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The phantom of filibuster

Updated: 2012-11-21 15:21
( China Daily HK Edition)

 The phantom of filibuster

The president of the LegCo, Jasper Tsang, has vowed to foreclose obstructive filibusters, as he did last summer, if the LegCo is unable to bring changes to the Rules of Procedure and if the toxic climate of the assembly remains unchanged.(Edmond Tang / China Daily) 

Last May, three opposition lawmakers mounted a filibuster aimed at forcing the government's withdrawal of a controversial bill creating a new mechanism for filling vacant Legislative Council (LegCo) seats.

The debate dragged on for 33 hours spanning seven meeting days, until LegCo President Jasper Tsang invoked his power to end the debate. His decision sparked an angry response from the opposition parties.

In June, the opposition resorted to the same tactics to block a government reorganization proposal by the incoming government. The proposal eventually failed after being pushed to the bottom of the agenda, as the opposition continued to obstruct until the legislative session lapsed. As the 2012-16 legislative term commenced, the opposition mood of obstruction has returned.The oppositions and trade unionists declared their opposition to the Old Age Living Allowance, demanding cancellation of the income/assets declaration mechanism for people over 70.

Recalling his decision to stop the filibuster in May, Tsang said he allowed legislators to introduce amendments in accordance with the Rules of Procedure. Although the 1,306 amendments were similar and widely considered to be frivolous, Tsang allowed them, saying he could judge each amendment on its own merits, and could not consider all of the amendments as a whole.

"But I decided to stop the filibuster, because the debate had continued for over 30 hours, with only three legislators speaking. There was no longer any meaning to the debate. Both our legal adviser and expert Malcolm Jack, the former clerk to the UK House of Commons, pointed out that I had the duty to maintain the effective operation of the legislature," he explained.

Given there is no specific provision in the Rules of Procedure, he exercised his power extended under section 92 of the Rules, to curtail the debate.

Asked if he will apply the same rule to end a debate in the future, Tsang said he, of course, hoped the same situation wherein two or three lawmakers protracted any debate by speaking again and again for tens of hours, would not happen. "But if the Rules of Procedure and the situation remain the same, I have no choice but to make the same decision. But I have to point out that the 1,306 amendments were not the root of the problem with the filibuster, but the lawmakers' repetitive speeches."

Many people supported his decision, Tsang disclosed.

"Many netizens cursed me because they were supporters of People Power who played the filibustering game," he said. "But during the summer, when I was campaigning on the streets for the LegCo election, many citizens supported my decision and said filibustering was a waste of taxpayers' money. Some even told me if I was re-elected LegCo president, I should enforce discipline strictly, to counter filibustering."

He noted that foreign parliaments using two methods to avoid having debates endlessly protracted: closure motions and guillotine rules.

In moving a closure motion, a lawmaker may propose an end to the debate and put the question to a vote immediately. The threshold (simple majority or two-thirds) must be a part of the established procedure. The guillotine simply specifies the duration of the debate in terms of hours, and the debate will end once the allotted time has elapsed.

The Committee on Rules of Procedure is studying the foreign practices. But Tsang admits changes to the rules are not easy, because any changes have to be passed by members of both the geographical and functional constituencies. Besides, there is another set of procedures for Finance Committee meetings.

But he says he is not pessimistic that the filibuster phantom will linger forever and the opposition will obstruct every government policy they don't like.

Are the oppositions totally opposed to modifying the Rules of Procedures? "If the public strongly opposes to filibustering, they need to think carefully," he commented.

Universal suffrage in the hands of HK people

The 18th National Congress of the CPC has just concluded. Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang has called upon the people of Hong Kong, to reflect carefully on the remarks of state leaders on recent development in the SAR, during the national congress.

The next few years, Tsang observed, will be very important for the development, especially the constitutional development of Hong Kong. But he fears that an inharmonious society, sometimes reflected by the recent outbreaks of anti-mainland sentiment, is not conducive to a consensus among the people for implementing universal suffrage models for elections in 2017 and 2020, nor is it acceptable to the Central Government, although the universal suffrage timetables are already there.

Tsang noted that President Hu Jintao's report on Hong Kong at the 18th national congress was the longest among those delivered at the four past congresses. Very interesting, since 1997, each national congress has coincided with a new Chief Executive in Hong Kong. This year, however, saw a spate of negative events preceding the national congress.

The first, he pointed out, was the bitter duel within the pro-establishment camp during the Chief Executive election.

There followed adverse news reports reflecting badly on the Leung Chun-ying administration and accusations of interference in Hong Kong affairs, leveled by the opposition at the Central Government's Liaison Office in Hong Kong.

In August, a massive anti-national education campaign erupted. There were also incidents during which visitors from the mainland were urged to go back home by some demonstrators. The protests culminated with protesters waving colonial British-Hong Kong government flags.

"This year, I observed that President Hu's report on Hong Kong was rather long and revealed new thinking," Tsang said.

"Besides stressing the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong as he did before, he put the development and security of the country in first place. The other point is that whilst ‘One Country' must be respected, the differences between the ‘Two Systems' should be understood. The president also called upon the people of Hong Kong and Macao to take pride in being Chinese nationals.

"I think his remarks are targeted, pinpointing the central government's essential views on what happened in Hong Kong in the past months and such views merit serious reflection among the people of Hong Kong."

The central government has given its blessing that Hong Kong may elect the next Chief Executive through universal suffrage in 2017. The 2020 LegCo may also be returned by universal suffrage.

However, there are people in both political camps, as Tsang points out, who do not want universal suffrage.

"Some people in the pro-establishment camp say universal suffrage is a trap and unsuitable for Hong Kong," Tsang disclosed. "In the opposition camp, some want to take forward democratic development. But some want a lose-lose situation so that they can blame the central government and SAR authorities as they have done in the past, if universal suffrage falls through."

In political reality, it is rather difficult to gauge sufficient votes in the LegCo to carry the 2017 and 2020 electoral reform, Tsang observed. It was the Democratic Party that helped carry the 2012 electoral packages two years ago. Yet since the Democratic Party (DP) lost heavily in the recent LegCo election and many commentators attributed their defeat to the party's backing the government, it is highly doubtful if the DP, now reduced to six votes, will support the electoral reform again.

On the OALA filibuster

On the day of China Daily's exclusive interview with Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang, the proposal to fund the Old Age Living Allowance (OALA) was up for debate for the fourth time, and the fourth consecutive week by the Finance Committee. The interview was interrupted by the voting bell which chimed every minute, while opposition activist lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung obstructed the debate, by filing more than 100 trivial amendments, many of which dealt with the number of adjustments that ought to apply to the proposed living allowance, per year.

Tsang was reluctant to comment on the Finance Committee filibuster, or even to say whether valuable time and resources were being wasted, on the ground that he does not sit on the committee, and that the flow of the meeting should be decided by the chairman and committee members.

He was equally unwilling to state whether he believed it is inappropriate to filibuster a quality of life measure like the OALA that will benefit a great many elderly people in financial straits.

Still, he observed that both the government and the Legislative Council have a duty to reflect on and appraise the deadlock and to act in the interests of the people.

"From the viewpoint of the pan-democrats as the minority, they are irate because the government is so firm, without giving an inch and not listening to their opinions. On the other hand, the government stresses that the problem will be resolved if legislators vote in favor of the funding proposal," he analyzed.

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