Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, as ATV news reported it, "told lawmakers that the public opinion is clear" and they should vote accordingly. Excuse me?! It is true that a few months ago the package commanded modest net support (though never an absolute majority) in the opinion polls, but opinion has gradually been swinging against it, with some recent polls showing more voters against it than in favour. Certainly there is no great public consensus welcoming the package - it would be truer to say that public opinion is deeply divided on the issue.
Then Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen "told lawmakers that the government's political reform package has made use of all the leeway available under Beijing's framework for the 2017 Chief Executive election" (ATV again). "Yuen also dismissed suggestions by the pan-democrats that the nominating committee would serve to vet candidates based on their political inclinations, and anyone who wanted to run for the top job could do so if they get the support of the committee." This is about as meaningful as saying that "anyone who wants to can be rich in Hong Kong if they can win the Mark Six lottery" - we all know that the whole point of the nominating committee is to ensure that only Beijing's favoured candidates can get on the ballot.
The overall thrust of Yuen's argument was to paint the limitations on democracy as a legal matter about which nothing could be done. This drew an uncommonly caustic response outside the chamber from the usually urbane Civic Party leader Alan Leong, himself a lawyer: "I would respectfully ask the Secretary for Justice to shut up!"
As the debate continues today, the likely outcome appears pretty much as expected. But just in case any of the pan-democrats may be wavering in their determination to veto the bill, here are seven good reasons why they should stick to their guns:
- Public opinion is far from solidly in favour of it - see above - and the 40% of the population opposed to it deserve to have their voice heard.
- It is not a legal matter - the biggest flaw in the Basic Law is that the body charged with interpreting it is not an impartial legal tribunal, but a partisan political body with a vested interest in the outcome of its own decisions. The NPCSC's interpretations of the Basic Law are inevitably political decisions, made in China's perceived interests. This means that far from being an immovable barrier to progress, as Rimsky Yuen suggests, they can be changed if the Central People's Government can be persuaded that it is in their interest to do so. Though the SAR government is pretending that the current decision - whichever way it goes - marks the end of the debate, the need for a more genuinely representative system in Hong Kong will if anything become more apparent in the months ahead, and the issue will inevitably be reopened, with the possibility of a different decision. Indeed the Basic Law specifically states that certain decisions will be made in the light of "the actual situation in Hong Kong".
- Legislators are not robots - even if it were true that public opinion largely supported the package, it has long been accepted that elected representatives in a parliamentary democracy are not delegates, bound to follow the public's wishes. Indeed, if that were so, we could have government by public opinion poll with no need for a legislature at all. Any student of politics will be familiar with Edmund Burke's classic statement of this principle in 1774: "Your representative
- Right is right and wrong is wrong - following on from this principle, even if a majority of the public support a particular position, that does not automatically make it right - otherwise we would still believe that the Earth is flat. A legislator who considers something wrong has a duty to follow his conscience and vote against it. Without this, we could never have moral leadership in politics. Many of the great advances in human progress - civil rights, the abolition of slavery, the end of capital punishment - have not initially enjoyed overwhelming popular support, but were pushed forward by courageous and far-sighted politicians.
- Responsibility to constituents - notwithstanding that elected representatives are not obliged to follow every whim of the public, there is an expectation that they will nevertheless stick to the general principles on which they sought election. The pan-democrats were voted into office by those who wanted them to pursue genuine democracy, and it would be a betrayal of their constituents to settle for the fake version offered by the government.
- Hypocrisy - the government's claim that LegCo members should follow public opinion is of course merely a tactic, not a principle - you would have to be very naive to believe that if the opinion polls suddenly showed 60% solidly against the reform bill, the government would start telling the DAB to vote against it on the same basis!
- The consequences - but what is so bad about the government's package? Mainly this: the biggest danger is that the proposed system, while systematically excluding large swathes of public opinion from candidacy, gives an illusion of democratic choice. The next CE could - and probably would - use this spurious mandate as an excuse to pursue policies which would advance the CCP's apparent agenda of cultural assimilation, tilting further towards "One Country" and weakening the "Two Systems" safeguards which keep Hong Kong worth living in.