The perverse logic of functional seats

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

The Perverse Logic of Functional Constituencies – A Reply to Sir David

October 24, 2007 

Dennis Kwok Abridged Version published in SCMP

A few days ago Sir David Akers-Jones wrote in these pages seeking to persuade us that functional constituencies are good for Hong Kong and it is a system which we should maintain.He cited 2 reasons. Firstly, functional constituencies provide the necessary experience and knowledge to opine on legislative issues within their respective areas of expertise. Secondly,functional constituencies act as the necessary safeguard against policies that might endanger the economy and our economic model.

Sir David cited the example of new construction projects promised by the Chief Executive and how useful it would be if an engineer is present in Legco during the deliberation. We know the construction industry not only involves engineers but a whole range of other professions and businesses. Taking Sir David’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, not only should we have elected representatives from the engineering sector but also the construction workers on the ground who are knowledgeable about construction projects. It would of course include the steelworkers (who were on strike not too long ago) that are intimately involved in the industry. They too should all be entitled to elect their own representatives; to speak up and contribute to the legislative process.

Given the wide range of issues which the Legislative Council has to deliberate on and the different kinds of businesses and professionals’ interests involved, the number of functional constituency seats needed could easily reach over hundreds. If it is the lack of expertise in Legco debates which one is worried about, the simpler solution would surely be to invite professionals,scientists, economists, and environmentalists etc. to make representations to Legco if and whentheir expertise is required. This would have the added advantage of ensuring that opinions rendered by these experts would be less biased and more independent. Why? Because they donot have the next election to worry about.

Functional constituencies provide the necessary safeguard for our economic model so Sir Davidargues. Precisely which economic model are we referring to? The economic model which SirDavid might have in mind is where a handful of family companies continue to run and monopolise our domestic markets from property to telecommunications to ports and public utilities. Sir David seems to be worried that these rich and powerful might be too caught up inrunning their own businesses that they do not have time to lobby politicians to support their legislative agenda; therefore they must be given the extra privilege and convenience of electing their own representatives. This would ensure a ‘balanced participation’ in public affairs. Whilst the rest of the population, with all their free time I suppose, can run and plan elections, and get their candidates elected as and when they so please. The steel workers who were on strike in the midst of the summer heat might disagree.

Functional constituencies were introduced by the British in the 19th Century. It was a way to enfranchise the few elites in society so as to allow them to have say in government. The reality is that we have moved on since the 19th Century. Our economic model and Hong Kong’s society asa whole had undergone fundamental changes, and will continue to do so in the decades to come.Are functional constituencies, this dinosaur from the colonial era, able to keep up with the change of times? Sir David believes that it can, if we are to expand the electoral base by giving every Hong Kong citizen two votes. What he failed to mention is how. The retired doctors,lawyers and accountants can be given a vote, but how about housewives, retired taxi drivers,cleaners and other non-professionals. How are we to define which functional sector a person belongs to if he has to work 3 shifts in different jobs just to make ends meet? 

We might be able to artificially extend the life of this outdated system by expanding the electoral base or adding new seats to the functional constituencies. However, if we really can enfranchise the entire population through functional constituencies, The Professional Commons believe that the more straight forward solution is for professionals and business interests to relinquish their special privilege and play by the same rule as everybody else. It’s about time.

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