Rules of Procedure are the yardstick

Updated: 2011-04-29 07:53

(HK Edition)

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As the president of the Legislative Council (LegCo), Jasper Tsang holds the duty of ruling whether motions are to be included in the legislative agenda and tabled for debate. It can be a tough job when his judgments deal with sensitive and political issues.

Tsang maintains, however, that he doesn't find the job particularly difficult, as long as he is using the Rules of Procedure (ROP) and the law as the yardstick.

"I will approve motions from the government or lawmakers if they comply with the ROP and reject them if they don't. I will not look at the merits of the motions, i.e. to allow the motions if they are sound or good," he says.

He quotes lawmaker Paul Tse's recent amendment to the electoral rules for choosing the chief executive in 2012 to stipulate the height, academic qualifications and income of candidates.

He explains: "Since the amendment complied with the ROP, I allowed it, though some said it was mischievous. But had the amendment said a candidate must be a man, I would have disallowed it because it contravened the sexual discrimination law."

Tsang also refers to applications for adjournment debates by legislator James To on the Manila hostage-taking incident while the Coroner's Court was in action.

On the first occasion, To sought permission to move his motion on March 9. His application was rejected. A week later, he applied to move the same motion, after completion of the business listed on the agenda. This time, his request was approved.

After Tsang rejected To's first application, To unduly accused the LegCo president of behaving in a "cold-blooded" manner. The mother of Masa Tse, the tour guide who was killed in the Manila hostage taking incident, accused Tsang of rubbing salt in their wound.

"Though criticism was expected, I could not allow the debate since it did not abide by the rules. I could not openly debate the matter with him. I also fully understood that Mrs Tse, emotionally, could not accept my decision. Some people suggested that I write a letter to her, but it was not easy to explain the rhyme or reason.

"Even the pro-establishment camp sometimes criticizes me for being too lenient with applications by the pan-democracy camp, while being strict with their applications," he says.

As always, he says he relies on the unambiguous, consistent opinions from legal advisers and the staff of the LegCo Secretariat, prior to making rulings. He jokes that his job is not difficult because his decisions are not political decisions, adding: "Tax cuts, cash payouts and resumption of the Home Ownership Scheme are political decisions."

As to the behavior and language used by lawmakers at meetings, Tsang is inclined to leniency. Only when a lawmaker's conduct becomes grossly disorderly does Tsang believe the offending lawmaker merits expulsion.

"As they are elected by their voters, their rights to speak at meetings are paramount and I will not exercise the power casually," he says.

Tsang remembers that on Feb 23, the budget day, lawmaker Albert Chan put several "props" on the table for purposes of making a statement about the budget. He drew complaints from lawmakers seated behind him that Chan's exhibits were blocking the view of other lawmakers. Chan finally moved his props after being told repeatedly to do so.

"I did not want to expel anyone before the budget speech had started. Chan and his party colleague Raymond Wong did not stir further troubles for the rest of the meeting," Tsang explained.

"I later asked Chan why he 'behaved so well' for the rest of the day. He said he did not make further disruption, since five minutes were already wasted, showing that lawmakers have to understand to what extent the public will tolerate their conduct."

In order to maintain discipline, Tsang says he will disallow unparliamentary and offensive language at meetings. He concedes, however, that the question of what is unparliamentary language is controversial.

He says: "This hinges upon the entire social culture and the level of acceptance by the public. The use of unparliamentary language has continued for sometime until public dissatisfaction backfired and I ruled that some language is unparliamentary and should not be used."

Equally, it is not easy to define offensive language, given that lawmakers from opposite camps often criticize one another, using words such as "shameful" and "lackey", with the persons being criticized feeling offended.

"Even one who calls another a 'liar' may give offense," Tsang says.

"But as the president, I will not initiate action until complaints by government officials or lawmakers. When this happens, I will adjourn the meeting, discuss with the legal adviser and secretary-general and search previous rulings before handing down a ruling."

Owing to a spate of disruptive behavior, the Committee on Rules of Procedure has proposed to empower chairmen of panels, committees and permanent committees to expel lawmakers whose conduct is deemed grossly disorderly. That motion will be tabled for debate on May 11.

(HK Edition 04/29/2011 page4)