March 10, 2005

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Bicameral Legco

Sir David Akers-Jones, erstwhile Chief Secretary and friend of Discovery Bay, has a proposal for a bicameral (two chamber) Legislative Council in today's SCMP. The full article is in the extended entry. The idea is the lower chamber would consist of only directly elected members (ie those with a mandate from the public). The upper chamber would consist of those from functional constituencies (ie those with a mandate from special interests). Sir David has some ideas on how to deal with differences between the two chambers and notes it is not suggested that the second chamber should unequivocally be given a right of veto. Instead he proposes the (Beijing appointed) Chief Executive have the right to break deadlocks and (this is my suggestion) if he gets it wrong we always know Beijing can set things right.

In fact the idea has merit. It wouldn't take long for the second chamber, much like the House of Lords in the UK, to lose much of its power. It would take a gutsy Chief Executive to continually reject proposals from the democratically elected chamber, especially when the CE is an appointee with no popular mandate of his own. China would find it harder to over-rule and re-interpret laws passed by this chamber. It would be overruling the expressed will of duly elected representatives of Hong Kong pubilc. As a halfway house on the road to a democratic Hong Kong it should be enough to appease those represented by functional constituencies. It could also be a good excuse to re-examine the Basic Law and would subvert Beijing's strong hand in Hong Kong affairs.

For all those reasons Beijing would never let it happen.

Can the conflict between a fully directly elected Legislative Council and the steady progress required by the Basic Law be avoided? The message conveyed by the National People's Congress was that any changes made in 2008 must comply with a requirement to protect the equal balance between the directly elected seats and functional constituency seats, and to maintain Legco's separate voting system. This indicates a clear desire, for the time being, for the continued role of vocational or functional representatives. Is there a middle way, a means to compromise between the popular demand and the need for restraint, for the gradual and orderly progress called for by our national leaders?

When developing their democracies, many countries had to face a similar dilemma, to find a balance between a directly elected council and the interests of the community as a whole. The answer lay in having a representative system consisting of two chambers, which has been adopted by more than 50 nations.

There is no unanimity in the composition of the second chamber - there are representatives of federated states, appointed and vocational members, or even a mixed system. Each has been adapted to suit particular circumstances.

The response to the popular demand to have a fully directly elected Legco, we believe, lies in giving the directly elected members a separate status with a separate chamber, and to create a second chamber, a senate of the vocational representatives - the functional constituencies. To get through the work, the directly elected first chamber might need to be larger than the second and would be the first to consider government business and legislation.

Bills and motions passed in the first chamber would travel to the second for further and wider deliberation and, if necessary, to put forward amendments. The question would arise, undoubtedly, of how to deal with a lack of agreement between the two chambers.

It can be done, for example, by giving the second chamber the power to impose a delay, by appointing a joint committee of both chambers, or by providing for bills to pass between both chambers until agreement is reached. It is not suggested that the second chamber should unequivocally be given a right of veto.

In the event of a deadlock after thorough debate in both, reserve powers to make a final decision could be given to the chief executive in conjunction with the Executive Council. This question of the power that the second chamber would exercise is important, but it is not an insoluble problem. It should not detract from the general thrust and desirability of the two-chamber concept.

A second chamber would preserve the checks and balances of the existing system, and in separating the two components, would reduce the tensions created by the present arrangements and go some way to meet popular demand.

The proposal will require changes to the Basic Law, but we should put that question aside and think about what is best for Hong Kong. Some may also argue that there are countries with a bicameral system changing to a single-chamber model. However, many mature democracies still maintain two chambers, and the merits of the system should be recognised.

Hong Kong's democratic development is at an early stage, and adoption of a bicameral system would amount to gradual and orderly progress towards greater democracy, while continuing to maintain a legislative body which is representative of all sectors. The year 2012 should not be the end of this evolution of our constitution, but the changes proposed represent a significant step forward.

Sir David Akers-Jones, a former chief secretary, is president of the Business and Professionals Federation of Hong Kong. This is an edited excerpt from the federation's proposal on a bicameral system.

posted by Simon on 03.10.05 at 02:54 PM in the Hong Kong democracy/politics category.


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