Swings and Roundabouts

There is both good news and bad news on the subject of governance in Hong Kong.

First the good news. Public consultation on political reform has already started, quietly and mostly behind the scenes, and much of the shape of a compromise package which will deliver significant progress is beginning to emerge.

Starting with ideas for reform of the Legislative Council in advance of the 2016 election, we have to accept that there simply are not 47 votes – the minimum needed for a two thirds majority -- for the immediate scrapping of all Functional Constituencies. So the focus has to be on how to reform them now in a way which immediately improves their representativeness and at the same time opens the door to greater changes in future.

First to go is the concept of corporate voting, for two reasons. It is in principle indefensible, and any failure to scrap it would mean rejection by pan democratic forces of the entire reform package.

As a direct corollary of that change, there must be a minimum threshold for the size of electorate in any FC. After all, what would be the point of replacing 140 banks with the same number of bankers.

A suitable figure might be 50,000 or so (thus 30 FCs would account for around half the electorate, while the other half would be voting in the five super seats), but there is room for flexibility on the exact size. Any existing FC which could not meet the new threshold should be converted to an additional super seat.

That pretty well gets us there for 2016, and sets the scene for full implementation of universal suffrage at the LegCo level in 2020.

The shape of arrangements for the 2017 election of the Chief Executive is somewhat less certain.

I find it difficult to get excited about the idea of direct nomination by a vast number (80,000? 100,000?) of ordinary voters. The sheer logistics of wading through all the nomination papers, verifying signatures, dealing with appeals and disputes just seem so daunting.

So I suspect we are stuck with a Nominating Committee and I don’t think the size matters too much. It is far more important to increase its representativeness.

There are some obvious reforms – once again, scrapping of corporate voting tops the list. There are a number of other worthy reform ideas being floated. It should not be beyond the wit of man to put together the best of these and come up with a plausible Nominating Committee of around the same size as at present.

The main sticking point remaining is the method of nomination. I don’t see the idea of requiring the Committee to approve all candidates by majority vote getting very far.

The decision on which name to put forward to Beijing for appointment as Chief Executive must be left to the people of Hong Kong or universal suffrage won’t mean very much. The Central Government still holds a veto in case we lose our collective heads and elect someone totally unacceptable, but the danger of this is slight indeed.

One additional safeguard that has been suggested is to require all candidates to take an Oath to be loyal to China and Hong Kong and to uphold the Basic Law. That is probably enough.

Reforms along these lines will mean we end up with a Chief Executive who has a popular mandate – thus addressing one of the weaknesses in the present arrangements – and a legislature which is demonstrably democratic.

But then we come to the bad news. Good governance requires three things: a willingness to address key issues; an ability to devise effective solutions; and the capacity to implement them.

The present team under the leadership of Leung Chun Ying is doing reasonably well on the first aspect, and passably on the second. The real problem has been in securing implementation.

One obvious example is in waste disposal: whereas Singapore has five incinerators, our government cannot get approval for even one. Cities all over Asia have introduced charging schemes while we are still girding our loins for yet another round of consultation.

There are major structural flaws in our present constitutional arrangements. The main one is the disconnect between the executive and the legislature, caused in part by our curious attitude towards political parties. Far from banning the Chief Executive from being a member of one, which present legislation does, we need to move towards a situation where the CE runs for election as head of a party (or coalition of parties) that in parallel seeks a majority in the legislature so that he can govern.

Unless we can solve this structural problem, all the other reforms – while worthwhile in themselves – will probably not achieve very much.