Crazy to squander opportunity for universal suffrage in HK

Updated: 2015-06-16 08:56

By Andrew Mitchell(HK Edition)

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'Pocket it first!", the supporters' slogan for the current electoral reform package, always makes me think of pocket money. In my early teenage years I used to get the princely sum of 25 pence (about HK$3) to spend every week as I pleased. But, as everyone knows, there's no such thing as enough money. So, at every opportunity, I used to complain to my parents that all my friends got much more pocket money than me (which, incidentally, wasn't true). But my father wouldn't budge. So, for years, I had to make do with only 25 pence a week.

But what has all this got to do with electoral reform? Well, it strikes me that what I was doing all those years ago was pocketing it first. I may not have agreed with what was on offer, but it was certainly better than nothing. So I took it.

Now, if a teenage boy (and not a particularly smart one) is capable of exercising a degree of pragmatism such as this, then it begs the question, why aren't all our politicians in Hong Kong capable of doing the same? After all politics is meant to be the art of the possible.

OK, I understand there are certain aspects of the electoral reform package that "pan-democrats" don't approve of. But does that mean they should reject it out of hand? After all what's the point of throwing the baby out with the bath water?

Because, without a doubt, there's a baby here in this package. And its name is universal suffrage. For if the electoral reform bill is passed on June 17 by the Legislative Council, in 2017 - for the first time in history - Hong Kong people will be able to vote for their leader in a democratic election. And to prevent this from happening over debatable concerns about "false legitimacy" seems absolutely crazy to me.

In the aftermath of the recent British election, I outlined some of the more egregious flaws in my own country's version of democracy, among them the unrepresentative nature of the first-past-the-post system, the unelected upper house and head of state, and the one-off elections for the lower house and prime minister. But as a British subject do I simply reject this system, which makes my own particular vote effectively meaningless? No, I accept it with all its limitations, in the hope that one day the system will improve.

Now, surely this is what Hong Kong's politicians should do with the electoral reform package. Because if they don't, they'll end up denying 5 million voters their right to elect the Chief Executive in two years' time. And in denying them this right, they'll be deepening the divide between the government and its supporters on the one hand and the opposition camp on the other. It is a divide that's already far too deep as it is.

As I said, I understand there are certain aspects of the electoral reform package that the "pan-democrats" don't approve of. The pre-screening of CE candidates by the Nominating Committee (NC) is the most obvious one, along with the make-up of the NC. But, ultimately, what's the worst thing that could happen here? Quite simply, that none of the candidates put forward by the NC will meet with the approval of the Hong Kong people.

But even if that happened - and, personally, I very much doubt it ever would - the candidates would still have to submit themselves to public scrutiny, and the most popular (or least unpopular) candidate would ultimately prevail. What is more, after the election, the spotlight would undoubtedly be focused on the NC, for having failed to carry out its role effectively. This would inevitably lead to calls for it to be reformed.

So it seems to me that it is in everyone's interest here to take what's on offer, in the hope that further reforms can be negotiated down the line. After all democracies are never perfect, and positive change is nearly always incremental. And in supporting the electoral reform package, we'd all be moving in the right direction "in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress", as stated in Article 45 of the Basic Law.

Of course, the diehards in the opposition camp will maintain that "Pocket it first!" is an elaborate trick; that what it really means is "Pocket it forever!". But forever, it seems to me, is a very long time. And no matter what anyone says, change is always possible. Now this from personal experience. By the time I left school, my pocket money had increased to a whopping 1 pound a week.

Crazy to squander opportunity for universal suffrage in HK

(HK Edition 06/16/2015 page11)