Checks and balances
The appearance in the Hong Kong legislature of filibustering ― the practice of allowing one or more members to delay or prevent a vote on a proposal by limitless speechifying ― signals the danger that the former British colony may embrace extreme forms of democracy without the rules and regulations that Western parliaments have developed.
Until discussion was cut off last Thursday by Jasper Tsang, the president of the Legislative Council, a handful of pro-democracy lawmakers had staged marathon sessions for two weeks to prevent the passage of a government proposal that lawmakers who resign midterm cannot stand in a by-election within six months.
This is a proposal on which reasonable people may differ, but is it really appropriate to dub the proposition “draconian,” as some radicals have done? Should elected legislators be free to resign and run for the same seats repeatedly, at great cost to the taxpayer? The bill is an attempt by the government to plug what it sees as a loophole.
There is a danger that pan-democrats in Hong Kong, scheduled to hold its first elections for chief executive by universal suffrage
in 2017, will reject anything they see as contaminating the purity of democracy.
Thus, they are calling for the abolition of all elections by a limited franchise, such as the current system of “functional constituencies” under which, for example, lawyers elect a lawyer, teachers elect a teacher and bankers elect a banker to serve as legislators.
Some democrats are also opposed to a bicameral system as they see it as somehow less democratic. Certainly, the Canadian system, under which members of the upper house are appointed rather than elected, would never pass muster in Hong Kong.
While filibusters have historically been held in certain countries, various parliaments have taken action to limit the right of a tiny minority to frustrate the will of the majority.
Australia, for example, has adopted rules on how long legislators may speak, thus making it impossible to filibuster. In the United States, filibustering is not allowed in the House though it is allowed in the Senate. However, even in the Senate, filibustering can be halted by a vote by three-fifths of all senators, or 60 out of 100.
Hong Kong, however, has no rules regarding how a filibuster can be ended. Such rules are clearly needed. But Hong Kong’s radical democrats have charged headlong into the filibustering exercise without first working out the rules of the
In the absence of such rules, Council President Tsang, in cutting off debate, invoked article 92 of the council’s rules of procedure, which empowers the president “in any matter not provided in these rules of procedure” to be “guided by the practice and procedures of other legislatures.”
Outraged pan-democrats responded by calling the decision “the darkest day in the history of the Legislative Council.” The president’s decision was challenged by legislator Leung Kwok-hung, better known as “Long Hair,” who applied for judicial review in the High Court. His lawyer argued that a legislator has a “constitutional right to speak” and that it is “very important to safeguard” this right. But the court rejected the application.
This episode underlines the need for checks and balances in any
It is fine to defend principles such as the freedom of legislators to speak. But while each legislator has the right to speak, it is illogical to argue that the exercise of an individual’s right is more important than the ability of the legislature to carry out its intended function of making laws.
In an ideal world, it may be true that all rights should be absolutely upheld. In the real world, such a stance would mean the crippling of all institutions designed to serve the needs of the people.
It is already evident that the most developed democracy in the world ― the United States ― is paralyzed by gridlock precisely because different parties believe in giving priority to their own rights without regard to the welfare of the larger community.
As Hong Kong moves towards full democracy in the coming years, it is vital that those who espouse its cause recognize that democracy is not the end but the means to delivering good governance.
This is the ultimate test of any system of government. If those who advocate democracy do not keep this ultimate objective in mind and go even further than what mature Western democracies deem to be wise, they will be doing a grave disservice not only to Hong Kong but to democracy itself.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.