South China Morning Post | 2007-10-27
EDT16| EDT| Observer| By Dennis Kwok
Two arguments are frequently cited in favour of Hong Kong keeping the functional constituencies in its legislature. The first is that they produce lawmakers with the experience and knowledge necessary to give opinions on legislative issues that fall within their areas of expertise. Second, that functional constituencies are a necessary safeguard against policies that might endanger the economy and our economic model.
Take, for example, the new construction projects promised by the chief executive in his recent policy address. One might think it would be very useful to have an engineer present in the legislature when such schemes are discussed. But we know the building sector includes a whole range of professions and businesses.
Taking that line of reasoning to its logical extreme, we should have elected representatives from the workers on the ground as well as engineers. In fact, everyone involved, from developers to ironworkers, should be entitled to elect their own representatives to contribute to the legislative process.
Given the range of issues that the Legislative Council has to consider and the many businesses and professionals’ interests involved, the number of functional seats could reach the hundreds, if not thousands. That is, if one were to ensure “balanced participation” – a notion frequently emphasised by our government. This, of course, would lead to an absurd situation.
The public policy group The Professional Commons believes that, if the real worry is the lack of expertise in debates, then professionals, scientists, unionists, economists, environmentalists and the like should be invited to speak in Legco. This would also ensure that the opinions given were less biased, because such experts do not have the next election to worry about.
Functional constituencies provide the necessary safeguard for our economic model, it has been argued. But precisely which economic model? Maybe it is the model where a handful of family companies continue to run and monopolise our domestic markets. Those in favour of retaining functional constituencies seem to fear that the rich and powerful might be too busy running their own businesses to lobby politicians to support their legislative agenda. Therefore, they must be able to elect their own representatives.
This, they argue, ensures “balanced participation” in public affairs. Meanwhile, the rest of the population – with all that free time – is expected to do the planning and campaigning to get their candidates elected. The ironworkers who were on strike this summer might disagree with this argument. So would a single mother in Tin Shui Wai with no childcare support, and the 70-year-old who must collect cardboard boxes to get by.
Functional constituencies were introduced by the British in the 19th century as a way to enfranchise the few elite in society. We have moved on since then. Our economic model, and Hong Kong society as a whole, has undergone fundamental changes. That includes our notions of equality and fairness.
Can functional constituencies, a dinosaur from the colonial era, keep up with the changes? Some believe they can, if we expand the electoral base by giving every citizen two votes. What they fail to mention is how we do this. Doctors, lawyers and accountants can easily be identified and given a vote. But what about housewives, retired people and non-professionals. How do we define which functional sector a person belongs to if he or she has to change jobs every few months, or has to do three different jobs to make ends meet?
The Professional Commons believes there is a better solution than trying to fit everyone into a functional constituency. That is, for professionals and business interests to relinquish their special privilege and play by the same rules as everyone else. It’s about time.
Dennis Kwok is a founding member of The Professional Commons