Does the frequent filibustering and other political dramas at the Legislative council indicate an underperforming government that does not work overall? Civic Party legislator Dennis Kwok addresses these concerns whilst detailing insights to paint a more accurate political reality in these chambers, and shares his views on the future of democracy in Hong Kong
By Nan-Hie In
The rise of filibustering and other dilatory tactics at the Legislative Council (LegCo) in recent years highlight much dysfunction in Hong Kong politics. As a result, many members of the public and industry observers alike have criticized the less productive lawmaking body for stymieing the progress of the city.
However, LegCo legislator Dennis Kwok argues that such criticism is unfair. While he acknowledges that the obstruction maneuvers by radical lawmakers must be addressed, it’s only a small part of the bigger picture and shouldn’t be used to show that the system doesn’t work. In reality, many bills get passed.
“The media doesn’t always report on more mundane matters in what I call the real work that LegCo does on a daily basis because they are not sexy topics,” says Kwok, who was elected three years ago as one of the youngest lawmakers then.
During his tenure as a representative for the legal sector of the functional constituency, more than 90 legislations and subsidiary legislations have been passed or around 30 laws per year. Those include air pollution reform measures including the air Quality Amendment bill, plus a HK$700 million injected into special education needs for mentally and physically handicapped children.
Additionally, numerous complex infrastructure projects have secured approval.
“Over the past three years, over 90 infrastructure items have been passed in the finance committee involving more than HK$42 billion worth of infrastructure projects, including the controversial incinerator [in Shek Kwu Chau], the landfill extension, and a host of other basic infrastructure projects such as the building of roads, schools and hospitals.”
At a recent AmCham event, the lawmaker shared a more comprehensive view of the inner workings of the city’s legislature to show a fuller view of current political reality. The legislative councilor also addressed various political concerns, including the much talked about electoral reform plan.
Slow but Necessary
A dominating view by the executive branch of the legislature is that LegCo could be more productive in green lighting measures. But there is a good reason behind the slow progress. “We could be more efficient in some respect but on some issues [that are being tabled], we have to ask questions before we vote yes,” Kwok says, adding that this is the duty of effective legislators.
That includes addressing concerns over mega-infrastructure works that have been marred by delays and astronomical cost over-runs, an increasingly frequent pattern seen at LegCo. The high-speed rail link for the West Kowloon project, for example, which was originally budgeted for HK$25 billion for the whole project in 2009, is now exceeding the original budget by a whopping HK$90 billion. Likewise, more financing for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is being tabled now. LegCo originally approved HK$30 billion for the project, but this year the government made a bid to the legislature for further funding for its completion – to the tune of HK$5.4 billion.
“Questions will be asked on what happened. I know construction costs are rising but you cannot keep having over-budgets for infrastructure projects,” he says. “We are not saying no to economic development. All we are asking is: why there is so much extra public expenditure that has to be spent?”
Dealing with Stall Tactics
The frequent filibustering at the legislature has often erupted at the finance committee during sessions about infrastructure projects. He joins a chorus of criticism on the obstruction tactics by opposition lawmakers, which have contributed to project delays and increased construction costs as a result.
“It is bad politics and ineffective in terms of trying to do what you want to do, but the radicals don’t realize that and they are still filibustering,” he says. The legislator says the situation is not improving as the legislature has grown accustomed to this behavior.
Previously, Kwok proposed closure motion procedures to be adopted at LegCo, but the idea failed to generate enough support. “The pro-establishment lawmakers would not have it because they like the present arrangement with the filibustering dealt by the president, unlike in most parliaments and congress around the world with closure motion procedures, whereby two thirds of [legislative] members agree to closure then they close,” explains the legislative councilor. Currently, LegCo’s president Jasper Tsang has the power to end filibustering as he sees fit.
However, Kwok, who is also a founding member of the Civic Party, says the public can shape this predicament through the upcoming general election in 2016 when voters decide who gets elected into the legislature.
“You can vote for a radical if you feel so angry about the government, or vote for a moderate who will ask sensible questions, does their job properly and does not resort to filibustering tactics all the time,” he says.
Political Reform in Hong Kong
Dominating media headlines and many conversations amongst Hong Kong people lately is the June 17th vote in LegCo on the method of electing the Chief Executive in 2017.
The electoral package proposed by the government drew much controversy for its pre-screening processes. That includes how candidates vying for the top job must get enough votes by a Beijing loyalists-filled nomination committee. Many activists and pro-democracy lawmakers derided this framework, which they believe does not offer genuine universal suffrage.
Kwok says the proposal will likely be rejected once it reaches the legislature. All 27 pan-democrats have publically stated their refusal to endorse the package, which needs a two-thirds majority from the 70-member legislative council in order to take effect, as detailed by the city’s constitution. Kwok cites recent public polls by the Chinese University of Hong Kong that show an even split on this issue.
If the proposal does get passed somehow, Kwok expects unrest from the community. “You will see a second wave of the Occupy Central movement that will probably be more fierce than the one you saw last year,” he says.
The lawmaker cautions against this move. “A lot of people would feel cheated, that somehow the democrats or the government have passed this proposal despite a clear voice out in the community that they do not want this package passed.”
Kwok believes a better way of resolving the impasse is to let the Hong Kong people decide the city’s democratic future through the next legislative election in 2016.
Voters can decide through the ballot boxes on which way they want to go, as this theme will be the signature political issue on the candidates’ campaign to get elected.
“Every politician would have to go out there and explain his stance to the Hong Kong people on why he or she voted yes or no [to the electoral proposal], and the Hong Kong people will have to decide if they agree with the democrats [or not.]”
He adds that the results of this election will say to Beijing and the local government what the public wants. The lawmaker considers the general election of 2016 as the most important election since the handover, so he encourages permanent residents to register to vote.
But what if a large number of democrats do get elected to the legislature in 2016 and Beijing still refuses to back down from its edict in August 31, 2015, which ruled out open elections by 2017 with the restrictive framework? “Never say never in politics,” says Kwok. “Under Article 45 of the Basic Law, they still have the constitutional duty to bring a constitutional package acceptable to the Hong Kong people.”
The lawyer is optimistic that things will change. Universal suffrage is the biggest problem in the city, so the candidates running for Hong Kong’s highest post will have to address the issue.
“I don’t buy any of the talk that if you vote this package down that no chief executive will ever re-open this process. It is politically impossible.”