Step up to the debate lectern, Mr Tsang

January 29, 2007

Dennis Kwok          Published in SCMP


There is a saying that an election is won or lost on one square foot of real estate – the brain. From this springs a candidate’s ability to express views, articulate an argument and persuade with oratory flair.

Those who wish to trivialise the importance of debates in elections would have you believe that Richard Nixon lost the US presidential race in 1960 because of his unshaven chin and that grey suit. Standing next to the youthful John F. Kennedy, looking bright and full of hope, Nixon stood no chance – it was all style at the expense of substance. That may be true to some extent, but I for one would like to believe that Kennedy won the election because of his vision for the nation, his vision for the kind of society he hoped to achieve, and his vision on overcoming challenges.


People who are in positions of absolute power despise debate. They have their propaganda and cronies to make sure there are no debates. On the other hand, a leader who is confident of his or her position embraces debate. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: “I love argument, I love debate. I don’t expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that’s not their job.


At the heart of any election should be the debate of policies. Democracy is, after all, about the competition of ideas.


Debates come in different forms with different rules. The United States has a Commission on Presidential Debates. It decides on a wide range of issues such as the number of debates to be held, their formats, how far apart the lecterns should be places (supposedly so that the candidate who is physically shorter doesn’t look “weaker”), and whether the presidential seal may be used, for example.


This is perhaps slightly too elaborate for Hong Kong. Like anything else that works in our city, let’s hope common sense prevails. In stark contrast, however, the Hong Kong government has recently announced that it will not sponsor any debates between candidates for the chief executive election.


The most traditional (or gentle) form of debate is where you have a moderator posing general, open-ended questions, with an opportunity for candidates to make an opening statement and summation. Each candidate is allowed to put question to his opponent, and has an opportunity to respond. The other format commonly used is to have a panel of senior journalists and academics throwing questions at the candidates. The advantage of this is having people who are experienced in asking searching political questions to put candidates on the spot. This forces the candidates to make their positions clear on a given issues and reduces the room to hide behind rhetoric.


The most exciting debate, in my opinion, is what is known as a town hall debate. The audience consists of randomly picked, undecided voters, who sit surrounding the candidates. The audience is allowed to ask any questions. To add to the excitement, in Australia a device called a “worm” is used to gauge an audience’s reaction over som e time period. Each person has a dial to record their feelings. It is checked every three seconds, and as the audience reacts differently overtime, the collective feelings are gathered. The name “worm” describes its visual appearance – as a line graph snaking up or down.


When we were campaigning for the Elction committee poll last month, we pledged to use our best endeavours to secure an open and fair debate on public issues for the whole of Hong Kong.


This is the key message in our election platform. We believe that this is the only way to give the public some form of participation in an election that will decide who will be their chief executive for the next five years.   


We see absolutely no reason why the media should not be given full coverage of a debate between the candidates. By shutting out the public and the media, we not only deny them their right of political participation in public affairs. We would also further deepen the distrust that exists in society. This kind of distrust destroys the basis of a social contract between the government and its citizens.


In a civilised world, no government which is serious about listening to its constituents can resist the tide of openness and transparency. Article 25 of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Right guarantees the right of political participation for every permanent resident in Hong Kong.


Commenting on the article, the UN Human Rights committee states that in order to ensure the full enjoyment of rights, the free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential. Whatever format or whatever rules we ultimately have for the debate in the coming chief executive election, one thing is certain; it takes two to have one. Mr Tsang, a lectern awaits, please show us what your piece of real estate is worth.

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