of 77th place in the list of 80 people Hong Kong citizens trust the most - would be asking a lot for us to accept his word on such a critical issue, not because he would be deliberately untruthful but because the interpretation factor would still be present.

Turning to possible tangible improvements to the present proposals, some options leap off the page. First must come a commitment to abolish corporate voting in the FCs, not at some vague time in the future but right now in time for the 2012 elections. Once that principle has been established - and the outrageous excuse that it is "too complicated" sent to the rubbish bin where it belongs - then the focus can be on practical steps to turn the principle into reality. It would be reasonable, for example, to set a minimum number of human voters for all FCs - not just those where corporate voting was being scrapped. A number between 10,000 and 20,000 would seem reasonable as a first step. Since the FCs will still be around at least in 2012 and 2016, the minimum number of voters could be further increased next time around. Discussions should be launched immediately with each FC that would be affected to surface ideas for how to reach the number. Any FC that refused to cooperate could either have a solution imposed on it, or be replaced by a different FC. How about bringing our young people more into the process by giving any "unused" FC places to the universities?

In this way our community can sidestep for the time being the issue of whether the FCs should ultimately be abolished or substantially modified. The matter can be dealt with at a later date when the political situation has moved forward. Indeed, the very act of making the FCs more democratic now may affect the outcome of that debate.

The bottom line is this: the search for a verbal guarantee now of more democracy later is a quest for fools' gold. The best guarantee of more democracy later is a bit more real democratic progress right now.