Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

It may seem harsh to take the Civic Party to task so soon after the shellacking its members received in the District Council elections, but it is sometimes necessary to be cruel to be kind.

According to the remarks quoted in the media, some of its leaders are still struggling to accept the reasons why they lost, instead preferring to blame an alleged smear campaign.

Until it recognizes and accepts the real reasons, the party is never going to have the influence and sway that its intellectual firepower deserves.

In what I hope will be taken as an act of friendship, let me now spell out those reasons.

First, most Hong Kong people totally reject the crude behaviour of the League of Social Democrats and its People Power spin-off. Parents in particular are very angry at the poor example being set for their children when television screens are filled with the sight of members of the Legislative Council throwing objects at senior officials and shouting out in rough language. We look to our representatives to provide a much better example.

The Civic Party chose to cooperate closely in public with those behaving in this way. Sometimes in life you are judged by the company you keep, so inevitably its reputation suffered by association.

Secondly, most people regard the mass resignation/so-called referendum on democracy as a complete waste of time and money because everyone knows there is already wide support for moving forward more rapidly with political reform. By continually defending their decision to trigger the by-elections, the party just reveals itself as out of touch with the electorate. The great pity for the future is that this kind of group resignation is a legitimate political weapon, but it can only be used sparingly and on this occasion it was wasted.

Thirdly, there is the matter of using Judicial Review as a way of achieving political objectives. The original cause célèbre was the launch of the Link Reit in 2004 – 05. In more recent times, the cases of the Hong Kong – Macao -- Zhuhai Bridge, and right of abode for domestic helpers, have both been high profile and the Civic Party has been linked to both. Now it is true that in the latter case there was a pre-existing legal challenge before Civic Party personalities became involved as counsel to the litigant. But something always seemed a bit fishy about the little old lady from Tung Chung on legal aid opposing the bridge, giving rise to the impression that it was effectively a contrived case. In any event, in all of these cases there is an important political argument to be made and it should be made in the political arena. The party seems too ready to run off to the courts to get its way. The fact that the cases are funded by legal aid is an aggravating factor. Jabbering on about the importance of the rule of law, which no one is challenging, is not an effective defence.

Finally there is the issue of access to private clubs by non members. On the Backchat radio talk show last week Civic Party leading light Audrey Eu quoted this subject as a specific example of how Tanya Chan had been smeared by her opponents in the Peak constituency, contributing directly to her loss.

But the fact is Ms Chan did talk simplistically about this matter when it is in truth not straightforward. I should here declare, as I did on the programme, my interest as a member of a well known sporting club. A journalist taking part in the discussion murmured "privilege" at this point, an argument which might have been stronger had he not himself been a prominent member of the Foreign Correspondents Club which also occupies Government property on less than fully commercial terms.

Such clubs have obtained use of the land on preferential terms, and there is therefore a legitimate public interest in ensuring maximum use of the facilities including in appropriate cases some degree of access by non members. It also needs to be borne in mind that there are only facilities on the land because members of the clubs put their hands in their own pockets and shelled out many tens of thousands of dollars in entry fees and monthly subscription fees. Those members also have a legitimate claim to enjoy the use of the facilities they have paid for.

Where there are different sets of legitimate interests, the discussion needs to be nuanced rather than simplistic. By taking the populist road in the name of principle, the Civic Party inevitably lost ground, a mistake the more striking because its natural constituents are among the keenest members of those very same clubs.

If there is a general lesson in all this, it could be summarized as follows: if you want to know who was responsible for the crushing political defeat you have suffered, try looking in the mirror.